'Soaring High' is the name of the debut album from African Drum musician, Omelika Kuumba. She has performed on tracks for other musician's records, and this is her long-time coming debut that has her fans saying it is worth the wait.
I recently saw on "TODAY with Hoda and Jenna" show, former dean of the college of Performing Arts at Alabama State University, Dr. Tommie Tonea Stewart, speaking of the show's guest host that day, Stephen Twitch Boss from The Ellen Degeneris Show, recalling citing to Stephen and fellow students, "I am standing in the presence of greatness", and I was quickly reminded of the first time I saw Omelika Kuumba performing on stage during a student performance at Spelman College in Atlanta, thinking I was in the presence of greatness.
Omelika's sheer presence on that stage, not only showed her skill sets as a drummer, but the energy that emanated from those drums and her very being, lifted the audience for a unique African Drum and Dance experience.
So, I was eager to do this follow-up article with Omelika after learning that she recently released her first album 'Soaring High'. I caught up with her in Atlanta for this interview.
Q&A with Omelika
Omelika it has been a couple of years since our last feature on you and as I promised our readers, we would follow-up with you for the latest happenings in your career.
Robert Walker) So in our last feature, I referred to you as the drum major at Spelman College where you teach African Dance and Drum, and I think it was pretty clear then that there was a calling pulling you to stretch out musically from performing on other artists’ tracks and pursuing your artistic skills musically. And that is exactly what you have done with “Soaring High with Omelika Kuumba”.
Can we say that this is officially your “debut” album, Omelika? How would you describe the album, is it African/Caribbean/Jazz Infusion?
Omelika Kuumba) Robert, thank you again for the last feature article! I received so many positive responses as a result of it. People were happy to learn things about me of which they hadn’t been aware prior to your interview with me.
Yes, this is my debut album. Soaring High is the name of my band and the name of the album. It is an avenue of expression that enables me to work with accomplished musicians and dancers to showcase my original lyrics, music, as well as my arrangements of traditional African rhythms and songs. My lyrics bring to mind aspects of African American experiences, appreciation of nature, challenges, family values, love, joy, triumphs, and more. I call it Message Music. It is music that is encouraging, thought-provoking, and validating.
Soaring High pleases musical palates across age, ethnicity and gender. Blending elements of contemporary soul, disco funk, house, neojazz, reggae, and West African rhythms,
Soaring High is a perfect score for a person’s day. An auditory adventure, this debut release features smooth vocals, spoken word, bass guitar, djembe orchestra, drum set, flute, keyboard, percussion, saxophone, trumpet, and violin. It brings messages of affirmation, light, love, power and truth.
RW) What was the inspiration behind doing this album now? Were there some life events, or did you just feel it was time to do this record?
OK) I’m very grateful to Ken Rye for having faith in my artistry. He’s the motivation for my beginning this Soaring High journey! In November 2019 Ken invited me to perform as one of three sister artists in a series of performances at Buteco Brazilian Restaurant in Atlanta, GA.
The show we had planned for April 2020 was canceled due to Covid, but without him I might not have even started. I also give thanks to Tinashe Bolden for asking me to perform Under the Tent at the Alliance in April 2021. Her call came in December 2020 less than a month after my Dad passed. I felt like her invitation was a kiss of encouragement and validation from him that I was moving in the right direction.
Soaring High Under the Tent at the Alliance featured Ali Barr on trumpet and djembe; Baba Ro on percussion and lead vocals; Chief Edward Menifee, collaborating musical arranger, lead vocalist and keyboard player; L Quinnette Delaney on bass guitar, and me on djembe, miscellaneous percussion and lead and background vocals. Rashida Abdullah danced beautifully. The reaction from the audience and my band members after the concert was sooooooo encouraging! Many audience members and my band members said, “You need to record this music, Sis. Omelika”. That was my motivation! When I was visiting with my Mom in Brooklyn last summer, I told her I wanted to record the album and needed to raise money in order to be able to do it. In July of 2021 a couple of weeks before her sudden death, she gave me my first $675 towards my $30,000 GoFundMe fundraising goal. https://gofund.me/32892180
As you can see, my Parents are at the core of what inspires, uplifts and motivates me to soar. In fact, they named me Avis which means, “bird- one who is destined to fly”. I miss them both more than I could ever articulate and count myself to be blessed to have them as the angels who are the wind beneath my wings. My company, Sistah With A Nia, LLC. (SWANia) is a full circle reflection: living in my purpose (Nia), returning to my foundation (Avis) as the Black Swan.
RW) Now, I know you are an African Drummer, but are you doing anything vocally on any of the tracks, and who are the other musicians and producers you collaborated with on this?
OK) In addition to playing djembe and miscellaneous percussion on the album, I sing background on many of the songs. I also do oration on Queen U’Nmi https://youtu.be/J4z5She8thM and Sistah Souldiers https://youtu.be/DikPgA6oy4k.
I sing lead on Daddy’s Girl https://youtu.be/My4OVzgFAVs, the song I wrote in honor of the relationship I have with my Dad. There’s a line in the song that says “…daily yearning to be held in his arms, longing for his voice again”. My Daughter, Zanaida, suggested that I include his voice on that song. She had a voicemail message that she’d received from him. Having followed her suggestion, in listening to and when singing Daddy’s Girl I will always be comforted in some way by the sound of his voice.
I recently learned that my Dad was a bird watcher. He had several books and binoculars. I trust that he will forever watch over his Black Swan.
The other artists on Soaring High include Ali Barr on trumpet and miscellaneous percussion; Andaiye, my amazing lead and background vocalist on most of the songs; Baba Ro on lead vocals, African bass drum set, djembe and percussion; Carlos McKinney on keyboard; Dashill Smith on trumpet; Eugene IV on lead vocals and background vocals; Gayelynn McKinney on background vocals and drum set; Hanan Davis on lead vocals and background vocals; Ladiesee on lead vocals, background vocals, flute, and saxophone; LaTonya Peoples on violin; L Quinnette Delaney on bass guitar; Robert John Connor on lead and background vocals; and William Green on keyboard.
I am the Executive Producer of Soaring High for SWANia Music. The Producer is Stefaniyemiya Ingram for Dihvinely Konnecked Productions.
The songs in English were written by me. The songs were also arranged by me, including the following collaborations: Soaring High, 9 MIN 29 SEC, Daddy's Girl, Queen U'Nmi, Sunset by Chief Edward Menifee; Fankani & Balakulanjan by Baba Ro; Ways of Love by Shawn V. Lucas; Ways of Love horn arrangement by Ali Barr & Ladiesee.
Most of the album was recorded and mixed by Dwayne "DK" Kelly at Sound Resort Studios in Atlanta, GA.; and mastered by Tim Gilchrist for I.G.I.T. Mastering in Monroe, GA.
The keyboard solo on Queen U'Nmi was recorded, mixed and mastered by Matrell and Ways of Love vocals were recorded by Matrell.
RW) You recently released the album in May, what was, or will be, the first single off of the album? And tell me about the single musically.
OK) Yes, I officially released Soaring High in concert on May 22, 2022 at City of South Fulton’s Southwest Arts Center. Soaring High began streaming on many platforms including Apple Music, Spotify and YouTube on June 22, 2022.
The first single is the title track of the same name, Soaring High, and it has a Latin/Jazz flavor. It features all of the instruments currently played by my band. It’s the first song I worked on when I was beginning to prepare for my performance at Buteco. CiCi Sunchild took some of those first steps with me.
She suggested, “We can fly! We can fly!” to me as a way of introducing an audience participation element to the song. I recently did it with an audience of college and high school students during a recent performance Soaring High did at Spelman College. We all loved it and I plan to keep that as an aspect of my performances. I love breaking that wall! I think audience members appreciate making that active connection too. It’s one thing to watch a performance, but to participate in the process of creating the energy of the experience, to me, is incomparable.
I named the band Soaring High since this is the newest step on my artistic journey.
I chose the name because that’s the vision I have for myself and for the people with whom I work.
My goal is for us to reach great heights as we experience music together and that the music will inspire those who hear it to be moved to take flight as well.
Interestingly enough, I wrote the song, Soaring High, in December of 2019 when I was flat on my back, sicker than I have ever been. I honestly think I was suffering from Covid because I had all of the symptoms that later became attributed to that incredibly horrible affliction.
The lyrics were not only the energy I wanted to have as the foundation of my band, but they served as impetus for me to push through in order to be strong enough to attend my second Grandson’s birth. “My spirit is lifted. My heart is aligned. My mind is enlightened. I feel so alive…” I made it to Zanaida’s and her husband’s home for their first home birth. On that evening, their third child came before the midwives arrived and I was blessed to catch him.
Everybody in the household, unfortunately, got sick-except for the baby. Being present for my Daughter in that way, nevertheless, was an amazing moment in our lives!
As with the rest of the songs on the album, Soaring High provides listeners with what is becoming a rarity- live musical instrumentation. In addition to sweet vocals, people are able to experience hearing the sounds of actual instruments, many of which are often heard exclusively from the realm of musical technology nowadays. An element of Soaring High is the coming together of the West African rhythm, Fanga, played by the djembe orchestra with keyboard, bass guitar, drum set, trumpet, saxophone, flute and violin.
I chose Fanga, a welcome rhythm for the song because it serves as a genial way for listeners to begin their Soaring High flight.
An empowering highlight on the album is women playing drums (djembe and drum set) instruments most often seen being played by men.
RW) What has been the response to the album from your fans?
OK) The responses have been really great to me! People who don’t know my previous work as being primarily an African dancer and drummer have expressed delight in hearing my music.
Those who are familiar with me as a traditional African drummer have been totally surprised by my musical versatility. Even my Family and closest friends have expressed their amazement.
My best friend and sister from another mother and mister, Gretchen Gale, said, “I didn’t know you had all of that music inside of you, Sis.”
RW) As mentioned, you have worked on other artists albums providing those funky African drum beats. Who are the artists you have been featured on their singles, and you have even been in a few music videos as well?
OK) I’ve worked with recording artists including Dionne Farris, Laurnea, Rahbi, Saidah Nairobi, Tasha Larae, the Spelman College Glee Club, and Wunmi. I was a member of S.OL.A.R., Monty Montgomery and the Aposse, and, of course, Giwayen Mata, where I served as Founding Artistic Director for 25 years.
I appeared in Arrested Development’s Tennessee and Natural and Tasha Larae’s video as an African dance instructor on her song, Find My Way, and I appeared as a drummer in Saidah Nairobi’s video for her song, We Are. I taught and arranged Fanga for the Spelman College Glee Club which is recorded on one of their albums. My recordings include being a lead vocalist and lead djembe player on Giwayen Mata’s Speak Sistah Speak, playing djembe on Gayelynn McKinney’s Ode to Africa, and playing and singing on Samada Nur’s, It’s Kwanzaa Time.
RW) Who were some of your musical influences coming up in New York and do you come from a music family?
OK) My inspiration to drum comes from Sheila E., my Cousin Gayelynn McKinney, and Maria Estes Hall, the Djembe Queen. Growing up, thanks to my Mom, I enjoyed listening to Aretha Franklin, Dionne Warwick, Donny Hathaway, Edwin Hawkins, Gladys Knight, James Brown, Marvin Gaye, Miriam Makeba, Nancy Wilson, Nina Simone, Ray Charles, Roberta Flack, Stevie Wonder and many more. My Cousins, Monica McKinney Lupton, Marla McKinney Smiley and I had our own singing groups called The Spice of Life and later The Second Vibration. We enjoyed singing songs by Jean Knight, The Jackson 5, Honey Comb, The Stylistics, The Temptations, and The Whispers amongst other groups because we enjoyed harmonizing with each other.
Over the years, I’ve added Afrikan Dreamland, Al Jarreau, Angela Bofil, Anita Baker, Avery Sunshine, Bob Marley, Brothers Johnson, Brownstone, Cassandra Wilson, Chaka Khan, Con Funk Shun, Dee Dee Bridgewater, Diane Reeves, Earth Wind and Fire, Elton John, Eric Gale, Fertile Ground, Jean Carne, Judy Mowatt, Kem, Labelle, Lalah Hathaway, Lee Ritenour, Luther Vandross, Natalie Cole, Ohio Players, Parliament Funkadelic, Phyllis Hyman, Rachelle Ferrell, Rhonda Thomas, Sister Sledge, S.O.L.A.R., Steely Dan, Stephanie Mills, The Clark Sisters, The Emotions, The Isley Brothers, The Jones Girls, Third World, Will Downing, Yolanda Adams, and more. Brother, there are so many artists that I must stop here! I will say that I admire and am in awe of their talents and am influenced by how they are able to move me and countless others. I hope that my music will be able to move people now and for generations to come in similar ways.
Yes, I do come from a musical family! My Uncle Carlos Morales was a drummer, his sons, Mio and Beo Morales are musicians and composers, my Cousin Harold McKinney was a renowned musician, composer and educator, and I have a number of other Cousins who arrange, compose, play instruments, produce, sing, and write a variety of genres of music. In fact, Soaring High includes four of my Cousins- Ali Barr; Grammy Award winner, Carlos McKinney; Ladiesee (Carol McKinney-Robinson); and Grammy Award nominee, Gayelynn McKinney! It’s a Family Affair! It’s a Family Affair!
RW) Who do you like out on the music scene now and would like to possibly collaborate with one day on a future recording?
OK) I like so many artists on the music scene now. I won’t try to name them like I did in response to your earlier question. Regarding possible collaborations, I’ll go on and plant those seeds in the fertile ground of the universe! After all, it is said that there is power in the word.
For starters, I’d love to and would be honored to collaborate with Amadou Kouyate, Andaiye, Angelique Kidjo, Avery Sunshine, Baba Ro, Beyonce’, CiCi Sunchild, Dionne Farris, Gayelynn McKinney, Gretchen Gale, India Arie, Jamal Ahmad, Janet Jackson, Jill Scott, Julie Dexter, Eva Kariba Henderson, Kathleen Bertrand, Khari Cabral Simmons, Kebe Williams, Lalah Hathaway, Laurnea, Ledisi, Mahiri Keita, Maria Estes Hall, Marie McKinney Ponce, Mausiki Scales, Munir Zakee, Navasha Daya, Ramona Renea, Rhonda Thomas, Sheila E., Weedie Braimah and Wunmi.
RW) What are your goals for this album, and what do you hope your fans and listeners will take away with them after listening to your music?
OK) I want to take Soaring High on tour. I want the album to be heard, enjoyed and purchased by millions, and I want it to win awards! I truly feel that there is a special place for my musical voice. As mentioned earlier, my album explores a variety of topics. 9 MIN 29 SEC, https://youtu.be/R8NuoJg3AVs may cause people to feel anger or discomfort because it addresses some of the atrocities that Black people have suffered over centuries because of our race. Zanaida suggested that I include the names of some of our ancestors in 9 MIN 29 SEC.
During the song, powerfully delivered by Robert John Connor and underscored by LaTonya Peoples on violin, I call the names of 55 ancestors. The list is long and painful to hear, but as an artist telling our stories through music I felt I would have been remiss to exclude the topic. I hope, nevertheless, that by the end of their listening experience of the full album people are left with a sense of hope and inspiration. I want people to walk away with an overall feeling of joy after having taken the flight with us.
RW) Are there any plans on touring this Summer and Fall? What would be the ultimate high for you to stand on stage and perform for audiences, Coachella maybe?
OK) I am currently seeking performance opportunities at festivals and HBCUs around the country. I am, however, open and eager to share Soaring High in whatever positive spaces people are interested in taking the flight with us. I am looking forward to our performance for Elevate Atlanta this coming September. I will be hosting a Listening and Viewing Party at Brooklyn Tea, 329 Nelson ST, SW, Atlanta, GA 30313 on September 12, 2022, 7 PM to 9 PM.
I am excited to see how choreographers are motivated to create to my music. I want Soaring High to touch as many bodies, hearts, minds and spirits as possible, in a variety of venues that are able to accommodate the size of my band and the depth of my production which includes dancers, sign language, and video footage. The ultimate highs would be to see my music be incorporated into plays, television shows, and movie soundtracks, to perform nationally and internationally, and to be received with love and enthusiasm. With that having been said, yes, performing at Coachella would be great!
RW) Besides the album, are you still teaching at Spelman? What are some of the next goals and ventures for you?
OK) Yes, I am thrilled to still be teaching African dancing and drumming at Spelman College, my awesome alma mater! I would also love to teach African percussion in the Department of Music there. I'm planning to write a book and to obtain my PhD with a focus that combines Indigenous Women's Studies and Percussion. I will continue to soar as a Cultural Arts Educator and a creating and performing artist.
RW) Where can people find you on social media and purchase music from “Soaring High”?
OK) People may follow me on Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn and Tik Tok as Omelika Kuumba. SWANia is also on Facebook.
Nia Damali will be carrying the album at her store, Medu Book Store at Greenbriar Mall, 2841 Greenbriar Pkwy SW n426, Atlanta, GA 30331. They will be available on Amazon.com soon. I will have CDs and other merchandise at my in-person events.
Soaring High is also streaming here: https://distrokid.com/hyperfollow/soaringhighwithomelikakuumba/soaring-high
RW) Thank you Omelika. You are truly a musical force to be reckoned with and I hope this album becomes all the success it deserves. We’ll talk again in another couple of years, if not sooner.
OK) Thank YOU, Robert, for your continued support! I’m beyond grateful for your interest in my work. Peace and blessings.
Soaring High Band Members
Guest Musicians on the Album
Band Members Not Pictured
Photo Gallery from the Soaring High Concert and Album Launch Party
KUDOS to the Photographers
- The Savvy Studio – Photography by Marsha Mifsud
- HOME - Rhythmic Images Photography
HOME - Rhythmic Images Photography Atlanta Photographer Atlanta Portrait Photographer Atlanta Headshot Photographer Black Female Photographer'' Business Branding Photographer West End Atlanta Photographer Atlanta Fashion Photographer Atlanta Event Ph
- Balakulanjan (feat. Hanan Davis) - YouTube
Provided to YouTube by DistroKidBalakulanjan (feat. Hanan Davis) · Soaring High with Omelika Kuumba · Hanan Davis · Romero Beverly · L Quinnette Delaney · Wi...
- Djagbe (feat. Hanan Davis & Dashill Smith) - YouTube
Provided to YouTube by DistroKidDjagbe (feat. Hanan Davis & Dashill Smith) · Soaring High with Omelika Kuumba · Hanan Davis · Dashill Smith · Romero Beverly ...
- Daddy's Girl - YouTube
Provided to YouTube by DistroKidDaddy's Girl · Soaring High with Omelika Kuumba · L Quinnette Delaney · William Green · Omelika Kuumba · Dwayne Kelly · Dwayn...
Denadon Kanin (feat. Hanan Davis & Dashill Smith)
- Denadon Kanin (feat. Hanan Davis & Dashill Smith) - YouTube
Provided to YouTube by DistroKidDenadon Kanin (feat. Hanan Davis & Dashill Smith) · Soaring High with Omelika Kuumba · Hanan Davis · Dashill Smith · Romero B...
I call this album Message Music. It is music that is encouraging, thought-provoking, and validating."