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Singing with the Voices in Their Hearts

BC gospel choir Voices of Imani to present its annual "Fall Jam" on Sunday

10/16/14
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Voices of Imani Director David Altenor '09 - a former member - leads the group at a recent rehearsal. (Photo by Caitlin Cunningham)

By Sean Smith | Chronicle Editor

Published: Oct. 16, 2014

Bria Coleman ’15 thought she was all done with singing when she arrived at Boston College as a freshman. But that was before she met the Voices of Imani, BC’s gospel choir.

“I came in adamant that I wouldn’t get involved in any singing activities,” explains Coleman, a Kansas City native who sang constantly throughout her childhood, especially at the church where her grandmother was pastor and her mother the choir director. “I just thought it was time to do something different.”

So three years later, here she is, president of the Voices of Imani – which presents its annual “Fall Jam” this Sunday in Lyons Hall. What happened?

“It’s the atmosphere and the people,” says Coleman. “Voices of Imani is like a second family. The more I saw and heard of them, the more I wanted to get involved. I just love this group so much.”

Coleman’s view is widely shared. For nearly 30 years, the Voices of Imani has performed songs grounded in the African-American faith tradition – “imani” is Swahili for “faith” – including spirituals, traditional and contemporary gospel, and music with European roots. The group appears at an assortment of events on campus, notably the BC Arts Festival and the annual Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Scholarship Awards Banquet, as well as around Boston, and gone on spring break tours in various parts of the country, including Tennessee, Florida, Texas, California, Washington, DC, Virginia, and Atlanta. Next month, the group will appear at gospel festival at Berklee College of Music.

This academic year marks the official start of 2009 graduate David Altenor’s tenure as VOI director, after serving as assistant director. A producer, songwriter and keyboardist who is music director for Zion Church Ministries in his native Everett, Mass., Altenor was a member of VOI under the tutelage of its founding director, Rev. Hubert Walters, who retired in 2010 and was succeeded by Chauncey McGlathery.

Altenor, an adjunct faculty member in the African and African Diaspora Studies Program, said his participation in VOI as an undergraduate “opened my eyes – I learned a lot of African culture and history, and about its importance to America.
“This is a very special group, and I feel blessed to be part of it once again.”

The Fall Jam is a more informal affair than most VOI events, according to Coleman and Altenor. “It’s definitely more casual – we don’t wear the robes, like we do at our Christmas concert, but different outfits,” says Coleman. “And we really encourage the audience to participate and have fun with us. The Fall Jam is one of my favorite performances.”

Adds Altenor, “The concert is a way to show the diversity of the group, and for Voices of Imani to share its gift with the crowd in a more direct way.”

The program will mix some classic gospel songs like “Wade in the Water” with contemporary material, including “Say Yes” (recorded and co-written by Michelle Williams, a former member of the group Destiny’s Child) and a few originals by Altenor and McGlathery.
Not only experienced and confident singers like Altenor and Coleman take part in VOI. Current vice-president Pierce Louis ’15 hadn’t even considered joining a student group when he came to BC, let alone a choir: “I’m not that good a singer,” he recalls telling a VOI recruiter.

But Louis feels he’s benefited from being around Coleman and other VOI members. “When I was younger, I kind of would stay more in the background. But over the last few years, I’ve definitely gotten more confidence in my voice.”
“You’re holding down that bass line like a pro,” Coleman says, smiling at Louis. She adds: “Voices of Imani gives you the opportunity to help, and to be helped.”

Altenor says gospel music, even as it has attracted increasing attention from the media and general public the past few decades, is more multifaceted nowadays than many people might realize.

“Gospel has evolved from the earlier, more familiar forms, like spirituals and blues,” he says. “There are other influences, like New Age, funk and hip-hop.”

Coleman agrees: “I think gospel is breaking out of its preconceived shell in many ways, and not just musically. Our choir is quite diverse, so while gospel has strong roots in African-American culture, anyone can enjoy it, no matter what their background might be.”
“Of course, however, while the music might change,” adds Altenor, “its message of God’s love and faith is the same as ever.”
The Oct. 19 Voices of Imani Fall Jam takes place at 4 p.m. in “The Rat” in the Welch Dining Room of Lyons. Admission is free. For more about the group, see voicesofimani.com.