A drum beats out a rhythmic African tune. Hands are clapping in time, a tempo like a heartbeat. One hundred small voices begin to sing these soulful words from Ghana:
Tu-e tu-e barima tu-e tu-e.
Hey, hey! We want to go to Ghana
The preteen singers aren't cloaked in kente, but sporting Abercrombie and Fitch, clunky clogs and Nikes. The scrunchies that are wrapped around ponytails belong to girls with names like Mary Sue.
It's the Clarksville Elementary School chorus that's singing with the rhythm, the energy and the soul of an African gospel choir.
That's not surprising to the children's parents. In the three years that the fourth- and fifth-grade chorus has been under the direction of music teacher Karen Randall, they say, the chorus has taken on new life and become simultaneously more professional and more fun.
"I have to say that going to Clarksville Elementary is like looking at a loaf of white bread and those kids, they're just as dry as toast," said Liz Williams, who is white and whose daughter sings in Clarksville's chorus. "But she just brings it [the soul] out in them, and it is so wonderful."
Under Randall's direction, the chorus has grown from about 20 singers to 115. Performances have moved from the school cafeteria to such spots as Baltimore's Inner Harbor and Kings Dominion amusement park.
Randall has been nominated for the first time as Howard County Music Teacher of the Year.
Last month the group was the only school in Maryland on PBS's national broadcast of the "World's Largest Concert." Only 22 schools across the country were selected to be in the concert, and no other Howard County school chorus has ever been picked.
"That was great," said Randall, who has been a music teacher in Howard County for 14 years. "The kids got so much out of it."
Randall's exuberant style has made a name for the Clarksville chorus, which is becoming known for its soulful singing, eclectic selection of songs and jaunty movements to the music.
"The difference is when you go into one of her chorus performances, it makes you want to dance, sing and join in," said school secretary Nancy Holbrook. "Otherwise you just sit there and try not to yawn. It's just something about the energy that she's got the kids giving you."
Many of Randall's songs -- whether they're from Kenya like "Amani Utupe," or American, like "A Patriotic Salute" -- are accompanied by hip-swaying, clapping, stomping and pantomiming.
"She's got them moving and shaking and feeling the music," Williams said.
It wasn't always this way.
Clarksville choruses in the past -- like many in the county -- were known for standing on risers with clasped hands and singing sweetly, parents said.
"The difference between the musical program before vs. what's there now? It's a phenomenal difference," said parent Audrey Estrain.
Fun and understanding
Randall said she helps her choral students have fun with music. That, in turn, helps them understand and appreciate it, which shows in performances.
"The majority of the programs at our feeder schools aren't very good, unfortunately," said Joanne Mead, music teacher at Clarksville Middle School and Howard County Teacher of the Year for 1999.
Mead's middle school music students come from five elementary music programs, including Clarksville Elementary. "I know she's got a strong program in terms of her enthusiasm," she said. "Anecdotally, kids who come here from her are real enthusiastic about choral singing."
Randall said adding movement to the songs raises the energy level.
Choreographing stiff, self-conscious tween-agers is challenging, but the chorus moves artfully at every performance because of the pieces Randall picks, she said.
"There's a certain beat that is the same as your heartbeat," Randall said, "and if that strong rhythm is there and they can feel it, they can go with it."
Choreography, along with the carefully arranged song selections, makes chorus more fun for the singers as well as the people who come to see them.
"It makes people want to pay attention more, rather than just standing there and yawning," said fourth-grader Rebecca Meehan.
Making moms cry
Fifth-grader Robey Del Riego said he's got Randall's science of song selection figured out.
"It's like one [song] from a different country, four that have movement and one that will make people cry," he said.
"I pick a piece every spring to get a mom to cry," Randall admits. "Yup. Do it on purpose!"
This spring concert's tearjerker is a song called "What Tomorrow Brings," about how no one knows what the future will hold -- perfect for parents of fifth-graders about to go off to middle school.
By making parents feel both like dancing and crying in the span of 20 minutes, Randall and the Clarksville chorus are making themselves heard.
"She takes music seriously, but she has fun with it," fifth-grader Jaymie Estrain said.
"She keeps doing it until it sounds good," Rebecca added. "That's what makes us good."