When Jazz in the Park gets under way Thursday afternoon at Congo Square, the age span may skew a little younger than usual. For the first time, the weekly jazz concert series will feature an additional tier of programming aimed at local youngsters. It’s called Congo Kids.
“The idea is to provide kids with the opportunity to perform music, to learn dance, to run the sound. It will be very much by youth, for youth — a youth execution series.”” explains Ben Faulks, director of Positive Vibrations Foundation, a Jazz in the Park sponsor and local non-profit dedicated to “using music to make the world a better place.”
The point, says Faulks, is not just to entertain young people, but to engage them productively.
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“A youth stage seemed like a great idea in the wake of some of the shootings of last year, like the second-line shooting on Mother’s Day,” he says. “Myself and the board of Positive Vibrations took it to heart, and had a brainstorming session to figure out what we could do to help preclude things like that from happening in the future. We decided that providing more opportunities for youth engagement and youth in the arts was the way we wanted to do that. And the Congo Kids idea sprang out of that.”
Congo Kids pairs participating youth with local mentors. They come from organizations like People United for Armstrong Park, Hope Stone Dance, Dancing Ground, Dancing Man 504. Many of them already work directly with kids – and know the impact they can make.
“Just getting kids in front of a musician or a dancer and having them have that experience, and having those opportunities open to them, that changes consciousness,” he says. “And it creates opportunities where they may not have seen them before.”
Students with the New Orleans Youth Sound Experience – NOYSE — will be working sound production for the Congo Kids stage – everything from setting up to running sound boards to booking talent like the Red Wolf Brass Band or Glen Hall Jr.
“We get speakers up, plug in things, get enough power, make sure things don’t explode,” says Evan Martin. “That’s happened. Not kidding.”
“I teach them not only just the basics, but we really get into the technical aspects of sound production,” says NOYSE director Matt Shilling. “They really do get hands-on skills by doing these events. They also learn theory in class. It really goes hand in hand to have the class and then the live event. They can see that they can actually learn a skill, have a lot of fun doing it and make a career out of it where they can make some money.”
Congo Kids activities will start at 3:30 each Thursday afternoon in Armstrong Park. There will be a blessing by master drummer Luther Gray, a drum and dance workshop, a brass-band second line, a dance workshop, and then the Congo Kids headliner. First up: Neshia Ruffin, Kermit Ruffin’s daughter. The New Orleans family musical tradition continues next week, April 24, with Omari Neville — Cyril’s son — and Rejected Youth Nation.
It’s not the first time that Positive Vibrations has worked to reach kids through music. The 6-year-old non-profit underwrites instruments and scholarships to both the annual Lusher Summer Youth Intensive and the Louis Armstrong Jazz Camp. It has run youth programs at Bayou Boogaloo, the Mirleton Festival in Bywater and Essence Fest.
But Jazz in the Park has a unique pull, says Faulks.
”There’s something really special about doing this on the sacred ground of Congo Square,” he says. “Combining the history and heritage of what’s there and creating new opportunities, there’s something really special about that.”
In this Positive Vibrations video, drum circle leader and creator of the Congo Square Foundation Luther Gray teaches kids the history of Congo Square:
Join Congo Kids each Thursday during Jazz in The Park at 3:30 p.m., when Baba Luther Grey will lead a Drum Circle, Convocation and Second Line to the Congo Kids Stage, where a Brass Band will perform. Here’s the lineup.