Manny James and the Soulclectic Experience. Screenshots from YouTube.
As the bass drum and hi-hat kept the tempo, Manny James and the Soulclectic Experience filled a recording studio with a bold R&B feel. The improvisation of the background instruments created layers of sound. James’ vocal riffs crawled into every empty space. The liveliness in each note might have made an in-person audience yearn for more.
Over a screen, James did his best to make his performance of his latest single, “1987,” feel intimate.
James and the Soulclectic Experience kicked off the Hill Neighborhood Festival, part of this year’s International Festival of Arts & Ideas. For over two hours, the festival featured artists performing in their own studios and live from the Hill Museum of Arts, with special guests from the neighborhood and from the wider New Haven community. After premiering in late May, it has remained online.
Co-Chairs Martha Dye, Brian Sams and Howard Boyd created the festival lineup to bring the community together, they said during the premiere of the video. They interwove rich neighborhood history and several hours of live streamed and prerecorded music.
“I thought it was a great idea to bring the arts, the talent into the community,” Boyd said.
James, who grew up in the Hill and now runs Church Street South Entertainment, became one of the neighborhood festival’s highlights. In addition to performing his original work, he went on to cover R&B classics including the Gap Band’s “Outstanding,” which boomed through the speakers of those listening at home. The bass and drums followed James’ lead while the keyboard and guitar kept the musical conversation going.
James ended his set with a rendition of Maze featuring Frankie Beverly’s “Before I Let Go,” with soulful yet gentle energy. The prominent sound of the cymbals matched the flow of the song, giving life to each sound.
It turned out he was just warming listeners up. Charisa the ViolinDiva started with a solo, swiftly rocking her fingers from her wrist. It made the instrument sing in a vibrato. The rasp of her voice swelled almost to a yell, channeling Aretha Franklin as she belted from her diaphragm. Behind her, drummer James "Biscuit" Rouse cranked out an upbeat tempo keeping the song in a steady direction.
She transitioned back to violin, performing a tune that will debut on her project titled Anywhere But Here. Her clear tone and the space between concise and lengthy strokes made the piece feel dramatic. She ended her set on the piano, where light taps on the keys concluded the song.
This year, Arts & Ideas chose to keep the neighborhood festival virtual because staff did not know whether gathering would be safe or allowed by the summer. Shelley Quiala, executive director at the festival, kept a close eye on regulations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and Gov. Ned Lamont. She said the City of New Haven let the committee know it wouldn’t know if the festival would be virtual or in person until the middle of March.
“We made a conscious decision with them in concert with our neighborhood partners that doing this year virtual made sense,” she said. “I fully plan and hope to be in person next year.”
After moving to New Haven almost a year ago, Quiala said she worried that developing a connection with new people would be a challenge. Because the pandemic pushed last year’s festival to a virtual setting, she was initially very isolated. Once she found out Arts & Ideas had a neighborhood festival program, she jumped at the opportunity to meet people she wouldn't have been able to meet otherwise. This year, Arts & Ideas celebrated the Hill, West Rock/West Hills, Dixwell, and Newhallville.
“I love connecting with my neighbors,” she said. “Once we’re back up in person, I’m hopeful we can maybe expand the number of neighborhoods we are able to partner with.”
“It’s not just a festival thing, it would not be possible without leadership from those neighborhoods,” she added.
Guest speaker Ann Boyd remembered growing up in the Hill after moving to New Haven with her family as a child. Originally, her parents moved to New Haven from South Carolina in the 1950s in search of better employment. As a child, she loved the Hill. School, church, and Grace New Haven Hospital (now Yale New Haven Hospital) were all within walking distance. Her family moved from York Street to Columbus Avenue, but stayed in the neighborhood.
While she moved away from the neighborhood temporarily, she returned when she was raising a family of her own. Through her children, she became a fierce advocate for public education, federal benefits and housing assistance. She led a group called The Hill Parents Association, which became active in the American Independent Movement. Through her friendship with John Huggins, she later helped bring the Black Panther Party to New Haven.
“The Hill is my home,” she said. "I raised nine children there. The Hill is a beautiful place. There’s a lot of history in the Hill."
Musicians kept the mood upbeat. New Haven native and host of the Hill Museum of Arts Showcase Bobby XL, introduced the local talents that performed a mix of hip hop and rap, along with R&B soul. There were performances from DJ Mantech mixing beats on his turntables, a harmonic duet from Donny Wright and Malay and a special guest performance from influential rapper Big Daddy Kane performing his 1988 hit song Ain’t No Half-Steppin’.
Boyd said that going forward, he would like to see more involvement from the Hill’s kaleidoscopic community, including its large Latinx population.
“It’s very important to me and I believe to the community to see that everybody’s involved,” he said.
Emani Servance is a junior at High School in the Community. This piece comes to the Arts Paper through the Spring 2021 cohort of the Youth Arts Journalism Initiative (YAJI), a program of the Arts Council of Greater New Haven. This year, YAJI has gone virtual due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Read more about the program here or by checking out the "YAJI" tag.