Nzinga's Daughters Uses Music To Convey Self-Esteem To Children
July 24, 2009
The mikes weren't working,and the rehearsal started late, but members of Nzinga's Daughters were still belting it out at Trinity Church in New Britain two weeks before opening night of their annual summer concert. With two saxophones cuing them, Nzinga's Daughterssoon were filling the church with Earth, Wind and Fire's "September," bending their heads backward and dancing as they sang the "ba de yaaa" of the chorus.
Nzinga's Daughters, a five-member ensemble, has performed in many cities and even in Africa, but their annual concert in Hartford is much anticipated by many. Their growing following has forced the group to seek a bigger stage.
On Saturday, this group of women, semi-professional musicians ranging from 45 to 72 years old, and devoted to promoting positive development of children of color, will perform a free concert titled "Music from the African Diaspora" at 7 p.m. in the Belding Theater at the Bushnell Center for the Peforming Arts. Several jazz, Latin and gospel groups also will perform. This is the group's 12th annual free concert, which is always held in July. Last year's concert attracted more than the Bushnell's Autorino Great Hall could hold, organizers say.
Nzinga's Daughters is sponsored by the Queen Ann Nzinga Center in Plainville, which began as a grass-roots program 20 years ago and recently became a registered nonprofit organization, serving youth in Greater Hartford. Its first goal is to promote youth development through its Nzinga's Watoto program, which uses a model centered on African teaching and the principles of Kwanza to foster self-esteem, character development and growth in the arts for children ranging in age from 5 to 19 years old.
"Most [of our] programs are centered around self-esteem building," center director Dayna Snell says. "Kids are exposed to so much negativity. ... We have to feed them with as much positivity as we can."
The center uses the Nzinga's Daughters performing ensemble to promote multiculturalism and the achievements of Africa and the African diaspora in the community. The ensemble also does a special a capella presentation about the Underground Railroad in local schools, libraries and churches.
Gail Williams, founder and member of Nzinga's Daughters, says all of the performances and songs at the concert will have a positive message, one of the most important missions of the Queen Ann Nzinga Center.
"The music is exciting," she says. "If you listen to the words, it's all very positive, and we have a variety."
Last year's concert, in the 200-seat Autorino Great Hall at the Bushnell, was filled; organizers had to turn away nearly 100 arrivals. Snell vowed that wouldn't happen this year.
"I wouldn't have another concert where I had to turn away guests," she said. "It's a free concert, so having to raise money to be in [a bigger] space was really complicated."
Snell took a big risk and put up $4,500 of her own money so the concert could be held in the Bushnell's 900-seat Belding Theater.
"In this economy, we wanted people to get dressed up go to the Bushnell and see the concert for free," Snell says. "We want to see people who couldn't otherwise go."
Fortunately, the center received grants from both the Greater Hartford Arts Council and the Evelyn Preston Fund to cover the extra cost of the larger theater.
This year's performers include jazz singer Nikki Mathis and percussionist Alvin Carter, the gospel group Voices LLC, Practicing Umoja and Friends, Changes and Bob Snell's Latin All-Star Band, among others. Nzinga's Daughters will finish the show.
The performance is for all ages. The first half of the concert involves active audience participation, designed to keep children interested.
Members of the Queen Ann Nzinga Center's Watoto program also will be involved actively in the show. Two older Watoto vocalists will perform solo while other children will act as stage hands and ushers, Snell says.
"We want to teach kids about producing a production, and understanding what has to happen backstage" she says.
Stella Lewis, a tenor for the 11-member group VOICES LLC, says it is the group's third year performing at the concert and working with Nzinga's Daughters.
"It's just the joy on peoples faces," Lewis says. "Everyone leaves happy."
VOICES will perform several of its own songs. The group's business manager Paula Gripes says the songs are a ministry.
Snell says she hopes the concert will raise awareness of the center, in the hope that they can get more sponsorships to finance more free programs and concerts.
"It's just such an important program like none other," Snell says. "We want to grow, and we want to be in that Belding Theater."
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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