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'Willie' Stewart's 'Journey Through Music' finds film industry

Published:Sunday | June 29, 2014 | 12:00 AM

William 'Willie' Stewart's mission to uplift, empower, energise and unite youth, families and communities through the creative source called drumming has made its way onto the stage of the film industry.

The former Third World drummer's Embrace Music Foundation in collaboration with Steadyimage Digital Media has unveiled a docu-film titled A Journey Through Music - Rhythms of Africa, which will be among 10 films selected in that category for showing at the renowned Belize International Film Festival, from July 16 to 21.

For Stewart, who was born in Jamaica, but now resides in Florida, the time is ripe to take the "message and what we do globally from the Caribbean to the USA, Europe, South American and Africa. Our youth need our attention and we must answer to that call to make a difference in their lives. Music has the power to make a significant and transformative difference".

A recipient of the 2009 Knight Arts Challenge Grant Award, Stewart speaks with conviction when he says his mission is to restore, preserve, and fortify the impact of music - education, appreciation, and performances in schools and communities - and to amplify its role in the development of children and families.

His latest work highlights the power of music and its effect in encouraging children to recognise, channel, and direct their creativity through discipline and passion.

"The film celebrates the movement of ancient rhythms evolved from vibrant cultures, carried from Africa to the Caribbean and the Americas, climaxing with an extraordinary performance in concert alongside professional musicians and vocalists," said Stewart, who has always expressed concern about the music and the arts disappearing from school curricula, limiting opportunities for young people to study and participate.

Music in schools

Collaborator on the project, producer and director, Adrian Allen, said the Journey Through Music documentary was done because there was a need to engage in the conversation of bringing music and the arts back into schools globally.

"There was no message being promoted, and we thought the mission and task that Willie had before him was the best story to be told. We recorded Willie and the journey of the children from different schools for two and a half years."

His partners on the project are Vivienne Chance (a Jamaican producer) and Jude Charles.

For Willie Stewart, it has been a literal battle, ensuring drumming lives on, and this film is among the rewards he has received for not giving up.

In 2009, he was the recipient of the Knight Arts Challenge Grant Award; in 2012, an honouree of the ICABA (Identify Connect and Activate the Black Accomplished) South Florida 100 Most Accomplished Caribbean Americans, and during Jamaica's 50th year of Independence, he received the Jamaica Diaspora Honour from The Consulate General of Jamaica, Miami.

The citation read: "In recognition of your valuable contribution to our community and for your efforts in enhancing the national development goals of Jamaica in commemoration of Jamaica's 50th Anniversary of Independence."

Willie Stewart is humbled by these awards, but even more humbling for the master drummer is his ability to use the music to break down barriers to communication, encourage unity, promote camaraderie and relieve stress.

In 2003, when he formed his first company, Solutions in Music Corporation, he offered motivational, interactive, team-building workshops for organisations such as Bristol Myers Squibb, American Express, Western Union, McGraw and Hill, Johnson & Johnson, Pearson and City of Miramar, among other corporate clients.

When he introduced 'The Journey of the Drums' to elementary, middle and high-school students in the city of Weston in Florida, he used drums from the different regions in Africa and entertained with music from mento to present day.

Today, he looks back and describes it as, "a great breakthrough. The kids responded with enthusiasm, energy and joy, as they related and danced to the infectious music of mento, ska, reggae and dancehall. All my programmes matched the Sunshine State Curriculum standard, and I am also credentialed and endorsed by Broward Cultural Affairs as a cultural educational artist in their directory."

His work has also targeted at-risk musical novices aged 13-17 years, and he feels this would work well in Jamaica.

"I think that Rhythms of Africa - Music Around the World would be the perfect programme for Jamaica for many reasons. It shows a musical history of our ancestors from the motherland of Africa, and connects the dots to the Caribbean, Brazil and America," he said, adding that it gives the youth a cultural experience to which they can easily relate and understand.

"It gives them a chance to express themselves through music and rhythms, and our Jamaican youth have that natural rhythm. It also gives them a chance to work as part of a team while learning leadership qualities."

Willie Stewart is convinced that the day will come when he is able to expose the youngsters in Jamaica to the wonderful world of music, uplifting and connecting mind, body and soul, giving them a chance to interact with professional musicians and experience a full musical production.

"This programme was designed to create positive behavioral and cognitive impact through the youths' exposure to learning and making music, increasing their problem-solving skills, focus, self-control and leadership abilities."

He wants to come to Jamaica to work with the communities in making a difference to help children rewrite their own stories through the transformational power of music.