The Chicago Tribune


chgo-tribune-cassandra-wilson-yoruba-arts-foundation-01A jazz diva makes music in classroom
Cassandra Wilson is giving back to Chicago students

September 23, 2009|By Howard Reich, TRIBUNE CRITIC

You might think the kids would be nervous.
No less than Cassandra Wilson — one of the greatest, and most celebrated, singers in jazz — is rehearsing them for Friday night’s big concert at Rockefeller Memorial Chapel.

But the teenagers in Room 126 of Kenwood Academy High School, on the South Side of Chicago, barely can contain themselves. Riffing freely on a tune Wilson wrote, inventing verses of their own, swaying to the beat all the while, the youngsters look, sound and act like pros plunging exuberantly into their work.

They make no fuss over a Grammy Award-winning artist getting in the trenches with them, as part of a bold experiment in American music and African-American culture.

For two weeks leading up to Friday’s concert, Wilson is rehearsing intensively with the Kenwood students. Together, the artist and her gifted proteges aspire to create original songs that explore both the mythology of the ancient Yoruba culture, of Africa, and the students’ own concerns and sensibilities.

So why is an artist of Wilson’s stature — who’s in demand in concert halls and festivals around the world — donating her time and toil for such a venture?

“We wanted to reach into the community and begin a dialogue, particularly with young adults — the teenagers — to get a sense of how much of the history of their culture they’re being taught,” says Wilson, after the rehearsal. “And to offer our services to help augment whatever that is.”

When Wilson arrived, she asked the kids to name some Roman gods and goddesses. No problem.

When she asked about Yoruba deities, however, the youngsters were quick to acknowledge they didn’t really know much.

That came as no surprise to Wilson and her associates at the Yoruba Arts Foundation, a new nonprofit Chicago cultural organization in which Wilson serves as vice president. Together, Wilson and colleagues hope to share knowledge of Yoruba culture with Chicago students (and anyone else willing to absorb it).

“We want to encourage cultural literacy,” says Wilson, who lives in New Orleans and grew up in Jackson, Miss. “And it’s especially important for them, because that’s the part of the story, of our story, as African-Americans — that we have not been exposed to.

“And indeed all of us, all Americans, have not learned very much about this culture.”

“Because it’s the largest ethnic community in Africa, and because it’s West Africa, and most of us [African-Americans] are descendants of these people, it’s as important for us to learn Yoruba mythology as it is Greek mythology and Roman mythology.”

What makes Wilson’s efforts distinctive, however, is that she’s conveying this information through an inordinately powerful tool: music.

Rather than merely lecture the kids on this weekday afternoon, she writes a single word on the blackboard — “Osun” — and asks the youngsters to tell her what they’ve learned about this Yoruba god.

“She’s the African version of Venus,” a student says.

“She also represents melody, harmony — creativity,” adds Wilson, “and today we’re going to focus on melodies.”

With that, Wilson and the young singers begin rehearsing their work-in-progress, which opens with Wilson’s verse but soon proceeds to words penned by the students. Wilson holds their handwritten poetry in hand, singing along with the kids, her honeyed alto sounding as joyous in a classroom as it is in Symphony Center.

Or maybe more so, because now Wilson’s voice intertwines with those of a younger generation of singers — less vocally accomplished than she but no less fervent. Though they’re clearly learning about Yoruba ancestors, they’re discovering a great deal about music, life and professionalism too.

“It’s been a humbling experience,” says Matthew Robinson, 16, a junior at Kenwood. “It’s not every day that you get to work with someone that is an established artist — you don’t see people like Usher or Beyonce here.”

“I’m having little conversations with Ms. Wilson — she told me how important it is to know how to read music and to know how to write music. Sometimes in rehearsal, the pianist will just play; sometimes Ms. Wilson will sing, and we’ll have to repeat after her…”

“That’s so cool, because we’re both getting a taste of each other’s worlds.”
Adds sophomore Noah Rouse III, 15: “A part of us is now inside that song.”

The project originated a few years ago in Jackson, Miss., where Wilson and colleagues performed with a children’s church choir.

That venture “kind of gave us an idea of what was possible,” says Oyekunle Oyegbemi, board president of the Yoruba Arts Foundation.

Part of the goal, Oyegbemi says, was to let kids know that “there was more than just the tragic part, the slave trade,” to African-American history. “We’re focusing on what were the other things that came out of our experience.”

When they brought the idea to Kenwood Academy, they found an enthusiastic reception.

“There was no hesitation when I heard they were interested in coming here,” says Kenwood principal Elizabeth Kirby, who drops in on the rehearsal and marvels at her students’ response.

“Their eyes just light up,” she says. “They will never forget that experience.”

At this rehearsal, it’s a little early to tell exactly what kind of work Wilson and company will produce. Though two weeks is a long time for Wilson to devote to such a project, it’s a brief interval in which to invent new material.

“I’m hoping we get to the point where it’s just really fluid,” Wilson says, “where we feel confident enough to color outside of the lines.”

Regardless of what happens, this has been “one of the best experiences of my life,” the singer says. “I really would like to stay in contact with the students and to work with them more, because I’ve grown attached to them.”

It’s worth noting that Wilson and all her colleagues in this enterprise have contributed their time and, says Oyegbemi, put up the seed money themselves. (They’ve also received in-kind support from the University of Chicago’s Rockefeller Memorial Chapel, which is presenting Friday’s concert as a curtain-raiser for Saturday’s Hyde Park Jazz Festival).

“Sometimes you just have to step out there and do it, and, hopefully, support will come,” Wilson says.

“It’s work that has to be done.”