University of Liberia Alumni Reunite to Honor Teacher Agnes Nebo von Ballmoos

The University of Liberia Alumni Chorus, which used to be the preeminent choral group in Liberia before many of its members fled the country's violence, prepares for a benefit concert in Silver Spring, Md.
By Susan Kinzie
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, August 22, 2009

Jimmie Weeks slapped his palms together, grimacing at the discordant notes as he led a chorus whose members hadn't sung together in decades in an African spiritual. "Two, three, four," he counted, as about 60 people began to sing, notes rising toward the ceiling of the church sanctuary, then stopped at an impatient flick of his wrist.

Most of them had fled violence in Liberia years before, and they came to the church in Silver Spring with bayonet scars and memories of lost families and kidnappings and executions. For months now, they have been singing along with YouTube videos recorded by Weeks, practicing in their living rooms and cars across the United States for their performance Saturday at Woodside United Methodist Church. The concert will honor their former mentor, Agnes Nebo von Ballmoos, who died almost a decade ago. And it will raise money to help the University of Liberia, where they used to sing together in the preeminent choral group, since battered by years of brutal civil war.

From 1961 to 1990, von Ballmoos taught students everything from Italian madrigals to gospel to traditional songs sung in the villages of Liberia, which she was the first to set to music. "She taught us everything," said Rena Smith-Jarrett of Upper Marlboro. "She taught us to appreciate music, she taught us to appreciate African culture, how to dress, how wrap our hair, how to conduct ourselves in public. Many, many times in my life I hear her. I feel her presence."

Drums thundered during rehearsal Friday as the new University of Liberia Alumni Chorus sang "Kah Beneh Kah," another song that von Ballmoos had arranged, sung in the Gola dialect.

I can go anywhere Jesus sends me

If there is darkness on the road

I will go

If there is a devil on the road

I will go

If there is a snake on the road

I will go.

At times the voices were so powerful they drowned out the piano.

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