WC Prof's UMOJA Choir Wows Judges in World Choir Games

Competition, New Album Are Prison Choir's Swan Song

July 4, 2012

(ABOVE) WC's Catherine Roma conducts UMOJA Men's Chorus in a performance before international judges July 3 as part of the World Choir Games being held in Cincinnati.

(ABOVE) WC's Catherine Roma conducts UMOJA Men's Chorus in a performance before international judges July 3 as part of the World Choir Games being held in Cincinnati.


The unlikely lyrics, “Just forget about your worries, leave your troubles all behind,” rang out from inside the razor wire perimeter of Warren Correctional Institution July 3 as UMOJA Men’s Chorus unofficially opened the World Choir Games.

Unlike the other 361 choral groups representing 64 nations in the July 3 to14 spectacle, UMOJA did not perform in one of Cincinnati’s acoustically desirable venues.

Rather, they performed where they spent 100-plus hours rehearsing in recent months and where they reside 24/7 — prison.

Wilmington College music professor Catherine Roma founded the prison choir 19 years ago as part of her musical ministry devoted to a more peaceful world and as an academic program sponsored as part of the College’s now 45-year presence in area prisons.

UMOJA performed eight numbers entered into the gospel and spiritual categories at the seventh biennial World Choir Games hosted in the Queen City. Their audience included three international WCG judges, a contingent of Roma’s WC colleagues and a bank of area media.

Convicted burglar Tyrone Smiley, 21, told Fox 19 News, “I couldn’t believe they gave us the opportunity to present ourselves and to show them what we love to do.”
He said music gives the inmates a purpose beyond themselves.

“It’s more than just singing things,” Smiley said to WCPO-TV 9. “It’s a fellowship and a brothership in a place where we’re separated from our families.”

(LEFT) Four of the 16 UMOJA members sing out in the spiritual section of their program.

Another UMOJA member, Norman Whiteside, told WLWT-TV 5 that his experience with the choir is, “Probably one of the most God-blessed experiences I’ve known,” while Mark Springer saw the publicity surrounding the choral competition as a way of communicating something positive to his family.

“The first time I was ever on the news, it was for something horrible,” Springer said to WLWT News. “Now maybe my mother will turn on the news and see me singing God’s praises.”

The group performed with poise and confidence, yet at least one member admitted having a case of pre-performance butterflies.

Sedric Franklin told Ohio News Network, “I wasn’t even this nervous standing in front of the judge at my sentencing.”

Those aforementioned lyrics from the gospel number “Glorious” — “Just forget about your worries, leave your troubles all behind” — perfectly define the inmates’ time spent. That is, time spent singing with UMOJA.

Roma believes in the “transformative” power of music.

She sees their participation in UMOJA, which is Swahili for unity, brings not only elements of joy and self-fulfillment to the choir members’ lives but also can provide a sense of healing.

“They’re healing themselves and they understand the world outside the prison needs healing,” Roma said, noting that she subscribes to Quakers’ belief that there is ‘that of God in everyone’ in which every human being — no matter their station in life — possesses dignity, deserves respect and has value.

(RIGHT) Catherina Roma thanks Warren Correctional, Wilmington College and the World Choir Games for making their performance possible.

“The essence of hope, prayer, love of God, love of our natural world and a deep spirituality transcends their world inside the prison walls — all of this is reflected in their music.”

This summer brought to UMOJA the opportunity to record their third album, Extend a Hand, and to perform on the world’s stage.

“They felt the excitement of something big that’s happening nearby and that they’re a part of it,” Roma said. “They’ve seen promos for the World Choir Games on television and they realize, ‘I’m involved in this once-in-a-lifetime musical opportunity.’”

Judges used the words “marvelous,” “very pleased,” “good style,” and “a surprise,” in describing UMOJA’s performance.

Ironically, their WCG performance and recent CD release may be UMOJA’s swan song, as the Governor of Ohio announced the state is pulling funding effective Sept. 1 for educational programs at nine state prisons, including the three in which WC has a presence: Lebanon, Franklin and Warren.

Roma lamented the likelihood that Wilmington College’s 45-year presence in prison education is coming to a close, and more specifically the impact it will have on a group with whom she shares a special, spiritual bond.

“It’s a tragedy for me,” Roma told WKRC-TV 12, “but it’s a super tragedy for them, the UMOJA choir.”
She said the concepts of “transformation, moving ahead, taking steps to something better” that are manifested in programs like a prison choir and educating the incarcerated are essential for persons that one day will return to society.

“Rehabilitation is the key,” Roma told WCPO- TV 9, noting that the defunding decision, in essence, serves to “throw away the key.”

Coverage of UMOJA's July 3 performance includes feature stories by:
WCPO-TV 9 News Network
Cincinnati Enquirer/
Fox 19