I had the honour of singing in Washington, DC, as part of the celebrations surrounding the Inauguration of President Barack Obama.
(if you want skip the backstory and learn about the song, just scroll down past the picture of Obama in the limo!)
So how did this all happen?
Back in early January, I got a Facebook message from a friend, telling me that she was going to Washington to sing with the Nathaniel Dett Chorale (a group I used to sing with) for Inauguration Day. “Damn!” I thought. “Why can’t they call me for a cool gig like that?”
About three hours later, I got a call from the choral director. They needed another tenor for the trip. Game on!
We did a couple of gigs beforehand, including a show in Ann Arbor, MI, and a show at the Smithsonian Museum of the American Indian. They had a multicultural programme based Obama’s speech “Out of many, we are One” (E Pluribus Unum). We were the only Canadian group invited: quite an honour. Since the hotels in DC were booked up, we stayed in York, PA, two hours north, just this side of the Mason-Dixon line. York is full of history: for a brief time, it was the capitol of the USA.
photos courtesy of John Beebe
On the Big Day we had to get up at 2:30am (you read that right…) to drive down to DC and get into the Secure Zone before it opened to the public at 6:00am. Even then, in the freezing cold, there was celebration in the streets as people lined up for blocks to get in. We walked through streets that were empty save for the thousands of security personnel. If it weren’t for the joyousness in the air, it would have felt like a war zone!
The Canadian Embassy is just off the Washington Mall, about a third of the way down, and the top of the building looks right across to the Capitol Building. This meant that, all, told, we had some pretty primo seats for the historic event. The Embassy also had a few Jumbotron screens on the premises, and CNN on in the various meeting rooms.
After catching up on our sleep, we sang for the Ambassador’s guests at around 11:30, just before the big stuff started to happen. Most of us went inside to watch. I went outside to see the actual swearing in, and hear the Inaugural Address. We could hear cheering from the Mall and all along Pennsylvania Avenue. Seeing Obama’s speech, right in the centre of it all, was one of the most moving moments of my life. Everyone, regardless of their personal or political stripes, was full of hope.
We sang some more for the dignitaries and grabbed some lunch, then it was time to prepare for the parade. Since the Embassy was right along the parade route, we were slated to perform as the motorcade went by. The parade started late, but soon enough we went out and sang for him. He was in his car as he went passed us, but he was smiling as he went by. This must be because he liked what he heard. That’s what I’m telling myself, at any rate.
A couple of hours later after some complimentary beers and scotches (the Canadian Embassy is representing us well!) we headed back to York PA, exhausted and elated.
And soon as I got home, I started writing. Several days later, I had the song and recordings done.
Filled with excitement and inspiration, I wanted to write a song that was joyous and welcoming to the new President. I chose to write the piece in the Kenyan musical style benga, with the choruses in Swahili, to reflect President Obama’s Luo heritage. The words are:
Obama! Ndie mwenye matarajio, twa wakaribisha
Obama! Embodiment of Hope, we welcome you
Obama! Ndie alama ya ahadi, twa wakaribisha
Obama! Symbol of Promise, we welcome you
Obama! Ndie aletae muungano , twa wakaribisha
Obama! Healer of Divisions, we welcome you
Obama! Ndio pamoja twaweza, twa wakaribisha
Obama! Yes We Can! We welcome you
(translation provided by my friend, Kenyan-Canadian guitarist Adam “The Professor” Solomon)
I hope this piece inspires you as the whole experience inspired me. Enjoy!