Cultural Rhythms: True Story

March 4, 2010

This past Saturday, the Harvard Foundation for Intercultural and Race Relations put on its 25th Anniversary Cultural Rhythms featuring special guest, popular musician and Haitian-born humanitarian Wyclef Jean. As promised in its promotional clips and unusually long introduction video, Cultural Rhythms focused on presenting diverse cultures through the performing arts.  The show itself was only scheduled to last two and a half hours, but it ended up running for nearly three and a half hours, as there were often lengthy gaps in between pieces during which Wyclef chatted with performers or joked with the audience. While this “in between entertainment” was well appreciated, it certainly affected the overall pace.  Nevertheless, regardless of the time delay, the show was an impressive display of cultural variety, punctuated by the humor of Wyclef and a tribute to the humanitarian efforts in Haiti during the finale.

Following the introduction video, the performances got off to a moderately quiet start that largely lacked the energy and crowd involvement that was to be seen later in the show line-up. The Indian Classical Dance Troupe was first to perform, and despite a perceptible lack of synchrony in specific arm and hand placements, they exhibited impressive formation changes and varied choreography. Soon to follow was the Caribbean Club Dance Troupe, whose energy, enhanced by the brief involvement of Wyclef himself in the choreography, was more than enough to compensate for less diversity in their formations. The show was interspersed with several other notably high energy performances, including a piece by the Pan-African Dance and Music Ensemble set to the beat of djembe drums and a second-half performance by the Harvard Breakers, whose combination of small group popping and large group breakdancing showcased both their skill and their accessibility to all levels of dancers.

Aside from strictly dance performances, music and poetry performances were also scattered throughout the two acts. These performances served to represent the many other forms of artistic expression that are highly valued in cultures around the world. Starting the second half, Soviet Hangover provided a startling change in the line-up by performing a 1972 Lithuanian rock song from the underground freedom movement. While it was interesting to hear the lead singer perform in both Lithuanian and English, the audience’s appreciation was unfortunately diminished by technical difficulties. As occurred frequently throughout the night, the band’s instruments were over amplified by microphones, and it was often impossible to hear the vocal line. The singer was only clearly audible on his higher notes, which were understandably shaky as they fell into the highest part of his register. Mariachi Veritas de Harvard roused the audience with a spirited performance, in which some instrumentalists also doubled as singers. The male soloist was by far the most engaging student performer of the evening, jumping off the stage, strolling through the audience, and belting enthusiastically all the while. While the female soloist seemed a bit weaker on her earlier verse, their ending duet offered wonderful (and accurate) harmonies.  Some provided a more serious intensity, like the powerful delivery of poetry given by the Spoken Work Society, while others used direct crowd involvement to win the hearts of the audience, as seen in the performance given by the Mariachi Veritas de Harvard (complete with a cute, romantic duet).

Although the show overall was an enjoyable experience, there were certain moments that seemed unable to match the luster attained by others. Several times during the show, some of the more traditional pieces, such as the ‘jarabe tapatio’ and ‘el relampago’ numbers performed annually by the Ballet Folklorico de Aztlan, seemed to lack fresh life and energy. During the Harvard Intertribal Indian Dance Troupe’s performance, for example, the dancers were outshined by the confidence and energy of the lead singer, whose impressive vocal range conveyed a humorous yet traditional message of Native American culture. It is without question, however, that these traditional dances have their due place in the cultural mix represented by this show.

Among the standouts of the evening were the Asian American Dance Troupe (AADT), Bluegrass, the Syncopation Step Team, the Corcairdhearg: The Harvard College Irish Dancers (HCID), and the Kuumba Singers of Harvard College. AADT’s performance was not only visually impressive with its brightly colored costumes, large yellow fans, and sweeping formation changes, but also technically difficult. Aside from the fact that the music choice did not seem to entirely fit the ‘fire fan dance’ theme, they proved to be a crowd favorite. Bluegrass (a five-piece ensemble) provided one of the highlights of the show with talented performers who were also comfortable enough on stage to give a short introduction to bluegrass music and Appalachian culture. While all instruments had solos during their song, the fiddle and bass particularly dazzled the audience with their spirited playing. This performance also reminded the audience that diversity doesn’t come solely from immigrants, but can also be found among our own ancestors. Syncopation incorporated a skit into their piece, which not only caught the audience by surprise, but also provided an unconventional avenue for the dancers to explicitly define their identity as a cultural dance team. It was clear that the dancers possessed great confidence and the varied rhythms and tempos of their steps were both impressive and entertaining to audience members.

HCID was undoubtedly the most well executed and technically difficult piece of the night. Closing out the first act with their flashy traditional costumes and seemingly flawless combination of soft shoe and hard shoe, these dancers delivered an undeniably powerful performance. Their most impressive moment came during a long pause in the music when the entire team of dancers performed an a capella hard shoe segment complete with differentiated rhythms and formation changes, a highly skillful performance that certainly wowed dancers and non-dancers alike. Finally, Kuumba offered a rousing finish to the show with two glorious songs, each featuring a different student soloist. Both soloists had absolutely beautiful voices, and knew how to use them to the greatest effect. Behind the soloists, the choir provided heart-stopping harmonies and cascading waterfalls of sounds, not only inspiring the audience to clap in time to the music, but also to get to their feet and feel the beat! (Nor should we fail to mention how entertaining it was to look up in the balcony and see all the Harvard Breakers moving in a perfectly synchronized step chorus line.) It is easy to understand why the show’s directors reserved Kuumba until the end of the show…no one could have followed their show-stopping performance, by far the most powerful and moving of the night.

The performer who deserves the final mention, however, is Wyclef Jean himself. Not only did he constantly inspire roars of laughter with his one-liners and quips, he also proved willing to perform with any group without little to no prompting. Throughout the course of the show, Wyclef danced with several of the groups, jammed spontaneously with no less than three of the musical groups, performed in Creole at the request of an audience member, attempted a back flip with a representative of the Harvard Breakers, and stood on his head with a member of AADT. As Wyclef would say, “True story.”

– The Harvard Art Review Dance and Music Boards


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