By Jan Worth-Nelson
Steel drummers, a mariachi band, twirling dancers, spoken word, African drum and dance, a string quartet — and in the midst of it, a little bit of Bach by a world-renowned cellist and a joyous atmosphere — that was Thursday’s “Flint Voices: Culture, Community and Resilience” showcase at Berston Field House.
A crowd of several hundred had to park up and down side streets off Saginaw and plod through ice and muddy slush on a miserable winter day to get into the iconic field house. Once inside, they packed the famous gym where there were only three rows of chairs provided.
They stood uncomplainingly, dancing, clapping and cheering each act. Unlike many crowds at various Flint events, this one was as diverse as could be: black, white, Latino, Asian, old, young, working people, students, bureaucrats, professors, suits and blue jeans, heels and salt-encrusted boots. Everybody seemed to be smiling.
“It’s unbelievable…it’s amazing, oh my gosh,” Cellist Yo-Yo Ma, the celebrity and star of the show, gushed as one local act followed another. “Do we have talent in Flint or what? WOW.”
He then pulled off his sweater, took up his instrument, and played the first movement of Johann Sebastian Bach’s Cello Suite #1, a piece, he said, which “celebrates renewal and new beginnings.” The crowd applauded and lustily cheered. Then he called back to the stage “BaBa” Collins, from the Kuungana African Drum company, and the two played a kinetic, high-spirited improvised duet.
“We are so excited,” Bryant Nolden, executive director of Berston Field House, said as he circulated among the crowd between acts, receiving many hugs and being photographed with Ma. “We have been extremely transparent about the arts millage,” he added, referring to the estimated $400,000 Berston will be receiving every year for the next ten as part of a vote by Genesee County residents last year. “This is part of it,” he said, smiling broadly and surveying the crowd.
The two-hour event featured The University of Michigan-Flint Jazz Combo, the Kuungana African Drum and Dance Company, Capoeira Dance and Soul, Creative Expressions Dance Studio, UM – Flint spoken word artists David Guster and Lamees Musaid, The Steelheads from Mott Middle College and The Boys and Girls Club of Flint Steel Band, El Ballet Folklorico Estudiantil and Flint Mariachi Band, The Dort Honors String Quartet, and Tapology.
Ma’s visit to Flint was a “Day of Action,” an event sponsored by the University Musical Society of the University Of Michigan, part of a 36-stop worldwide tour by the acclaimed musician.
The Flint visit was something special–at Ma’s request, his itinerary was re-arranged to include a focus on the city when he stopped in Ann Arbor.
Detroit journalist Anna Clark, author of The Poisoned City: Flint’s Water and the American Urban Tragedy, came to Flint specifically to witness the Berston event.”Seeing kids sing and make music with all their hearts–it was a beautiful thing,” Clark said, noting how the young artists beamed as they walked through the supportive, high-fiving crowd after their performances. It was, she said, “purely cheerful.”
“This was through the roof,” said an exuberant Tom Allen, a musician who said he moved to Flint several years ago to take advantage of the city’s affordable housing. “To see somebody from the top of an erudite field playing in the nitty gritty of an American city… it’s beautiful.”‘
Allen said he feels like he’s witnessing the “lively rebuilding” of a down and out place — What’s happening in Flint “has implications for every other Rust Belt city,” he said as a raucous, colorful mariachi band took to the stage.
Gary Fisher, downtown financial planner and radio talk show host said, “Oh my god, this is so amazing. This is one of the coolest cultural events in the history of Flint — I’ve seen 54 years of them and I rank this right at the very top. To bring the community together and to really powerfully express what we’re all about — you can see it right here.”
Joshua, 11, of Grand Blanc, said, “It was really nice to have Yo-Yo Ma here, and especially with the drummer.[BaBa Collins].” His brother, John, 9, who plays the cello himself–said he loved the steel drums and when it ended “I wanted to hear more!”
Lev Hunter was emcee for the event, and Tunde Olaniran, a recording artist, poet and songwriter who grew up in Flint, offered a welcome. Curator for the program performances was community activist and artist Natasha Thomas-Jackson.
Ma’s visit was co-sponsored by the Office of the Chancellor and the University of Michigan–Flint Office of the Provost, the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation, The Hagerman Foundation, the Ruth Mott Foundation, and the Community Foundation of Greater Flint.
Food from the Flint Farmers’ Market was provided by Semi-Sweets, Flour and Eggs, MaMang and Sweet Peaces.
In addition, a video project, “Reclaiming Our Story: Arts, Journalism and Community Resilience,” was presented in an adjoining space by Jiquanda Johnson of FlintBeat and Marjory Raymer of Flintside.
Earlier in the day, Ma met with about 50 community leaders at the Flint Fresh Food Hub to strategize and “to explore how culture can raise all voices in Flint and build a more inclusive and resilient community.”
Banner photo of dancers from El Ballet Folklorico Estudiantil and Flint Mariachi Band by Patsy Isenberg.
EVM Editor Jan Worth-Nelson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.