The blog of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation
By Bill Haugen, VocalEssence
“You’ve got what you need inside of you,” explains WITNESS guest artist Melanie DeMore, modeling the art of body percussion in the middle of a circle of teenaged boys and girls at the Hennepin County Home School. “Just break it down into little pieces.”
Timid and skeptical at first, the students slowly become comfortable trying out the complex rhythmic patterns of claps, snaps, chest slaps, and stomps demonstrated by DeMore. What begins as a cacophony evolves into a chorus. Once they master the pattern, she adds another layer by singing “This Little Light of Mine” over the sounds of their body rhythm. Nothing short of a transformation happened for the students who attended DeMore’s Sound Workshop. The group who entered the room, chaperoned by teachers and security officers, somewhat apathetic at first, left positively buoyant after hearing her message that “music is food,” something soul-nourishing and sustaining with which we all must fill our lives.
Photo by William Hager
Hennepin County Home School is a state-licensed residential treatment center for juveniles who have been committed by the court which might appear to be the seat of a quiet private school on its beautiful 167 rural acres. In reality, it is a home (and school) to young people who are working through rehabilitation and transition programs with the hope of returning to their communities with the skills that will allow them to live happy, safe, and productive lives. This is just one of the 36 WITNESS partner schools in 2014.
Melanie DeMore is a self-described vocal activist based in Oakland, California, joining VocalEssence as the 2014 WITNESS guest artist. DeMore is rarely stationary—she travels the world bringing people together to experience the healing power of music.
The message which so impacted these boys and girls was just as historical as it was motivational. Standing in the center of the circle of students, she introduced the 2014 WITNESS Gullah theme through a rhythm pattern used by the Gullah people, descendants of enslaved Africans who lived on the Sea Islands of South Carolina and Georgia. They lived in isolation, so communal singing and dance were seen as vital to survival, and rhythm was deep in their souls.
“How many times have you felt alone, misunderstood, unheard?” She asks the class. “How often do you use music to express your emotions? Is the music you’re listening to inspiring and encouraging?” She turns slowly in place, watching the look on the students’ faces light up with hope.
Melanie DeMore and Philip Brunelle will lead VocalEssence and the Patrick Henry High School Concert Choir in WITNESS: Stomp & Sing, February 9th, 2014.