A wave of colorful glow sticks by alphabetized rows of youth and guardians excites the Parker Playhouse. The audience is asked to stand and stomp to welcome the 13- to 17-year-old musicians who have studied over six weeks to perform a choreographed collaboration of dance movement and “Rhythms of Africa” featuring former Third World drummer Willie Stewart, who as their teacher is as impressed with them as we are.
The leopard printed emcee first introduces a video of the students in their school element. A young man shockingly says, “We barely have things to do at school.” The video speaks of improved behavior and parent involvement.
In this astounding event, streamed online across the world Oct. 15, we are reintroduced to the talking drum, the Yoruba from Nigeria, played by an actual Prince Emmanuel, his apparel gold and blue.
The students also have tambourines, jingling drums. Some percussions sound like water and are affixed in silver tones. They have chimes and cow bells, a wide variety of sound. “Ila Motherland!” they sing, “Akabo!”
Next we listen to the Zulu drum which recalls fighting apartheid, and songs of Mandela’s struggle, with a Miriam Makeba songstress, backed by the Florida Memorial University choir assemble. The tones are intense. The djembe’s turn brings merriment and jubilation. The audience is alright, speaking in native tongue, “Ashai!”
A dance of adoration commences. The hollows thunder like roaring lions, the harmony is profound. “Haya, Haya!” they say. A series of clicking is monumental to the tongue. Powerful determination, these people have triumphed! The synchronicity is stunning.
Now, we’re in Lagos, the dancer springs high, he’s graceful. Then the singers wear feather earrings, green, white and yellow jackets of Jamaica, we are back in the Americas mesmerized by visions of capoeira, samba dance sounds, whistles of carnival. The depth of the beat penetrates the psyche as if the sky is tearing. You are anchored in the Caribbean, dredging, unearthing the blessed waters buried with treasures and secrets of the continental drift, reemerging old motherland vs. new.
Willie announces, “Send a message to Washington, keep the arts in school!” Miguel, a 9-year-old syncopates the congas which sound like
soldiers on the ground. Celia Cruz smiles, resting from beyond. “Ahye!” — traditional ancient euphoria — and the crowd rumbles. A modern Selena in blue eyeliner and skinny jeans singing “Bailar!” moves to maracas’ rock, 90 miles from home.
Now the violins emerge as the British ceremoniously introduce the aristocracy, like the mystique of churning butter, sounds of more merriment as maestro Nicole Yardling plays along. Heaven calls the diaspora through the harmonica as a variation of the keyboard pipeline. This is a true festival of auditory, as the keyboard is transformed into a Catholic organ with a funky overlay. A cornucopia of sound. “Tourists, pay your boarding fees!” Willie shouts.
It is now time for a little thing we call jazz. It’s the ’60s, and before Rhythm and Blues we scatted, we had a horn selection. Intro the Mustafa Bros. — Melton Mustafa Jr. and Yamin — with uncle Jesse Jones, dancehalls in Louisiana, fused with solos, in juke joints, street bazaars, fairs, myriad juju men, jive, archaic lotus blooms. Louis A. blues, fiddles, swaying trees after destruction of storms come and gone. Sea breeze sanctuaries of ships and ports of calling over dreamlands and waking meditations.
Back southeast to Marley land, gyrating and outrage of “War, in the East!” needing to wake up Babylonian conjecture. Trinidad, 110-year-old steel drum, trinkets intrinsic to soul cooking, quiet sirens, like beating yams and the drummer is like a chef, chopping cumin, car horn instigating, cleaning, polishing, she is ready. This celebration can go on and on.
The snare drum from the 1300s, folk music, funeral processions, saints marching in, think of umbrellas and white suits worn to sojourn loved ones to the Promised Land. Mo Beta Blues scats, sax talking, trumpet blaring, Ella’s air is corralled, bebop, tapping cymbals jovial. Make room for a new theatrical singer Soleil.
Gospel, rock-’n-roll, disco, this troop tackles Jennifer Holiday’s song effortlessly. Carl MacDonald samples James Brown. Breaker dances in Rerun. McFadden and Whitehead, Teddy Pendergrass’ rendition of Wake Up Everybody, their song Now That We Found Love.
So much talent at this event. Willie Stewart in his press conference leaves us with, “It’s a privilege to give the opportunity of music, to change the world with humility. This is the start of a proud achievement.”
Photo: Willie Stewart