A woman in layers of white fabric raises the red and blue flag of Haiti. Arms outstretched, she slowly clears a semicircle on the floor of Goodrich. Chattering students fall silent as she collapses in the flag-carved space, and then rises and starts to dance in slow, whole-body jolts, like a marionette pulled by the beat of the conga drum. The drum gets softer – faster – and wraps her into the changing rhythm, turning slow movement into leaps and jumps, her limbs pumping air. A man dressed in a black suit and a cane slips into her space. Circling each other, their bodies challenge and converse, her white skirts flaring and his cane whirling, like birds locked in dance.
Students around me seemed enchanted but confused: Wasn’t AZAKA here to play music? Never fear: Suddenly, the rest of the musicians jumped onstage and filled the building with drums, maracas, sleigh bells, claves, cowbells and guitars. Within a few moments, everyone around me was moving. Timid arm shakes and shoulder shrugs quickly evolved into twirling hands and circling hips. I stood awkwardly in the middle of the crowd, holding an oversized notebook. Halfway through the first song, though, I had two epiphanies: First, I looked like an idiot holding this notebook, and second, the music was fantastic and I wanted to dance!
Putting the notebook aside, I joined the crowd of at least 80 students, which also had a few faculty and community members scattered throughout. I had never been to another event at Williams in which people danced so freely, without awkward hesitation or muttered excuses about two left feet or unanimous agreement that mashing against one another constitutes dancing. At the AZAKA concert, arms stretched, hips bumped and feet left the ground in dance moves never seen outside YouTube parodies of music videos. The great thing was that nobody seemed to feel self-conscious about such dancing. AZAKA’s fast-paced reggae inspired acrobatics, the Electric Slide and a Conga line. In a dance circle, I saw people I know from myriad contexts come together and show off their slick moves. Props to the Williams community for shedding insecurity and letting loose, but even more props to AZAKA for prompting this open joy.
Even after the drumbeat and strumming had softened, the crowd continued to dance. My favorite song began with soft percussion. As I watched hands cup and slap, three tall tan conga drums reminded me of the djembe, a drum made in Ghana. Haitian music comes from a medley of African musical traditions, and I could hear similarities in the drumbeats. Throughout this song, the beautiful voice of the lead singer, simultaneously smooth and throaty, acted as a motif that glued together instrumental solos, all over a web of different pitches and beats of drumming. When he sang, I shivered; he was singing through the roof, to the sky.
After the concert ended and students left to finish up Thursday night homework, I talked with Harry Ayien Sanon, a musician in AZAKA. He told me that AZAKA means “Ministry of Agriculture” and that its choice of name reflected deep societal concern about food. The members of the band, Haitians who live in New York City and Massachusetts, came together after the earthquake and have now played several concerts together. They hope to raise money for the Haitian Community Development Project, a non-profit organization that reaches beyond donating money and supplies to Haiti and instead trains people about water purification and recycling. “When you help people, you have to educate them and make them work in benefit of other people,” he said. “You can’t just say here is water, here is food, let’s go home.”
According to Sanon, AZAKA hopes help Haiti as part of an ongoing sustainable process. “NGOs worldwide donate millions of dollars to help, but we still have poor people,” Sanon said. “These organizations have their own agenda, and so little of the money goes to poor people. What I tried to do is raise money to do something on the ground in Haiti.” He noted that water and healthcare were his top priorities.
But, first and foremost, AZAKA makes music. “We want to play beautiful music, make people enjoy themselves – this is my happiness,” he said. “With music, we all share in something.” And walking out of Goodrich, what I felt most were not my ringing ears but, rather, this sense of solidarity, of sharing joy and commitment with both the band and the Williams community.
The $2000 band fee for the concert, which went to the Haitian Community Development Project, was sponsored by Campus Life, College Council, VISTA, the Lehman Council and Spencer and Wood neighborhoods. In addition, $250 collected during the concert was donated to Partners in Health. The concert was organized by Isabel Griffin-Smith ’13.