World House Choir to celebrate a decade of song, social justice
- Published: September 19, 2023
How do you measure 10 years?
Riffing on a similar lyric from the musical “Rent,” Catherine Roma mused on this question as she looked back at helming the World House Choir, which will celebrate its 10th anniversary with a series of concerts this month.
“Ten years went so fast,” Roma told the News this month. “Nina Simone said, ‘It’s an artist’s duty to reflect the times in which we live.’ I hope we’ve been doing that.”
The World House Choir — a multicultural and intergenerational musical group whose decade-long repertoire has embraced songs that put forward messages of unity, solidarity and social justice — will perform its 10-year anniversary concerts Thursday–Saturday, Sept. 21–23, at the Foundry Theater.
The choir actually performed its first concert nearly 11 years ago, when Roma and then-First Presbyterian Church Pastor Derrick Weston led 40 singers at the church in September 2012. It wasn’t until the following year, however, that the choir performed at the Coretta Scott King Center as the World House Choir — a name that references an essay penned by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in which he urges that everyone on earth learn to live peacefully together in a “world house.”
Since then, the World House Choir has performed more than 140 concerts in Yellow Springs, surrounding towns and cities, including Dayton, Cincinnati and Columbus, in churches, auditoriums and prisons. Its membership — which has now grown beyond 100 singers — comprises singers from the village and from other nearby communities in Greene, Clark, Hamilton and Montgomery counties.
Measuring 10 years of music in terms of the numbers of performances and members is a fairly simple metric. More complex, Roma said, is quantifying the ever-strengthening bonds of community that have been forged in the choir itself — but also the bonds that the choir has sought to create with its audiences and their communities.
“The way I like to think of it is that it’s the music that draws us together,” Roma said. “People want to express themselves; people want to speak. They want to sing, they want to gather together to make a difference. So it’s the music that gets us together, but then within that, what we sing is part of how we build community, too.”
A longtime music scholar and activist, Roma herself, and her history, are a kind of yardstick by which to consider the World House Choir’s years. Growing up as part of an Italian Catholic family in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Roma began her musical journey at age 4, when she started taking piano lessons. Her older sister, she said, was originally the piano student, albeit reluctantly — but Roma felt herself drawn to the instrument.
“[My sister] felt tortured playing the piano, but I would get up there and try and play her stuff,” Roma said. “And so the [piano] teacher said, ‘I’ve never taken somebody so young,’ but took me. And I was very lucky — really, really lucky. I fell in love with the piano.”
Roma attended kindergarten through 12th grade in the 1950s and ’60s at Germantown Friends School — an educational experience that she said put her at odds with what had otherwise been a conservative upbringing at home and, ultimately, became a major influence on the shape of her life.
“I was exposed to Quaker Meeting and people getting up and talking about the war in Vietnam and pacifism,” Roma said. “What was happening for me at the school was different from my family, and so I became a convinced Friend [Quaker] when I was 17. … The social justice [focus] started there.”
Roma went on to study music at the University of Wisconsin for both her undergraduate and graduate careers. Serendipitously, she was a student during the nascence and rise of the women’s choral movement, and her intersection with that movement, she said, led to what would become a decades-long vocation.
“[At the University of Wisconsin,] I was beginning to deal with my being a lesbian and a feminist,” Roma said. “I had been [studying] piano [and was] practicing all by myself in this practice room, and I said, ‘This is not me. I’m a people person.’”
Roma was presented with the opportunity to participate in a two-week conducting workshop. The workshop, she said, opened up new vistas of possibility for her — and changed the direction of her course of study. She went on to earn her master’s degree in choral music at Wisconsin.
The years that followed that directional shift are dotted by markers of women’s musical history laid down by Roma and her contemporaries: In the early ’70s, she worked with historian Ann Gordon to identify centuries of music written by and about women, which culminated in the creation of the folk opera “American Women: A Choral History.” In 1975, Roma founded the ANNA Crusis women’s choir — the first feminist women’s choir in the nation. That choir — which is still performing nearly 50 years later — performed “American Women: A Choral History” at colleges and universities in the northeastern United States.
“I wanted to empower women’s voices and women singing together,” Roma said. “Where else are our experiences being sung about?”
Roma left ANNA Crusis after eight years to pursue her Doctor of Music Arts degree in Cincinnati in 1983. The same year, she founded the now-40-year-old women’s choir MUSE in Cincinnati, where, after several years, she met her now-partner, Dorothy Smith. Roma said she had begun making friends and professional connections in Yellow Springs, where Smith lived while a member of MUSE.
“I stole Dorothy from Yellow Springs,” she said with a grin. “She lived up here and I lived down there, and we lived separately for five years. Then she said, ‘We can get a house down in Cincinnati — I’ll move and I’ll give you five years [before we move back].’ And she gave me 19.”
During the tail end of what was ultimately almost three decades in Cincinnati, and after she and Smith moved to Yellow Springs in 2012, Roma’s choral work expanded beyond women’s choirs. Through her work as an educator at Wilmington College, Roma was able to connect with incarcerated men in the Warren Correctional Facility in Lebanon, Ohio, to form Umoja Men’s Chorus — which went on to win a pair of gold medals in the World Choir Games in 2012. Later, she founded Ubuntu Men’s Chorus at Madison Correctional Facility in London, Ohio, and Kuji Men’s Chorus in the Marion Correctional Facility. The latter performed the musical “Hamilton” under Roma’s direction in 2019. In 2015, she also founded Hope Thru Harmony, a women’s choir of inmates and “outmates” at Dayton Correctional Institution women’s prison.
Over the years, Roma said she has also expanded the kinds of music her choirs sing, and the artists they support to create that music. MUSE began commissioning pieces by women musicians, and particularly BIPOC women — a practice that she would continue when she helped form the World House Choir in 2013. One frequent collaborator — and mentor to Roma — over the years has been composer and activist Bernice Johnson Reagon, who founded the Grammy-winning African American women’s a cappella group Sweet Honey in the Rock. Roma said being in conversation with Reagon helped shape the repertoire that would define the World House Choir’s sound — and, ultimately, the voices that carry that sound.
“I would ask her, ‘How do I get more people of color in the choir?’” Roma said. “And she always hammered me and said, ‘What are you singing? If I come to your concert as a Black woman and I don’t see any people who look like me, but you sound like my culture and my people, then I figure you’ve done your homework.’”
In celebrating 10 years, the World House Choir will again perform some of the songs from its repertoire that have aimed to highlight the sense of diversity, unity and justice that its director and singers hope to inspire. The traditional spiritual “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child” and the “Agnus Dei” from Paul Winter’s “Missa Gaia” are returning favorites, among others.
Pieces new to the choir are also part of the concerts’ lineup, including Reagon’s “Greed,” which confronts the nation’s foundations on the “sin of greed,” which moves like “a virus” through every part of society. Also new is “(Something Inside) So Strong,” written in 1987 by British artist Labi Siffre as a response to both Apartheid in South Africa and his own identity as a gay man.
“The more you refuse to hear my voice, the louder I will sing; the higher you build your barriers, the taller I become,” the song refrains.
Putting together this year’s program, which is both retrospective and aims to look forward, was its own way to measure the last decade, Roma said. She noted the losses that have occurred — both personal and institutional — within the choir, the village and the nation in that time. The pandemic, police violence against people of color and the overturning of Roe V. Wade have made the last few years of the choir’s tenure feel bleak, she said — and those feelings are noted in the concerts’ program.
Ultimately, though, Roma said loss is not the feeling she wants to leave either her singers or their audiences with when they file out of the Foundry Theater.
“Dr. Cornel West said, ‘Love is what justice looks like in public’ — and our concert is titled ‘Standing On the Side of Love and Justice,’” she said. “We’re in despair, and we’ve lost a lot — but I want there to be this feeling that hope wins. I want there to be a sense of radical hope.”
The World House Choir will present “Standing On the Side of Love and Justice” in an open dress rehearsal Thursday, Sept. 21, at 7 p.m.; and in performance Friday, Sept. 22, at 7 p.m., and Saturday, Sept. 23, at 4 p.m. All performances will be held in the Foundry Theater. Admission is free, and donations will be accepted.