By Edmund W. Lewis
For almost three decades, the International Arts Foundation has been fulfilling its mission of bringing cultural treasures to the Crescent City and promoting intercultural exchange between people of African descent living in New Orleans and their African cousins in the Motherland, South America, the Caribbean and the rest of the Diaspora.
Founded in New Orleans in 1987, the Foundation has been actively involved in promoting performance and visual arts in the community. The efforts have included bringing the Reggae Riddims Festival and its successor, the International Arts Festival, to the Crescent City. Those festivals have given local children and residents an opportunity to enjoy the music, dancing and visual creations of artists from Africa, South America and the Caribbean.
Orleans. Smith, a jazz vocalist and guitarist signed to New Orleans-based SAIG Entertainment, opened for the musical, which ran July 10-13 at the Mahalia Jackson Theater of the Performing Arts.
According to the IAF website, the Foundation’s mission is “to use music, education and art to promote cultural diversity and global awareness; implement cultural, civic, educational and economic development programs to benefit the community and increase awareness of the value of culturally diverse communities.”“Our local purpose is to make sure we include people of color in the business of performing arts,” IAF founder, chairman and president Ernest Kelly explained to The Louisiana Weekly in an interview Thursday. “When we first started out with the festival, there may have been one or two bands playing world music or reggae music, but there has been an explosion of artists turning to those forms of music. We had to actually help a lot of groups and businesses to get an identity in terms of how they can be successful in the marketplace.”
The Foundation has brought cultural enrichment to the youth of New Orleans by offering dance and drumming classes, special performances by international artists and collaborations at summer camps in conjunction with the New Orleans Recreation Department to offer young people information about conflict resolution, career goals and creative expression.
“There are a lot of things we have done over the years through the Foundation that are directly related to our international experience,” Kelly said.
Kelly, an accountant by trade, says his experiences with the performing arts go all the way back to his days as an undergrad at Louisiana Tech. He was one of a small group of students charged with the task of bringing entertainment to the north Louisiana campus.
“I was able to learn the business of entertainment through that, all it takes to really make it happen,” Kelly told The Louisiana Weekly. “We’ve been using that to not only do festivals but to do shows around the world including several projects in Jamaica and Africa.
“The Foundation is international — it means something,” he continued. “We actually have programs that are affecting Africa.”
While Black New Orleans’ cultural wealth is the stuff of legends, those cultural riches have not translated into material wealth for local artists. “It doesn’t have to be that way,” Kelly said. “Somebody has been benefiting from our propensity to create culture and make people feel good. Our thing is we should also materially benefit. Part of the Foundation’s mission is to provide avenues and knowledge on how to profit from creative expression.”
Like many New Orleans groups, the IAF was severely impacted by Hurricane Katrina, losing its staff and office to the devastating storm and subsequent levee breaks that flooded 80 percent of the city. After several years of struggling to right its ship in the wake of the storm, the Foundation has bounced back and is again challenging the city’s young people to find ways to make a living by developing their creative talents.
The International Arts Foundation’s latest offering was presented over the weekend with the beginning of its national tour of “Africa Umoja” The Spirit of Togetherness,” a critically acclaimed musical that features 32 South Africans in a production that has been called everything from phenomenal to life-changing.
“Umoja” is also slated to make stops in Atlanta,
To bring “Umoja” to the U.S., the IAF partnered with SAIG Entertainment, where Kelly serves as managing partner of the New Orleans-based jazz label. The company was formed in 2005 and has worked with the IAF to produce a number of festivals and initiatives in Durban, South Africa.
“Africa Umoja: The Spirit of Togetherness” is an exhilarating, award-winning, Broadway-bound South African musical with a cast of 32 performers that has performed for kings, queens, presidents and sold-out audiences worldwide in over 50 countries. Audiences experience life in townships through authentic tribal dancing, joyous gospel singing, explosive drumming, and a funny and absolutely gut-wrenching performance. Besides the musical being an exciting tribute to South Africa and the Zulu heritage through a blend of traditional and contemporary elements, one of the highlights of the show is the tribute to Nelson Mandela which includes the song “Long Road to Freedom” written in honor of Mr. Mandela. It is performed by the cast to visuals of Mandela in jail on Robben Island and his release from Polsmoor Prison in 1990. It also features the music of Hugh Masekela, Miriam Makeba and other South African artists.
Among those in town last week to promote “Umoja” was South African-born jazz guitarist and vocalist Ernie J. Smith, who recently signed with New Orleans-based SAIG Entertainment and plans to release his first U.S. project, Time For Love, this fall.
Although widely known across the African continent, Smith has not yet received similar media exposure and acclaim in the U.S. though that is likely to change very soon. His first five projects have earned the Kwazulu (Durban), South Africa) native numerous awards and honors including several BAMA (African equivalent of U.S. Grammy Awards) and KORA and METRO awards.
Although he isn’t a household name in the U.S. yet, Smith has already worked with music greats like Jonathan Butler and Kirk Whalum.
His new CD will feature collaborations with gospel crooner BeBe Winans and a host of South African artists.
Smith said that his first visit to New Orleans was all he had hoped for, with locals showering him with the city’s legendary warmth and hospitality immediately upon his arrival at Louis Armstrong International Airport.
Smith says he was treated less than hospitably at an airport in the northeastern U.S. before making it to New Orleans. “When I got to the New Orleans airport, strangers and passengers that didn’t even know me were like, ‘How you doing?’” he said. “New Orleans is so warm — it’s the southern hospitality. The first thing that grabbed me before I even got into the music and the food was the people. The people are warm, exciting and beautiful.”
Smith said the people of New Orleans remind him a great deal of his hometown, Kwazulu Natal. “The people are very friendly culturally, just by way of their upbringing,” he said. “They’re taught to be friendly, kind and welcoming. New Orleans reminds me a lot of my home. Africans are very welcoming and very easy to get along with.”
Smith was supposed to perform this spring at Jazz Fest with Donald Harrison and Delfeayo Marsalis but was unable to do so.
The South African vocalist/guitarist looks forward to working with a number of New Orleans artists and is set to produce Bamboula’s next project.
“I’m actually planning to come to New Orleans sometime next year to work with some of the well-known musicians here,” he told The Louisiana Weekly. “I’m trying to explore the whole African-New Orleans sound. I have big plans to do that.”
The Foundation has been working with NORD, city officials and community-based groups to get more of the city’s young people into Mahalia Jackson Theater of the Performing Arts to experience “Umoja.” The producers of the show graciously agreed to allow groups of children and their adult chaperones into the show free of charge Friday and Saturday night. Those who were interested in attending were asked to register with Councilman James Gray’s office by sending an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. The councilman’s office replied to those seeking tickets with an email that gave them access.
“You won’t forget it,” Ernest Kelly said Thursday. “A lot of people’s standard has been ‘The Lion King.’ This is ‘The Lion King’ on steroids. This is the real deal. This is all real Africans, not local actors. …Once you experience it, you will be enlightened and entertained in a culture that helps you to understand some of the stuff that we do. It’s not new to them — these are like your cousins, your long-lost cousins that you didn’t know you had. It’ll bring that kind of feeling to everything.
“We intend to make it a staple,” Kelly added. “I don’t think this is going to be the last time it comes to New Orleans.”
Fans of the International Arts Festival, which has not been held since Katrina devastated the city, plans to bring the global festival back to City Park next year. “Before Katrina, we were the third-oldest festival behind Jazz Fest and the Tomato Fest,” Kelly told the Weekly, “We plan to bring the festival back in a big way.”
Kelly encouraged New Orleans residents to step outside of their comfort zones to support events like the “Umoja” musical. “We must figure out a way to get their support,” he said. “Everybody has to pitch in and help.”
While Kelly is pleased with New Orleans’ reputation among tourists as a world-class city with great food, music, culture and people, he said that it’s important that the city’s residents of color make an effort to expand their minds and view themselves as active members of the global community.
“Everybody wants to come to New Orleans because they know they’re going to have a good time, but we also want them to come because we appreciate what’s going on around us,” he said. “That’s why we’ve got to keep building and growing. Organizations like the International Arts Foundation, NOSACONN (New Orleans-South African Connection) and others need to keep pushing.”
Kelly says one of the International Arts Foundation’s most critical challenges is helping people to understand New Orleans’ importance as a cultural reservoir, a stronghold for African cultural continuity in the Western Hemisphere. “Knowledge is power and once you arm people with knowledge, half the battle is done,” he said. “Whether you understand it or not, New Orleans is one of America’s most African cities and it sounds and feels the way it does and the food tastes the way it does because of a lot of those influences. You can run away from it, but something or someone is always going to lead you back. …Without us, there’s no culture, there’s no New Orleans.”