©St. Louis African Chorus,
December 2003. All rights
for Beverly Perry
They came in throngs, filed quietly and reverently past the casket that bore the remains of Beverly Yvonne Perry. She looked serene, at peace, like she had always been in life. Someone whispered beside me: “it’s amazing how many people she truly touched.” Touched, that’s the word: Beverly touched everyone she encountered in a special way that lasted. Carolyn Jones of Ballwin, Missouri puts this in better words: “I have never met someone for the first time, and they make you feel so comfortable and so at easy, as did Bev.” FredO, founder of the African Chorus perhaps summarized what Beverly represented and still represents on many of our minds: “Once upon a long while in our life’s journey we are fortunate to be in the company of an angel in human flesh; Beverly was my angel in human flesh,” FredO said.
As the Visitation came to a close, a soft tune permeated the silence. It was tentative at first, and as its gentle ripples floated across the sanctuary, many heads turned about, perhaps wondering if the humming came from the back or from the choir stall in the front. Sitting in the beautiful sanctuary of the Resurrection Lutheran Church of St. Louis, about 40 members of the African Chorus hummed closed-lips a Shona tune from Zimbabwe. In their multi-colored robes they radiated beauty and Africa’s diversity. But their faces could not hide the loss that they know had befallen the St. Louis African Chorus. Beverly Perry, their beloved mother was gone. Ms. Perry was gone. Bev was simply no longer here in the flesh. It was like a dream; one that you ‘knew’ life would return to normal when you woke up!
In place of an organ prelude, the Chorus sang an Igbo tune– Chebe Mo Nna (Guide Me O Lord) from their AENaO CD. Some of the members sang and cried at the same time. Tears welled in FredO’s eyes as he conducted; it was hard to watch him struggle to keep his emotions in check. Then I glanced at the audience, which was my mistake: many sat transfixed. Almost every pair of eyes glistened. I lost it then: I simply let my tears drop.
As the director brought the song to a gentle fade out, master drummer Weedie Braimah quickly interjected. In intricate rolls, trills and speech-surrogate tones interspersed by hunting silence, he engaged his djembe drum in a discourse that though was foreign but whose meaning seemed very clear.
Then meandering through a series of riffs and breaks, Braimah steadied the rhythm as DeBorah Ahmed, one of America’s most interpretive African dancers stepped regally from the back of the sanctuary. In her most innovative dance routine yet she recounted in steps and gestures age long Wollof ceremonial dances reserved for royal courts. African symbolisms were powerfully reenacted. But they would become more so presently… As Rev. John Reigstad, the officiating minister, read the processional Psalm 121, the African Chorus members left the choir stall, one after the other, chanting Yoyoma O, an Ijaw/Itsekiri funereal chant from the Live at the Sheldon CD. Each singer walked aimlessly, as if in a sleepwalk, but in what director FredO liked to call “choreographed trance,” they weaved their way through and around the audience, pausing briefly each time near the casket. Such was the splendor of the home going celebration of our African Queen, Beverly Perry.
As mentioned earlier Beverly touched many people in a special way. I knew that from personal experience; she was God-mother to my son Omena, a role she took very seriously even in her last wishes. That every pew at Resurrection Lutheran Church was filled was indicative of the many lives that she touched. But as FredO, speaking for the St. Louis African Chorus during the service, shared condolence messages received at our website I was struck by the list of countries who sent word. It was absolutely impressive: Egypt, Senegal, Gambia, Guinea, Benin Republic, Togo, Ghana, Nigeria, Congo, Namibia, South Africa, Kenya, Uganda, and many other African countries. Not only was the Resurrection Lutheran Church full to capacity by friends and family who knew Beverly, people the whole world over were touched by this remarkable woman.
BEVERLY PERRY(1945 - 2003)
In her own words
I am blessed to be a wife, mother, grandmother and educator, who taught in the St. Louis Public Schools for 34 years. As an educator and music lover, I was and am drawn to the opportunity to learn more about Africa’s rich cultural heritage through the innate multidisciplinary qualities that are unique to the African music produced and presented by the St. Louis African Chorus. There is something in the music that addresses all modalities and evokes a gamut of emotions within me.
I have been a volunteer for the St. Louis African Chorus since its establishment in 1994 and a board member since 1995. It has been gratifying, but humbling to have watched and shared in our organization’s growth and development under the inspired and dynamic leadership of our founder and artistic director, Fred Onovwerosuoke. Now, retired from teaching, I am privileged to be able to devote more time and energy to volunteering and serving on the Chorus board of directors.
I love to travel, too. Volunteering with Chorus has not only afforded me the opportunity to travel throughout metro St. Louis, other parts of the U.S. and South America. Through the Chorus I’ve also fulfilled a lifelong and self-affirming dream to journey to Africa - land of my heritage. While traveling with the St. Louis African Chorus family, I have witnessed and experienced first-hand the breakdown of cultural barriers precipitated by Chorus performances and loving outreach. These experiences have helped to broaden understanding and appreciation of different cultures and the kinship that we share.
As a volunteer and board member, I am also encouraged by the enthusiasm and diversity of committed people who generously support and work selflessly and tirelessly together in furthering our organization’s mission.
Spiritually and emotionally, my association with the Chorus has been refreshing and in many ways healing for me. I am blessed and love being of service to the premier arts organization for music in African languages, the St. Louis African Chorus.
-Beverly Perry, February 2002.