MLK Celebration: a tale of two concerts. Or, ‘Sometimes things really do work out for the best!’

From left, Knoxville Symphony Music Director Aram Demirjian, Knoxville Poet Laureate Rhea Carmon, opera singer Michael Rodgers and Obayana Ajanaku, founder of Drums Up, Guns Down and Indigenous Vibes, at a curtain call following a KSO performance at the Tennessee Theatre on Sunday.

After more than 20 years, this year the Martin Luther King Jr. Commemorative Commission decided not to partner with the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra for its annual MLK Celebration Concert. Instead, the Commission moved its program from the traditional location of the historic Tennessee Theatre to the much smaller Cox Auditorium on the University of Tennessee campus.

“We just decided to go in a different direction,” Deborah Porter, chair of the MLK Commemorative Commission, told me back last fall when the decision was made.

“We were really surprised and saddened,” said Rachel Ford, chief executive officer of the Knoxville Symphony. “It had become an important event for us. It was something all the musicians and staff looked forward to every year.”

After a few days, however, the Symphony folks pulled themselves together and sprang into action. They checked on the time of the Commission’s event and scheduled a free performance of their own at a time that did not compete. The Symphony concert was at 3 p.m. this past Sunday at the Tennessee Theatre. The Commission’s free concert was at 6 at Cox Auditorium. One group of performers, the “Drums Up, Guns Down” drum corps from East Knoxville, played at both of them.

“Dr. King’s leadership, words, and work, along with that of countless others, brought about the passage of the Civil Rights Act, and the elimination of segregation from our nation’s laws,” said Knoxville Symphony conductor Aram Demirjian. “But nearly 60 years later, his dream remains unfinished, and we can’t celebrate how far we’ve come without acknowledging how far we have to go.”

It turned out to be an excellent decision — on the part of both groups. KSO Music Director Aram Demirjian relished the responsibility of putting together a program. He secured the services of some top-notch local professionals — in addition to Drums Up, Guns Down — and put together a show that was a knockout.

All the participants had performed with the Symphony before: opera singer Michael Rodgers, Knoxville poet laureate Rhea Carmon, and Obayana Ajanaku and his Indigenous Vibes “edutainment group.” Ajanaku also directs Drums Up, Guns Down.

The Tennessee Theatre audience — which was around 100 people last year — swelled to 700 this year. “We didn’t know what to expect,” Ford said. “But we were really happy with the response.”

The Commemorative Commission was happy with its decision, as well. “It’s a different venue,” Porter said from the stage. “But the same great show.” (Yes, I went to both of them!) And their audience was larger than last year, too. It looked to be between 250 and 300.

During the process of seeing both shows, I actually had an attitude change. At first, I thought it was ridiculous to have two separate concerts. I thought they should have been combined. But, after seeing both of them, I realized that they really are two different shows with different intents.

The KSO is a large professional organization and the artists they secured– except for Drums Up, Guns Down — were primarily working professionals. The Commemorative Commission put on a show that was much more grass roots. Think: a combination of church choir and community talent show. It was sweet. It featured young amateur performers including the “Celebration Youth Choir” — with young children who had to be corralled to get on and off the stage — and the Vine Middle School Dance Company. The audience loved it and had a great time singing along and encouraging the folks on stage. (I only stayed for the concert portion of the program. There also was a dramatic performance in the second half.)

I learned through the course of Sunday that there’s a place for both ways of celebrating the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. And separating them might have been an inspired decision after all.

During the KSO program, Knoxville Poet Laureate Rhea Carmon and opera singer Michael Rodgers read several excerpts from Dr. King’s speeches, including “The Drum Major Instinct,” “Address for the 1964 Berlin Jazz Festival,” “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” “I Have a Dream” and “From the Mountaintop.”

Baritone Michael Rodgers.

Obayana Ajanaku introducing Drums Up, Guns Down at the Tennessee Theatre performance.

Ajanaku, a teacher at Austin-East Magnet High School, founded Drums Up, Guns Down to help students there deal with their emotions after three of their classmates were killed by gun violence during a three-week period a few years ago.

Members of Drums Up, Guns Down study, experience and perform traditional West African drum rhythms, as well as learn related history and culture.

Every participant in Drums Up, Guns Down is provided a drum to take home.

The Drums Up, Guns Down program focuses on traditional West African rhythms from Senegal, Guinea, Mali and Ivory Coast.

Ajanaku says traditional drumming always has been a tool to help people deal with anger issues, frustration and pain resulting from trauma.

Ajanaku believes that through the process of learning to drum, participants not only experience emotional healing, but also will be able to express themselves, develop effective communication and problem-solving skills, and learn to work with others in a positive environment.

Ajanaku says that youth in East Knoxville, for a host of reasons largely beyond their control, have limited opportunity to be involved in positive, life-enhancing activities. The Drums Up, Guns Down program provides just that.

Ultimately, the goal of the program is to prevent youth from becoming either a shooter or a victim of gun violence, Ajanaku says, recognizing that, in the end, both are victims.

I was very happy to see a young woman among the drummers.

Obayana Ajanaku, left, with his adult African drum ensemble, Indigenous Vibes.

KSO musicians, from left, I-Pei Lin, Rachel Loseke, Zofia Glashauser, Sean Claire, William Shaub and Gordon Tsai.

Michael Rodgers, left, and Aram Demirjian between songs.

Adam Ayers, left, and Andy Bryenton.

Aram Demirjian and Rhea Carmon.

The concert was made possible by sponsorship of the The Boyd Foundation, Knox County Commissioner Dasha Lundy and the Tennessee Theatre.

Knox County Commissioner Dasha Lundy, left, was there with her mother.

Knoxville City Council Members Seema Singh and Charles Thomas.

Former Knox County Commissioner Evelyn Gill and her husband, Michael Gill.

Knoxville Symphony Orchestra CEO Rachel Ford with Alan Carmichael.

Knoxville Symphony Orchestra Board member David Colquitt with two of his children, Ruby and Will.

Alan greeting our friends Carmen and Harold Hicks after the show.

Then, it was off to Cox Auditorium for me.

Drums Up, Guns Down was there for their second performance of the day! Talk about stamina!

Obayana Ajanaku had made a costume change.

Vine Middle School Dance Company.

The Celebration Youth Choir.

Would you like to hear some music?

Here’s a snippet of Drums Up, Guns Down from the Tennessee Theatre performance:


And two excerpts from the Celebration Youth Choir at Cox Auditorium:



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5 Responses to MLK Celebration: a tale of two concerts. Or, ‘Sometimes things really do work out for the best!’

  1. Alan Carmichael, on January 18th, 2023 at 3:15 pm said:

    Great ways to celebrate Dr. King. The MLK Commission and the city are to be commended for helping us remember his accomplishments. (I did notice that when I began singing along with “We Shall Overcome” Cynthia moved two seats away.)

  2. Cynthia Moxley, on January 18th, 2023 at 10:25 pm said:

    I have asked him not to sing in public!

  3. Chris Weathers, on January 19th, 2023 at 4:54 pm said:

    I’ve sang here before. I’ve attended so many shows and lectures here. Definitely a historic venue, and I’m glad it all worked out.

  4. sara pinnell, on January 19th, 2023 at 5:16 pm said:

    what a nice event!

  5. Georgiana Vines, on January 20th, 2023 at 2:31 pm said:

    So neat the attendance swelled for both events.

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