Imagine a party hosted by a DJ who has spent months developing a playlist designed to get people dancing, delight audiophiles, and bring strangers at the party together in celebration. Now imagine that the party lasts for seven days, the venue is the entire city of Providence, the music is live, and everyone is invited. That’s Sound Session.
Conceived by Donald King, artistic director of the Providence Black Repertory Company, and co-curated by Lynne McCormack, Providence’s director of Art, Culture and Tourism, the sixth annual Sound Session runs from July 5-11, 2009, with a lineup of performers filling over 40 venues in Providence and Pawtucket with music, dancing, and spoken word performances.
Described by McCormack as “a genre-defying music festival based in the African Diaspora,” and increasingly inclusive of bands outside the African and Caribbean traditions, Sound Session has featured jazz greats like Ron Carter and bands on the brink of stardom, like Queen Ifrica, one of the biggest recording artists in Jamaica, and Trombone Shorty, whose fans include Wynton Marsalis and U2.
Sound Session performances take place on multiple stages, in cafes, parks, and bars. On the final night, a parade adapted from the Trinidadian J’Ourvet celebration, in which ex-slaves gathered to sing, dance, and masquerade in celebration of their emancipation, winds through Providence, ending at an outdoor stage at the center of downtown’s Westminster Street.
King was inspired to include this parade after experiencing a Labor Day festival in Brooklyn. “Being exposed to this carnival at 4 a.m., hearing rich Afro-Caribbean voices and patois, seeing great food everywhere, and taking over the streets” was eye-opening, says King, who grew up in Providence and “always felt like there wasn’t enough happening in a mainstream way to recognize the culture and contributions” of the African and Caribbean communities in the city.
Although he is a native son, King often felt marginalized and invisible in the city. He wanted the Sound Session parade to be a time for everyone — regardless of class, education, race, or culture — “to take to the streets and declare one’s self as relevant, powerful, essential, and alive” and to be public ritual that could bring Providence closer to what King calls the “divine promise” of Roger Williams’ vision of the city as a place of true freedom.
The city’s political leadership also embraces this idea. Sound Session “really reflects our neighborhoods and makes neighborhoods feel ownership,” says McCormack, adding that the event reflects Mayor David Cicilline’s strong desire that the city’s residents and families have opportunities to experience arts and culture and take pride in their city.
The city works overtime to make the festival a success, with city employees, the Downtown Improvement District, Department of Public Works, police, traffic, and fire safety teams all collaborating.
On the final night of Sound Session 2008, the party closed at 3 a.m. and there was “a mess like Mardis Gras” along Westminster Street, McCormack said. “By 7 a.m., it was sparkling clean.”
In addition, hundreds of volunteers, ranging widely in age and life experience, staff the events, and businesses provide sponsorships and welcome throngs of customers during the typically slow summer season.
“If the city ever couldn’t put this on, the community would make it happen. That’s how important it is,” says McCormack.
The Sound Session Sound Search competition will award spots on the main stage on Saturday, July 11 to three local bands. Sound Session Sound Search showcases are held at the Black Rep on Thursdays through June 4, 2009.