The 4th annual African Children’s Choir gala was held at City Winery this December 3rd. Hosted by ABC’s Nashville actress Connie Britton, and presided over by Big Kenny of Billboard Country chart topper Big & Rich, the night showcased the African Children’s Choir and raised funds to facilitate their travel costs.
The night began with guests enjoying cocktails and light hors d’oeuvres. Attendees mingled while the New York based rock act Emanuel Gibson and band played an opening set to warm up the crowd. Gibson kicked it off with classic rock style guitar riffs, soulful, rich vocals and a driving energy. The band included Poyraz Aldemir on drums, percussionist LS Bell on congas and Zito Bass on, naturally, the bass. Gibson brought edgy style to the stage and kept the night from starting off stiff and overly formal.
The lights dimmed and MC Connie Britton introduced New York’s longstanding crowd pleaser STOMP. The group consisted of five of the cast members, including Daniel Weiner, who also played as house band drummer, Keith Middleton, John Angeles, Marivaldo Dos Santos, and Patrick Lovejoy. The versatile crew performed sans the iconic trash can lids and push broom props they are known for making music with, and the result was a rhythmically rich, layered performance with only hands and feet as percussive instruments. I only wish they had been given time to perform more than one piece, as the crowd clearly loved the exclusive experience of seeing STOMP up close in an intimate setting.
Marty Thomas followed suit with his pop rock rendition of Michael Jackson’s “Man in the Mirror”. His performance was engaging, and he even persuaded the crowd into joining in on the refrain. Thomas is a Grammy nominated recording artist, with Broadway credits Xanadu, The Secret Garden and Wicked under his belt. His crisp Broadway honed vocal style and technical ability was inspiring and refreshing to hear.
Stephanie J. Block was a special treat to see perform, as I had been blown away by her voice years ago when she played Elphaba in the First National Touring Company’s performance of Wicked. She has starred in Broadway hits such as Anything Goes, 9 To 5: The Musical, and The Pirate Queen, and can currently be seen in the title role of The Mystery of Edwin Drood at Roundabout Theater. Her strong vocal belt and ability to deeply emote continues to make her a distinguished performer.
Despite a star studded lineup, the true stars of the night were the children. The African Children’s Choir performed high energy Christmas themed selections and had the gala crowd on their feet. The kids truly looked to be enjoying the spotlight, and most likely enjoyed staying up past bedtime to get in on the gala action. The choir consists of children ages 7-11 from several African nations. They share their performances with audiences all over the world, and the City Winery attendees seemed thrilled to be a part of the choir’s success.
The live auction rounded off the night, and turned out to be nearly as entertaining as the performances. With prizes such as Chanel watches and a meet and greet with Miss New York 2012 on the line, and Big Kenny as a well intoned auctioneer, the bidding was a dramatic show. A surprising highlight involved an impromptu agreement from Connie Britton to sing a duet with Big Kenny if two bidders matched their price and shared an autographed violin. The gala crowd continued to raise the stakes on bids for a night with Big Kenny at his estate, and that was by far the big draw of the auction.
Big Kenny received the Malaika Award, which awards individuals for outstanding work on behalf of Africa’s children in need. He was recognized for his work in Sudan, and a music video highlighted his time spent in Africa working with the children. I had hoped Big Kenny would perform a final song with the Choir, but his closing speech inspired and ended the night on a note of hope.
According to www.nashvillecountryclub.com, the event raised over $50,000 for the African Children’s Choir.