KENWOOD — Every evening since the early days of the coronavirus pandemic in Chicago, a married couple has brought music, rhythm and boundless energy to their Lake Park Avenue block.
After 105 straight days — from March’s “coat weather” to the sun and sweat of July — Jean-Paul Coffy and Yakini Ajanaku ended their “Lake Park Fired Up” sessions this weekend. A final regular performance Friday was followed by a daylong finale and celebration Saturday.
The couple vowed to perform daily through the most intense period of the pandemic, seeing music as an uplifting and safe way to unite their block. They view their effort as a success, as neighbors who previously didn’t know each others’ names will now stop to chat, they said.
“In sleet and snow and rain and cold, our neighbors came out and my husband didn’t flinch,” Ajanaku said. “He kept putting those drums out and those instruments, and [the sessions] became a healing serum from COVID-19.”
Saturdays were dedicated to children and families. Along with virtual Music Magic Time courses, it gave the educators a chance to continue their outreach to kids after the pandemic closed their music-themed preschool.
Sundays were gospel-themed, bringing praise and worship to “neighbors who lived alone and mommas who couldn’t go to Sunday church.”
Coffy, a composer from Haiti, made it a point on every other day to perform styles from around the world on his percussion instruments.
“Education happens from language, music and dance from around the world,” Coffy said. “As music always does, it heals and connects.”
Percussion and rhythm is universal, so the success of Lake Park Fired Up is no surprise, said Ricky Jackson, who lives down the block. He first inspired the Coffys to help the neighborhood cope with coronavirus through music.
Taking a cue from Italians who made music and noise out of their windows while under lockdown, Jackson created rhythms on his porch days before the couple started their performances.
He is hesitant to take too much credit, saying Coffy and Ajanaku took his idea and expanded it beyond his wildest expectations.
“I came out here one day, banging on a skillet with a wooden spoon,” Jackson said. “I brought to them a house, and these people built a city.”
To continue the connective spirit of the performances, Jackson and other neighbors would like to hold a block party and other community events in the coming months.
“Everybody’s looking for something that’s bigger than themselves to hold on to,” Jackson said. “It’s really been a gathering of this street, of this neighborhood. People I [used to] just say ‘hi’ to, now I know their name.”
Linda Thomas and her daughter Dora Hopkins live next door to the Coffys. As they have for months, they came out onto their front lawn Friday to take in the music.
As part of Friday’s program, Coffy and Ajanaku played “Exceptional” from the TV show A.N.T. Farm at Hopkins’ request. The teen regularly recorded Lake Park Fired Up sessions, before returning to boarding school this weekend after a months-long coronavirus hiatus.
“I loved it; I’ve been out here almost every time that they’ve done it,” Hopkins said. “I feel truly blessed to live next door.”
Lake Park Fired Up was “just the thing” to get neighbors out of the house during the coronavirus lockdown, Thomas said. When recent graduates couldn’t attend in-person ceremonies due to the virus, a special performance and parade was held in their honor.
“We not only sang with rejoicing and dancing, but we also had the songs that remembered; the songs of rebellion; the songs of, ‘We are going to keep on keeping on,'” Thomas said. “I am sad to see it go, but at the same time, a conclusion brings a commencement, a new beginning.”
Though they said some neighbors have urged the couple to continue, Coffy and Ajanaku have always planned to shut the performances down once Chicago reopened and life returned to some semblance of normal.
“We didn’t want to become a nuisance when people need it to be quiet,” Coffy said. “I think we need to close it up, just because we see that people are able to go out and are not all cooped up anymore.”
Even as they end their daily sessions, the couple hopes their performances can serve as a “model” for other neighborhoods as they continue to navigate these difficult times.
“We have lot of seniors on our block, single people; they haven’t been able to hug or touch anybody,” Ajanaku said. “We wanted to say, ‘You are cared for and you matter.’ … It has really been a profound experience, connecting one house at a time, one block at a time.”
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