July 24, 2008

Travelers For Peace: Musical Family to Get Prestigious Award, Continue Working for the People of Mali

By Ed Bumgardner, Winston-Salem Journal, N.C.

Jul. 24--The Anderson family of Winston-Salem, led by husband Joseph and wife Gail, exemplify peace and harmony in every sense.

"We have been blessed, as a family, with talents, and we try to share our blessings with the world through our music, which is a mix of traditional African music, drumming, storytelling -- and some of our own songs," said Gail Anderson. "It's hard work, but it is something we enjoy and believe in. It binds us together. We see our purpose as to provide food for the soul, body and spirit. We want to open people's minds to learn more about each other and to celebrate one another in peace.

"Our message is universal."

The musical Andersons are professionally known as The Healing Force. Two of the Andersons' four children -- Sonji Gardner, 34, and Karim, 29 -- are committed members of the group. The group essentially lives on the road -- it has been a full-time occupation since 1990.

The group's dedication to its cause will be rewarded with the prestigious International Bunche Medal, given since 2003 to people of color who have dedicated their lives to the pursuit of finding peaceful solutions to social problems through cultural education and enlightment.

Winston-Salem is the group's base of operations. From here, Healing Force has traveled as far as Mali in West Africa, where the group is working to teach locals to grow their own food, and raising money to build schools

and greenhouses, and to help babies with HIV or orphaned by HIV/AIDS.

In addition to receiving the Bunche Medal, Healing Force is being sanctioned by the Bunche committee as its first Goodwill Ambassador of the Arts. Part of its new duties, in addition to continuing to educate and enlighten audiences around the world with its African-based music, dancing and stories, will be to oversee the creation of "jeli" gardens -- vegetable gardens grown by children to help feed the community.

When Healing Force receives its Bunche Award next Thursday at The Blessings Project on Reynolda Road, it will talk about the jeli gardens -- there is one started on Highland Avenue in Winston-Salem -- and its continuing work to improve conditions in Mali.

Wilda Spalding, who lives in Winston-Salem, has worked as a senior nongovernmental representative for the United Nations since 1971. She was instrumental in the decision to award the group the medal.

"The jeli gardens are so important," she said. "They give children a sense of self-worth and they teach them how to help themselves and others in a positive way. It's just another aspect of The Healing Force. The group has performed in front of international gatherings of entertainers and educators, and they have blown them away. They really exhibit the healing power of the arts.

"They have the gift."

The presentation of the medal to Healing Force will be preceded by benefit concert by the group.

The award is named after Ralph Bunche, who in 1950 became the first black citizen of the United States to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. The Bunche Medal was created to mark the 100th anniversary

of his birth. Previous awardees include Nelson Mandela, a former president of South Africa, apartheid activist and Nobel peace Prize winner; and Paul Rusesabagina, who was instrumental in saving the lives of 1,268 natives of Rwanda during the Rwandan genocide of 1994 (his story was the basis of the film Hotel Rwanda).

"It still seems a little unreal to me," Gail Anderson said. "I mean, come on -- Nelson Mandela? Someone singing and dancing and celebrating our culture, as African-Americans, doesn't seem on a par with what previous winners have accomplished. We've been doing this for 33 years, so maybe we are really getting an award for longevity."

She laughed. "Whatever the reason, we are humbled and honored, and look forward to using this honor to take what we do to the next level."

She said she has been a "musician since birth" and an educator since graduating from the Winston-Salem Teachers College, now Winston-Salem State University. Upon graduation, she moved to New York to teach until her musical ambitions drew her into musical theater.

She met her husband, Joseph, who had been pursuing a career as a singer, while working a residency at the famed Apollo Theatre in an Afrocentric troupe, Listen My Brother. The Andersons also worked in a second troupe, the Afro-American Folkloric Troupe, which set them on the path they now pursue.

"Living in New York at that time, my, it was a special time," Anderson said. "I had grown up during Jim Crow, so to be part of this huge cultural melting pot was amazing to me. I immersed myself into learning about all these different cultures, and about my own.

"We saw the good -- and the bad. But we were part of a talented community of singers, dancers and actors that were all determined to make a nonviolent social statement. It was a time of growth."

The earliest incarnation of The Healing Force came about in New York after a fellow activist, artist and educator encouraged the Andersons to use their natural gifts as singers, dancers and storytellers, combine it what they had learned, and go use it all to teach and lead people who might not otherwise get a chance to learn about the roots of black culture. The group's first show was at a YMCA in Harlem in 1975.

"At that time, we would fix meals and have artwork at our shows," Anderson said. "We saw our mission as saving the community through the arts. We developed a series of programs directed at things that we thought that people needed to know. We traveled the country, did residencies in schools, performed drum clinics at after-school programs, and tried to give kids perspective into other cultures to open their minds and understand that differences in people rather than be afraid of them.

"By doing so, we hoped to tear down stereotypes and replace them with knowledge."


If you go

The Healing Force will receive the International Bunche Medal at 7 p.m. next Thursday at Blessings, 823 Reynolda Road. The group will perform before the medal presentation. The performance is a benefit to raise money to build a school in Zambougou, Mali, West Africa. Admission is a suggested donation of $10. Advance tickets are available at Kindred Spirits, Body & Soul and Golden Flower Tai Chi, all on North Trade Street. For more information, e-mail [email protected] or call 336-682-8397.


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