Twelve years ago, Marsha Winsyrg staged a small-scale effort to help a small group of Zambian artisans make a profit from their work. While in Africa visiting her daughter, Ms. Winsyrg saw the effects of poverty and AIDS “wrecking the fabric of the whole culture.” Upon her return to the States, she hauled back the handmade crafts to sell on the Island. The proceeds would go back to the struggling artisans.
In the ensuing years, her effort grew to benefit not only those Zambian craftspeople, but a home for disabled children run by Franciscan sisters, located nearby. “I just liked the economic loop of buying from the artisans and helping their families and then sending the profits back to this home for disabled children that is run by Franciscan sisters,” said Ms. Winsyrg last week. The roots of those efforts have recently expanded even further, to include the children of the original artisans, now nearly college-ready and looking to finance an education.
On Thursday night, singers Melanie DeMore and Suesan Stovall will join Ms. Winsyrg at Zambia Is Us, an auction and concert event to benefit the African Artists’ Community Development Project, the title coined by Ms. Winsyrg to encompass the many efforts she juggles overseas. And to precede the event on Tuesday, Ms. DeMore will hold individual singing workshops for children and adults interested in taking part in a choir that will perform in the concert.
“She’s such an incredible presence,” said Ms. Winsyrg of Ms. DeMore. “She just infuses you with music and makes these really beautiful choirs at the drop of a hat.”
Her deep singing voice has been compared to that of Odetta, and she already has a track record for uniting Vineyarders of all ages in song. She’s twice been involved with the All-Island Choral Festival, working with adults and children from both the public and charter schools. When she heard about Ms. Winsyrg’s project to sponsor Zambian artists and children, she was instantly inspired to make a return visit to the Vineyard.
“My main thing as a singer...is to help create community, and that’s what this organization is doing, and really finding things that connect us as opposed to things that separate us,” said Ms. DeMore yesterday.
In her experience, she said that singing always has inspired unity. “I’ve worked with people where I might have people that spoke 15 different languages but I could get them all to sing together,” Ms. DeMore said. “It just creates community in like one sixteenth the amount of time that it takes us to do it any other way. Put a little melody, a little rhythm to things, and people feel connected. It’s an ancient thing. That’s the thing about singing.”
The event Thursday opens with a silent auction at the Grange Hall in West Tisbury at 6 p.m. And while some of the simpler crafts created by the Zambian artisans will be available during the Tuesday singing workshops, Ms. Winsyrg said the silent auction items will be a bit more unique. “It’s going to be very beautiful African items,” she said.
Or in some cases, African-American items. Guests will be invited to bid on two handmade quilts that represent a joint effort between separate groups in Zambia and Martha’s Vineyard. The original panels were made by members of a women’s cooperative in Lusaka, Zambia, then sent over to the Vineyard where a quilting group from the Council on Aging and a group of people from Ms. Winsyrg’s West Tisbury church transformed them into quilts. Other auction items include intricate silver jewelry and handmade baskets.
Ms. Stovall, who divides her time between Oak Bluffs and Los Angeles, will provide the opening act for the concert. She’s mostly known as a visual artist here on the Vineyard, but Ms. Winsyrg said she came highly recommended for her singing voice.
Ms. DeMore will follow, with a solo performance and a joint performance with the Instantaneous Community Choir, singing pieces learned at the Tuesday workshop.
“We’re going to make some beautiful music together,” said Ms. DeMore. “I think we need now more than ever some serious community building.”
Workshops with Ms. DeMore will be held on Tuesday at 2 p.m. for children at the Grange Hall, and 6 p.m. for adults at the Charter School in West Tisbury. The workshops are open to all. For more information, call 508-693-4059.