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In the Suburbs / "Spirit of Daniel Pearl lives on"

Published 1:01 am, Friday, June 4, 2010
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The late Wall Street Journal reporter, Daniel Pearl, was, above all else, a man of peace and a fine musician. He believed in the power of music to bring people together regardless of their differences, according to his friend Todd Mack, a truly extraordinary musician, bandmate of Pearl's and special person who created FODfest (Friends of Daniel Pearl) in 2005 in his back yard to spread the message of power through music.

Today, FODfest has visited more than 50 communities around the globe, brought together some 750 musicians and reached thousands of people from diverse backgrounds and cultures. Last Sunday, I experienced my first FODfest and the evening brought me goosebumps, laughter, tears and inspiration unlike anything I've been part of in a long time.

I volunteered for FODfest up at Infinity Hall, a wonderful venue in Norfolk, above Winsted -- that's west of the end of Route 8 north, but just over an hour from Fairfield. Before the event, I had done some volunteer publicity for Todd and he expressed the sincerest appreciation, so I was already feeling great. But the concert capped it all.

For three hours we watched a group of 19 musicians, including Todd, and a choir of about seven beautiful voices, rock Infinity Hall with music that had to have reached Daniel Pearl wherever he is. And the most amazing thing about this concert was that none of these musicians, who were volunteers themselves, had ever played or rarely played together. But no one in the audience cared and the blend was pure Heaven.

As each performer sang or played his or her instrument, the rest of the musicians improvised and made each act seamless. They played right along and the audience joined in the FODfest with clapping and foot stomping. Every performer was a superstar, bringing his or her own message of peace and empowerment to the audience.

There were some show stopping moments for me. The first came when Todd Mack's 12-year old daughter Caroline belted out a song done by Miley Cyrus -- "When I Look at You," which brought the house down and melted my wife and me. I've heard plenty of young voices, but nothing came close to the power behind this young woman's sound. Caroline's performance was amazing -- almost haunting -- and everyone could see the depth of feelings through her face as she felt each word. This young lady is going places.

Balance that young talent with the seasoned gospel diva, Wanda Houston, who came to Connecticut via San Diego and Manhattan and leads the Goshen Congregational choir. The woman moves like butter around the stage, magnetizing everyone as she sings. Among her show-stoppers was "Oh Happy Days," which had all of us clapping and yelling for more.

The sound was awesome and the impact was dramatic. Trust me. Wanda Houston's voice reverberated from one end of Infinity Hall to the other and none of us wanted it to stop. This lady rocks!

One of the other memorable parts of the evening was when innovative pianist and music therapist, Jessica Roemischer, brought a young woman onstage to improvise. The young woman expected to sing, but instead Jessica asked her to improvise by playing the white keys of the keyboard while Jessica played background. Jessica had assured us no one ever fails and she was so right. The result was some gorgeous music and the young woman was totally moved by what she had done.

Shannon McMahon brought us the beautiful musical story of a now deceased Vietnam veteran's experiences with a war no one wanted. As part of that generation, I could identify completely and her words touched everyone in the audience.

The absolute best part of FODfest for me was the closing number -- "Willie and the Hand Jive" from my rock and roll roots. With Wanda as our leader, we were all doing the hand jive by the end of that number and after 40-some years, I couldn't believe I had finally gotten it right. I know it sounds silly, but what a moment for a broken down codger like me.

The FODfest concert was one of my most memorable experiences, but I've tried to think beyond the concerts to the real goals of FODfest. Through sponsorships, the funds that are raised are funneled back into local communities through FODfest in the schools. I told Todd I'd be glad to be his ambassador and talk with the musical influences in our Fairfield schools. We have the talent and one of our students has played in a FODfest concert.

These programs are designed for junior high and high school students and, according to Todd, "focus on the community-building-power of music, taking place in local schools or community centers where FODfest concerts also take place."

Two other program goals include international tours that incorporate concerts and touch underserved communities, as well as an Internet component, which offsets the "exploitative use of multimedia and the Internet to propagate hate and violence," Todd pointed out.

As Todd explained, the goal of FODfest is not to make Danny Pearl a martyr. Instead, it is to keep his memory, his musical ability and his legacy alive by "strengthening, empowering and educating communities through the universal language of music."

I was surrounded by the true warmth of a musical community during last Sunday's concert and I was reminded how much music has shaped the meaningful parts of my life. I have become a FODfest fan and want to do all I can to get the messages out. I know this organization will continue to bring something special to each person it touches.

Steven Gaynes can be reached at steven.gaynes@yahoo.com.