By Elaine Hegwood Bowen, M.S.J.
“If we as a people could get through three months in a container ship, and we didn’t know where we were going, we can make it through this.” Seems like such a simple statement from a musical North Kenwood couple as they referred to the “this” as the lockdown related to COVID-19. But there was nothing simple about the Middle Passage that forced our ancestors to the Caribbean and the shores of America. And local and state governments’ shelter-at-home orders were a trial for most.
But musicians Yakini Ajanaku, 54, and JeanPaul Coffy, 45, used their God-given gifts to bring a daily celebration to the 4500 block of South Lake Park Avenue—simply to deliver a simple message of unity. The couple has been married for 20 years and has lived on Lake Park Avenue for 17 years. When they and their neighbors were forced to stay home in order to stay healthy, they were inspired by another neighbor to provide a daily 30-minute celebration—for 105 days that ended on July 4 with a grand five-hour event.
Ajanaku and Coffy are working musicians and own a music-based pre-school, as well as offer online music instruction through their company Music Magic Time, which is a one-stop shop for adults and children’s entertainment needs.
On March 22, Coffy says that they were watching what was going on in Italy, with the nightly displays of community when folks were singing from their balconies. “The virus wasn’t rampant here yet, and it was devastating. We saw the sadness, the singing and people using tin cans in quarantine.” After a while, neighbors on the block brought out pots and pans and started making noise, and then another neighbor and then another. Then I brought one drum out, and then the sound system,” Coffy added.
“We thought that this was something good and a way to give the neighbors an uplifting kind of energy,” Ajanaku added. “Since then and all the way up until July 4, we hadn’t missed a day of celebrating essential workers who put their lives on the line for us and our neighbors as a whole. With the added stress of job loss, financial uncertainty, and more, we knew we had to do something.”
“We were celebrating while quarantining, and investing in people, one block at a time,” says Ajanaku. “With music varying from old school Stevie Wonder to Chicago’s own electric House music, there was something for every age to enjoy!”
Providing hope and entertainment amidst the pandemic wasn’t a hard thing for Coffy who is a composer who also plays drums, the guitar and flute. He says music has been a part of his life since he was seven and living in Haiti. Ajanaku is a singer and hosts online music programs for young and old alike. “We had to close the pre-school, but we needed to get the kids moving,” she said. “We wanted to create an avenue for our parents, while providing a sense of continuity and similarity.”
Every day from 5:30 p.m. until 6:00 p.m. Ajanaku and Coffy took to their porch, while neighbors enjoyed the music from their own porches or gathered safely along the sidewalk to enjoy the show. “We asked the neighbors their thoughts and made appropriate tweaks. On Saturdays, we featured children’s music and on Sundays, we played gospel music. Music from around the world was featured on other days,” said Ajanaku.
Coffy wrote two special songs during this time, but there was a slight snag when in April the couple’s speakers blew out. However, a neighbor, Charles Johnson, purchased new speakers and a mixer to keep things rolling. Johnson didn’t bat an eye when he learned about the need for new equipment. “I have a ton of respect for Coffy Music International, and the donation was a small token of appreciation and a way for me and my wife to contribute. Besides, the celebration was bringing us as a community closer during a very uncertain and stressful time.” He added that the daily celebrations provided him and his wife “an emotional and spiritual uplift and an escape from the routine of being closed in.”
The Johnsons weren’t the only ones who had praise for the “Lake Park Fired Up.” Other neighbors enjoyed the celebrations, as well. Charnelle Thomas said: “COVID-19 forced us to make adjustments. But the music has been fun, exciting and rewarding. We have been listening to music from around the world and celebrating Blackness. It has been a positive message while getting to know each other.”
Twenty-six-year-old Naomi biked over from Hyde Park “It is the most alive thing that is available right now. It keeps me going every day. People out here dancing to live music. I wake up in time to come to this.”
Sophia King, 4th Ward Alderman, said: “The music was wonderful, and it is a testament to who we are as a people during the hardest times that we can come together and create positives from a negative situation. It has brought the neighborhood together.”
And to make circumstances just a bit brighter than they were, a mother who was in hospice would ask her daughter to put her near the window so she could hear, Coffy said. “We touched the hearts of Lake Park.”
Ajanaku and Coffy said that their commitment was to use their gifts until the city reopened. “This is what we needed to heal. People were alone, and we are so grateful that we were able to provide some relief for 105 days.”
Johnson summed up the entire experience: “While it is a neighborhood, we discovered a new sense of community.”
For information about Music Magic Time, visit [musicmagictime.com].