Somerset Academy Central Miramar students beat drums to a samba beat as Grammy-nominated musician Willie Stewart stood in front of the 50 youngsters, bobbing his head and keeping the tempo on the drums.
The students, ages 13-17, are undergoing 14 weeks of training for Rhythms of Africa/Music Around the World, a two-show event set for Jan. 11 at the Miramar Cultural Center. The venue hosted the inaugural Rhythms of Africa show four years ago.
“Miramar is where we started,” Stewart said. “… We’re giving back to the community.”
Practices are designed like full dress rehearsals, which takes Stewart’s team 90 minutes to set up in the school’s gym.
“The children are really fantastic,” Stewart said. “They’ve learned fast. This will be a show to remember.”
The teens, most of whom didn’t have any prior formal musical training, will play 11 African, Latin and other beats with 20 professional musicians.
“A couple of the students are in the (school) band and some had done dancing, but most hadn’t done music before,” Stewart said.
Somerset senior Imanie Dee, 17, sings in the school’s chorus and signed up for the program to “show people our talent.” She plays the samba-style batucada drum in the show.
“I’ve learned about the different types of drums and the history behind the instruments,” she said.
Sophomore Samuel Nelzy, 16, plays trumpet in the school band but wanted a new experience playing in Rhythms of Africa, where he plays the shaker.
“It helps me with my rhythm,” he said. “I like learning music from around the world.”
Somerset music teacher Meg Jackson called the program “wonderful exposure” for her students.
“To incorporate music in the school day is one thing,” said Lisa Lee Arneaud, Somerset’s community outreach director. “To incorporate what Willie is doing and exposing them to all different cultures is a whole different ball game.”
A former member of Inner Circle, Stewart spent 23 years as a director and member of Third World, which received five Grammy nominations. He’s played with Carlos Santana, Bob Marley and Stevie Wonder and produced a 12-hour concert in Jamaica for Nelson Mandela.
Stewart’s nonprofit Embrace Music Foundation’s signature program is Rhythms of Africa as a way to promote music education in schools.
“It’s a big mistake to remove music from school curriculum,” Stewart said. “Every child should be able to have this dream (of music). Our mission is to make a difference to all South Florida youth.”
Fallan Patterson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.