In harmony on common ground

Community centres offer gathering space for residents and visitors alike. Music brings everyone together.

Houston mayor Sylvester Turner learns African dance at S.H.A.P.E.'s annual Pan-African Cultural Festival. PHOTO ASWAD WALKER

Houston mayor Sylvester Turner learns African dance at S.H.A.P.E.'s annual Pan-African Cultural Festival. PHOTO ASWAD WALKER

A community centre is easy to define: A place where people from a particular community can gather for social, educational, or recreational activities. Within that definition, anything is possible—including live music.

The Self-Help for African People through Education Community Center (S.H.A.P.E.) was founded in 1969 during Houston’s civil rights movement, a gathering place in its poor Third Ward neighbourhood. “People would help children walk to school so they could get there safely, provide breakfast for them,” says Shondra Muhammad, S.H.A.P.E.’s executive administrator. “It started off with a free breakfast program. Now we have an elders program, a fruits and vegetables program, math tutorials, art classes.” 

Throughout its 50 years, S.H.A.P.E. has offered consistent support to area residents of all ages, as well as special events including town hall meetings and lectures from the likes of Winnie Mandela, Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, and Danny Glover. Solange released her surprise 2019 visual album When I Get Home at the Center last March. “She and her sister [Beyoncé] grew up in Houston and they practiced singing as children at S.H.A.P.E.,” says Muhammad.

A fresh Side Door venue just in time for the Side Door to SXSW project, they will host Madison McFerrin (daughter of Bobby McFerrin) on March 17. The Center offers a “gymnasium-type space” with a stage, gated backyard, and a community mural featuring famous neighbourhood residents. “People like to come to S.H.A.P.E. because of its historical value in the Third Ward,” says Muhammad, “and they like to see the history that’s within the Center.”

The Emmanuel United Church is also deeply historical, planting roots in in Waterloo, Ontario 170 years ago. As a music venue it’s a Side Door all-star, having hosted 18 shows in the past year with a dozen already in or on the books for 2020. That’s thanks to organizer Neal Moogk-Soulis, who was inspired by a Facebook post from area resident Danny Michel about Side Door.

“I’m always one for trying new things. Our church was exploring different ways of getting people into the building, and not necessarily people in pews on Sundays,” he says. “We’ve been on a mission the past 10 years to be a seven-day-a-week church. We have a drop-in cafe, clothing library, those kinds of things for people who need them. We wanted to reach out to a different community that might not considering themselves a church-going community.”

Cue musicians. In 2019, Emmanuel hosted Ken Whiteley, Alexandra Babiak, Annie Sumi, and Alan Cross, among others. When we speak Moogk-Soulis is preparing for a show from Reuben and the Dark on February 16, and he’s got gigs lined up for every Saturday in March. 

“Our church has been in the community since 1850, and the current building has been there since 1905,” he says. “We have a community legacy here, and we can give artists a temporary home as they pass through from one destination to another. It’s been a journey. Each show you learn something new.”

Quote The Raven performs at Mill Road on September 27, 2019. PHOTO LORIE AOUN

Quote The Raven performs at Mill Road on September 27, 2019. PHOTO LORIE AOUN

Music at Mill Road in Chelsea, Quebec, just outside the Ottawa-Gatineau region, was an inspiration, says Moogk-Soulis. “They’re in a smaller community,” and doing well, he says. “There’s a difference in being in a larger community because there are so many other things going on, and not just music things.” 

The Mill Road space exists inside Chelsea’s Grace United Church, serving an affluent population of 6,000 (expected to grow 200 percent thanks to three in-progress housing developments). “Most churches across Canada don’t have enough bums in seats to keep the lights on,” says concert coordinator Pamela Connolly. “So they have to rent out the rooms. You can’t run a big, 150-year-old building on the basis of what’s passed in the plate one day a week. So we started having shows, creating concerts that bring in a broader community.”

Mill Road has hosted woodpigeon, Hopeful Monster, and Christina Martin, with The Pairs popping by on February 22. “What I truly appreciate is being in touch with musicians and artists from across this country,” says Connolly. In April of 2018 she hosted The Olympic Symphonium from Fredericton, which was experiencing a record flood when the band played Chelsea. “We had breakfast and afterwards they sat around my living room FaceTiming their children,” says Connolly. “It was so up close and personal, sitting with these people—not just musicians, people.”

The shows Connolly puts on have been successful enough to keep the church operational as well as pull support from the Les Collines-de-l'Outaouais municipality. “They said, ‘OK, if it turns out this is doable with participation from us, we’re in. We can’t buy a church cause it’s a church, you can’t spend taxpayers’ money on a sacred space. But we can rent some space, offer grants toward your coordinator and the administrative stuff.”

She adds the municipality produced a master study in the late 1998s that identified the lack of a cultural space with a 80- to 200-person capacity: “We went to them and said, ‘Hello, we’re we’re that space!’” (The building seats 120.) 

All of the centres’ coordinators agree that audience-building can take time, but it’s worth it for what it offers, and what it gives back to their respective communities.

“We’ve slowly been building an audience of regular attendees,” says Moogk-Soulis, noting average attendance is 25 and fluctuates based on the artist and what else is happening in Waterloo. “Try to figure out who else in town is booking shows, and don’t book on the same night,” he advises.

“The more shows you do,” says Connolly, “the more people trust you.”

“S.H.A.P.E. is considered the United Nations of the hood, that’s what people call us,” says Muhammad. “It’s open to so many different subjects, so many different areas. People have different concerns—race-related, religion-related, sexuality-related, but it doesn’t matter because everyone is welcome in this space. It’s funded by the people, it’s not funded by the government—so nothing is going to take the strength out the hands of the people.”


Written by Tara Thorne

Tara Thorne is a writer, editor, and pop culture critic in Halifax