The Sound of Africa

Avant Arts and Jacksonville Arts & Music School (JAMS) are teaming up to give Northeast Florida a taste of African music, arts and culture in celebration of Black History Month.

Those familiar with the local music scene will likely know of Avant. Founder and occasional Folio Weekly contributor Keith Marks has been sharing thoughtful and diverse musical experiences with Jacksonville’s stages and airwaves (through his weekly WJCT radio program) since 2016. But adult music-lovers may be unfamiliar with JAMS, a free after-school arts program.

“Our mission is to empower the creative leaders of tomorrow,” said Kelly Harrell, JAMS’ director of development. “We’re really proud to be a place where students can come to learn and receive a quality arts education, discover new talents through the arts and really find their voice through creative expression.”

The nonprofit officially opened its doors to students in September 2016.

“We started out with a group of six students,” Harrell said, “and at the time, our only programs were poetry and creative writing.”

Currently, 55 students in fourth through eighth grades are involved with JAMS, which offers five arts programs: visual arts, music, dance, film and, more recently, robotics.

“That started over this past summer,” Harrell said of the robotics addition. “Our students do everything from building their own robots to then programming those robots. They’re actually going to be participating in a regional competition for robotics in April.”

JAMS also offers leadership classes for middle-school students and enrichment classes for elementary-school students. The organization even helps its students apply to magnet schools.

In recognition of Black History Month, Avant and JAMS are co-hosting Crocodile River Music at JAMS’ facility, located north of Springfield. The Boston-based ensemble’s mission is to educate and promote African music, and founder, director and performer Zach Combs explains their performances aren’t just informational.

“It’s really participatory and everybody’s welcome,” he said. “A lot of times, we’ll get people up on stage trying out the instruments with us in the right setting, or we’ll get people up in the audience dancing and being a part of it.”

In addition to the concert, Crocodile River Music is bringing its African Arts in Education program to the Episcopal School of Jacksonville. On Friday, members of the band will work with students in hands-on African drumming, dance and STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Math) workshops.

The ensemble presented the same program at several Jacksonville-area schools when Avant brought Crocodile River Music to town last year.

“We showed up for the whole day and did interactive workshops in drumming and dance and brought our collection of artwork,” Combs said. “It was like a museum in the school for a day.”

The band also performed big, all-school assembly concerts for students, putting on an interactive show highlighting African music, certainly, but also presenting the music of regions in Southern Spain, Brazil and Cuba, where African music informed local traditions, forming something new. Those performances, and the show being staged at Episcopal, are similar to what the audience will experience at JAMS this weekend.

“We are all really excited for them [the students] to be able to learn about this genre of music and really increase that connection to African music and hopefully come out inspired by it,” said Harrell.

Those in attendance on Saturday have an opportunity to see visual art created by JAMS students.

“They’re going to be doing some kind of backdrop artwork prior to us getting there,” said Combs, “then we’re going to have a little bit of a chance to work with some of the students before that show and they’re going to integrate [that] into our performance somehow.”

JAMS visual arts teacher Erin Kendrick said she treats her classroom like a studio workshop rather than an elementary school art program; it’s a place where artists-in-training learn by doing.

“I really enjoy opportunities like this that give them a chance to put their work out there in a real space, and not just on the walls in the classroom,” she said.

“We’re really looking forward to this collaboration with Avant,” Harrell said. “It’s going to be a great opportunity for members of the Avant community and the JAMS community to get together and be exposed to this type of music and a general celebration of the arts.”