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Songs of freedom embrace theme of two-week multicultural center


Kim and Reggie Harris speak in song. He strums a guitar; she croons a story. Their music pulls listeners into rhythms of long ago flights to freedom and struggles for justice today.

"Songs envelop us and help us be community," Ms. Harris said. "It is an amazing thing to sing songs that your people have been singing from whole lifetimes ago. The music is in your soul. Your DNA knows it."

Within a few notes, the couple has everyone singing along, clapping, foot stomping and swaying to Songs of Faith, Songs of Freedom -- a course they are teaching this week at Common Ground on the Hill, a multicultural center that began a two-week run Monday at Western Maryland College.

The couple, performers of traditional and original material for 20 years, detail the African-American experience through music, born in the dark days of slavery and nourished through the Civil Rights era.

They are teaching the stirring melodies as part of "Traditions in Black and White," the Common Ground theme this week. Next week, the center looks to the Irish and British experience.

"If we don't learn the songs, they will die," said Robyn Boyd, administrator for Common Ground. "Keeping songs alive is how we keep history alive."

Helen Schneyer, a lifelong song collector, is teaching congregational singing and the great ballads at Common Ground.

"If there is a contradiction between song and the history book, stick with song," she said. "Songs came out of the people."

She and Ms. Boyd enrolled in the songs class, which the Harrises usually start with a limbering exercise, a communal shoulder massage and a long hum.

"We are a community here," Mr. Harris said. "Let's get near each other, if we can."

Then, everyone flowed into a deeply spiritual "Wade in the Water."

"See if you can feel the water," Mr. Harris shouted. "We don't have to dramatize the songs. They take care of themselves."

"Wade in the Water," still sung today at baptisms, once was a code with a practical message for slaves fleeing to freedom.

"Rivers were often the dividing line between slave and free states," Ms. Harris said. "Water was a big part of escape in the Underground Railroad. This song reminded slaves to stay near water. It could hide their tracks and give them food and drink."

With a few basic instructions, she showed students the sign language for the lyrics. Everyone clenched their fists and crossed their arms in front of their chests in the sign for freedom.

"If we don't have anything else in common, we have music and rhythm in common," said Lea Gilmore, a Baltimore resident and Common Ground student. "Here someone is really trying to make a dialogue."

The freedom songs were a familiar and meaningful part of her life, so integral that she doesn't remember learning them, Ms. Gilmore said.

"I grew up singing; it was just part of what we are about," she said. "My great-great-grandfather was a slave and he sang the same songs out of pain, suffering and resilience. How wonderful now that we are all getting together to sing them."

Group members fell easily into harmony and shed tears as they sang "Amazing Grace," written two centuries ago to decry the evils of slavery.

"If people take the time to go through history, they would know the song was written by a slaver who found the light," Ms. Boyd said.

The songs provide teachers with an excellent tool, Ms. Harris said.

People have long recounted their life experiences in song, said Eileen Carson, coordinator of the Common Ground dance program. She showed the class how to add movement to

the music. She demonstrated the rhythmic hand movements, often called ham bone.

"They can take away my instruments, but they cannot take away my music," said Ms. Carson, artistic director of Footworks dance ensemble based in Annapolis. "Everybody can relate to the struggle to be free.In American music, especially black gospel, people came into power and the expression of freedom within."

The teachers are joining the 110 students in many of the daily classes and leading evening concerts for the community.

"We have all melded into each other's classes, so that by the end of the week, we might just have one eight-hour session," Ms. Boyd said.

Kim and Reggie Harris, Helen Schneyer and other Commo Ground artists will perform in concerts at 8 p.m. today outside Hoover Library at Western Maryland College. Information: 857-2771.

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