Mercus Manley, Investigative Reporter….

Former Third World percussionist Willie Stewart still active, dedicated to embracing and giving back to his community…..  WSEMF4DS

It’s no secret that the arts have been squeezed out of American public schools, sacrificed to budget cuts and shifts in priority to “core” subjects such as math and reading.  Many schools have eliminated arts education completely —  no music, no painting, no drama — replaced by classes dedicated to improving students’ test scores in basic academic subjects. The irony, if not tragedy, is that one study after another documents how students who have arts experiences actually do better academically than those who don’t.  Studying the arts improves students’ academic performance, as well as provides measurable behavior and effective benefits. 

These considerations underpinned the creation of the non-profit organization, Embrace Music Foundation (EMF), in 2010.  Its mission is “To restore, preserve, and fortify the impact of music — education, appreciation, and performance — in schools and communities, and to amplify its role in the development of children and families.”  The foundation developed percussion-based programs that complement school curricula, not only by learning and playing music, but also by studying the African roots of percussion instruments and their journey to the New World; the culture and language of their nations of origin; the math that underlies rhythm and beat, and much more.Embrace Music Fdn

EMF’s flagship program, Rhythms of Africa / Music Around the World, brings all these elements together in a short, intensive series of workshops for 30 – 40 teens, culminating in a public performance on stage accompanied by professional musicians.  A musical journey, Rhythms of Africa describes the movement of ancient rhythms sprung from the souls of vibrant cultures and carried by hand and heart from Africa to the Caribbean and the Americas.  It is truly the rhythms of the Diaspora, seasoned by time, cultivated and rooted by generations of pilgrims presented with pride, joy, and the spirit of sharing.  

Guiding this journey is “Reggae Ambassador” Willie Stewart, whose own musical odyssey includes 23 years as percussionist with the internationally renowned Jamaican band “Third World”, instruction as teacher and facilitator in London, now residing in Broward County, where his workshops, performances, and remarkable percussion sessions with children unite musicians, families, and entire communities in the celebration of music.  A co-founder of Embrace Music Foundation, he serves EMF as chair.

“Our approach puts percussion instruments in the hands of students from Day One,” shares Mr. Stewart, “they learn what beats and rhythms are by playing them as well as hearing their definition and role in music.  They explore a map of Africa and the region where the instrument was created, learn its use as a means of communication and ritual tool, then play it to recreate the culture and circumstances of our African ancestors.  By the time we’ve rhythmically escorted them through the centuries, acknowledging the Diaspora accompanied by these same beats and rhythms, and brought them to the New World with our jazz, blues, reggae, and hip hop, they not only understand the way music developed, they can play it.  And they play it together, as a unit.”

The most recent performance was on Sunday, October 27, 2013 at Bailey Auditorium in Broward County.  35 students from Lauderhill Lakes Middle School were featured, all participants in a program called HANDY (“Helping Abused Neglected Disadvantaged Youth”).  Their program included 7 workshop sessions, 2½ hours each, before final rehearsal and their debut with international professional musicians. While everybody agrees it’s a terrific program — and all four performances to date have played to capacity crowds, including over 1,500 people at the Adrienne Arsht Center in Miami — the ongoing challenge is sustainability.  Grants from public and private sources have kept the program going from project to project, but the organization itself  is underfunded.  Efforts to recruit sponsors and ongoing support continue.

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