It started with some pots and pans.
Kenwood resident Ricky Jackson, aka the father of Lake Park Avenue, stood on his front porch on March 21, 2020, a few days into the state’s new stay-at-home order, and banged his pots and pans into a melodic celebration of life/call for community.
Some neighbors trickled out and joined him. Some brought makeshift instruments of their own.
“The next night one of the neighbors said, ‘Let’s call the musicians on the block,’” Yakini Ajanaku-Coffy said.
She and her husband, Jean-Paul Coffy, are the musicians.
Jean-Paul, born and raised in Haiti, used to play in a band called Boukman Exsperyans that traveled the world performing cultural exchange concerts. Yakini, born and raised in Chicago by parents who immigrated from Haiti, worked at the Haitian consulate in Chicago and met her eventual husband when his band performed in Chicago.
Two decades and two grown kids later they run Music Magic Time, a music-based preschool out of their Kenwood home.
That neighbor’s nudge inspired Jean-Paul and Yakini to start hosting nightly concerts from their front porch. For 105 days, starting on March 22, 2020, they stood outside — in April snow, in summer heat — and performed on drums, with tambourines, in song.
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They played Stevie Wonder and Nigerian folk songs and Saudi Arabian pop music. They played music from their native Haiti.
“It became infectious,” Yakini said.
The neighbors would gather and dance and sing along. Kids played hopscotch in time with the music. One neighbor, too sick to venture outside, asked to be moved to the window each evening to watch and listen, Yakini said.
“That’s our No. 1 fan,” she said.
Soon, people started coming from blocks away. Eventually, they started showing up from other neighborhoods. The concerts became an official destination with an official name: “Lake Park Fired Up!”
“People would say to us, ‘I wish we could do this on our block,’” Jean-Paul said. “I was telling them, ‘Come here. For that moment, we’ll be together.’ And they did. Every day. Just to have a place to belong.”
On Saturday, the couple is hosting an anniversary concert — one year and 5 days after that initial front porch performance. From 2-4 p.m., anyone who would like to join is welcome on the 4500 block of Lake Park Avenue. Masks and social distancing are encouraged. (If it rains, they’ll move the concert to 2 p.m. Sunday.)
“It’s a celebration of life,” Yakini said. “Better days are ahead if we can hang on. We’re above ground. We’re breathing. I can’t touch you individually, but I can sure tell you that you matter.”
Something happened when they were hosting the concerts. Something hung in the air, even when music wasn’t filling it. Even when it was early in the morning or late at night.
“We used to just see each other in passing — rushing to go to work, in and out of the garage” Jean-Paul said. “This connected us together in a way that was like never before. We know each other’s names. We didn’t before. It really did something extraordinary. Music has that power.”
“Now we share meals; we talk about menus,” Yakini said. “There’s a sense of unity.”
As they planned the anniversary concert, the couple sent their neighbors a note and asked them to share one word that resonated with them during the past year. They heard “gratitude,” “therapy,” “unity.”
They had the words made into individual signs, which they’re using to decorate the block for Saturday’s concert.
Yakini said they’ll also pay tribute on Saturday to the people who died from COVID-19.
“It’s really a healing time,” Jean-Paul said.
The couple hopes to continue hosting occasional concerts — maybe not nightly — into the spring and summer. They’d also like to see other blocks follow their lead.
“We want to be a model to teach other people,” Yakini said. “How you change is one house, one block, one community at a time. Let’s just start with what we have. We have each other, and we matter.”
What a gift and a guide they are to this city that so richly deserves both.
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