WORKING WITH THE BOYS—Pamela Johnson in blue dress dances and sings with the boys’ choir. (Photos by J. L. Martello)
The Afro-American Music Institute and its subsequent Afro-American Boys’ Choir is Pam and James Johnson’s greatest joy.
“I can manifest their spirits through music and the choir gives the boys a sense of unity because they all have accomplishing something,” said James “Dr. J.” Johnson.
The Afro-American Music Institute began in 1982. Classes were held at St. James AME Church’s Sumpter Hall in East Liberty. Within six years, growth necessitated a move to another East Liberty location, the Alma lllery Annex. The community’s thirst to learn music from an African-American perspective caused the music institute to move to its current location at 7131 Hamilton Avenue.
AAMI’s current programs are divided into five categories: curriculum, Sunday public performance series, performance groups, summer music camp and Saturday music forum.
The couple, who have been married to each other 40 years and 30 years to The AAMI, celebrated the institute’s 30-year anniversary and the boys’ choir’s 23-year anniversary with a series of programs throughout this year. The festivities concluded with the annual “Tribute to Fathers” Musical Theatre and Dinner that featured the boys’ choir.
“The celebration started with the Spelman Girls Choir then we had a Gumbofest, which went really well, and it ended with the tribute to fathers event,” said Pam Johnson.
During the “Tribute to Fathers,” audience members were given a behind-the-scenes look at the choir’s once-a-week, Monday night hour-long rehearsal techniques.
“It’s a great choir and everyone is like brothers,” said 16-year-old Woodland Hills High School junior and choir member Justin McCord who has been with the choir for four years.
As director of the boys’ choir, “Dr. J.” uses military cadences and push-ups to give the young men in the choir a sense of accomplishment and to teach them discipline.
“I instill military values in the boys, which is something they need,” Dr. J. said, adding that the first military armies came out of Africa. “The military style attracts attention and lets people know that we are different.”
Carnegie Mellon University 18-year-old student Michael Booker, II said the disciplinary aspect of the choir is something that he enjoys.
“I joined the choir 12 years ago while my dad was away in Iraq and my mom thought it would be a good idea because she wanted me to have the African-American male experience. The discipline helps us because it gets our blood moving and helps us get through our songs,” Booker said.
Pittsburgh Science and Technology senior Andrew Coleman, III said being able to sing different genres of music is what drew him to the Afro-American Boys’ Choir 11 years ago.
“I’m used to singing in church and through this choir I’ve learned pitch and the choir has opened the door to many different kinds of music like African. I set an example for the rest of the boys in the choir and I have to watch myself and what I do because they are watching,” Coleman said.
The Afro-American Boys’ Choir is also being watched by people in Pittsburgh’s Black community and beyond.