It’s Saturday at the African Heritage Cultural Arts Center and sweet harmonies echo through the halls, ringing out in a slow and steady gospel beat. “There is no way I can live without you,” go the words of gospel legend Percy Bady’s song by the same title. “There is no way I can go on. Burdens are too much for me to bear, there is no way.”
The sounds of the 30-voice Voices of Heritage vocal ensemble – 24 girls and six boys, aged 6 to 20 — resonate as the choir rehearses its eclectic repertoire of Motown, hip-hop, soul and rhythm and blues and, of course, gospel. Children’s high-pitched voices blend smoothly with older, deeper tones.
For 20 years, the choir has offered its members a refuge in a sometimes troubled community, a place to work on their voices, their characters and their confidence.
“We want the kids to be in a place where they don’t get caught up in what society says they should be,” says Isis Roberts, the choir’s tough-love director. “It gives them the foresight to look far beyond what people are telling them they could be.”
This day, Voices of Heritage is rehearsing for a show on Saturday, Feb. 26, focused on legendary gospel singers that, Roberts says, will touch “our spiritual side and roots.”
But, to its youthful members, the ensemble is, in a way, their roots.
Kyonna Floyd, 13, says the group helps her make good choices.
“I was very shy and not very confident but, after a while, I started becoming more confident,” she says. “It sometimes kept me from doing the wrong things.”
For Danae Hunter, 15, a principal singer, the program has helped her set higher goals for herself than she thought was her potential and has provided a sense of family.
“We call our instructor ‘Aunt’ or ‘Mom’ because we feel it’s that way,” she says.
Adds Delaija Napier: “We sometimes get angry at her because she keeps pushing us but we later realize it’s because she wants us to be better than what we think.”
The group performs regularly at high-profile events such as the Haitian Independence celebration hosted by Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Alvarez and they provided background vocals for R&B singer Duane McLaughlin.
Members also get real-life experience in the music business through programs such as Alternative Directions Music Industry Training, a Liberty City-based organization that lets the choir record.
Last year, the group recorded Environmental Mentality, an R&B tune with strong pro- environmental lyrics.
Even non-singers benefit.
Stage hand Cornell Thomas, 23, talks of the support he has received from the choir during troubled times.
“It changed my life,” he says. “I was headed for trouble at a young age and probably would not have reached the age of 19. I’ve been to jail. I got out and they provided that family support.”
Sandra Cenecharl, 18, a graduate of the prestigious New World School of the Arts, puts it this way: “They don’t judge here. You can actually be somebody.”
Giovanna Maselli may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
IF YOU GO
WHAT: Voices of Heritage concert
WHEN: 7:30 p.m., Saturday, Feb. 26.
WHERE: Joseph Caleb Auditorium, 5400 NW 22nd Ave., Miami
COST: $15 in advance; $20 day of show; group rates available.