Band’s pandemic diversion applauded

  • In this Tuesday, June 16, 2020, photo, musician Alix Julien, above, center, encourages 6-year-old Nova Sankara to dance as Alegba Jahyile, right, leads the band Alegba and Friends in a nightly concert at Brooklyn's Prospect Park boathouse in New York. In pre-COVID-19 days, the band performed in local bars and restaurants. But since the pandemic, indoor restaurant dining has been suspended, so the group has taken their music outdoors by the water's edge where they've developed a loyal... Kathy Willens

  • In this Thursday, June 18, 2020, photo, Alegba Jahyile, left, leader of Alegba and Friends, a Haitian roots/jazz band, and saxophonist Mark Kraszewski, second from left, play a set with other musicians in a free nightly concert at Brooklyn's Prospect Park boathouse in New York. From left are Jahyile, Kraszewski, percussionists Alix Julien and John Czolacz, and Lamarre Junior on bass. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens) Kathy Willens

  • In this Tuesday, June 16, 2020, photo, Alegba and Friends band members play for people sitting on the steps behind the Prospect Park boathouse, a 1905 landmark in Brooklyn's Prospect Park in New York. The band plays nightly concerts featuring jazz and Haitian roots music for anyone willing to listen. The group has developed a devoted following of regulars who turn out as many as several times a week to listen to rare live music during the pandemic. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens) Kathy Willens

  • In this Tuesday, June 16, 2020, photo, a woman dances to the music as Alix Julien, right, augments the beat with maracas during a free concert by Alegba and Friends at Brooklyn's Prospect Park boathouse in New York. Before the pandemic, the band had weekly gigs in local bars and restaurants. But since coronavirus, without a music venue to play in, the group has taken their music to the park, where they've developed a devoted following of regular listeners while attracting a larger fan... Kathy Willens

  • In this Thursday, June 18, 2020, photo, members of an impromptu audience thank musician Mark Kraszewski, right, who collects tips as he greets fans who stopped at Brooklyn's Prospect Park boathouse to listen to him perform with Alegba and Friends in one of the group's nightly free concerts in New York. Kraszewski, who normally plays in bars and restaurants, said, "In all of this…performers have been down and-out about not being able to play. But we've found this niche in Prospect Park.... Kathy Willens

  • A young girl dances with her mother to the music of Alegba and Friends, a Haitian jazz and roots band performing nightly free concerts at Prospect Park’s landmark boathouse in New York, June 16. AP PHOTO

  • In this Tuesday, June 16, 2020, photo, musician Alegba Jahyile, foreground right, plays his guitar along with his band, Alegba and Friends, as people listen from the grass adjacent to Brooklyn's Prospect Park boathouse in New York. During the pandemic's early months, Jahyile came to the park just to practice and play music for himself. But when people started clapping and putting money in his guitar case, he realized there was a need for music during a time when so much was shut down.... Kathy Willens

  • In this June 16, 2020 photo, Yasmeen Saleh applauds the music of Alegba and Friends, a Haitian roots and jazz band that performs nightly free concerts for parkgoers at Brooklyn's Prospect Park boathouse in New York. Saleh said she discovered the band while in the park the night before, found the music "beautiful" and returned the next day to hear them after learning the group plays free concerts seven nights a week. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens) Kathy Willens

Published: 6/29/2020 6:56:55 PM

NEW YORK — What started as a way for two musicians to get out of the house during the pandemic has turned into nightly concerts at the boathouse in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park – with fans who expect them to play three to four hours a night, seven nights a week.

The musicians, accustomed to playing their Haitian roots and jazz music in bars and restaurants that had been shuttered or limited to takeout by the lockdown, couldn’t be happier.

“One day I came here with my guitar out of nowhere, to just get some fresh air. And people just started coming over. And then they were like, ‘Thank you!’ And then it took a life on its own,” said Alegba Jahyile, leader of Alegba and Friends.

Jahyile, a Haitian raised in New York who plays guitar, drums and bass, recalled a woman who cried at one concert.

“You made my day,” she told him. “It’s been a terrible week for me and my family. Listening to you, singing, I felt the joy, I found a little bit of serenity, of peace to my day.”

It was then, Jahyile said, that “I decided that every day I would come here.”

Classically trained saxophone player Mark Kraszewski has played with Jahyile for more a year. But Kraszewski, who was busking for tips in Central Park last September, can’t believe the group’s good fortune.

“Initially when we started, it was just us playing. We were just practicing and jamming and having fun with it,” he said. “Every once in a while, we’d end a song and we noticed people were clapping. Alegba quickly realized that the Prospect Park boathouse would be a better spot than the park entrance,” where people had no place to sit.

Prospect Park is Central Park’s lesser-known, outer-borough sister, designed as well by Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux. With so many people out of work, — with no school, no camp and for most, no vacation homes to escape to — the park has become a daily escape. On weekdays, it’s as crowded as Memorial Day or July 4, especially in the early evening when the group performs.

Situated on what’s known as the Lullwater, a winding park waterway, the Beaux-Arts style 1905 boathouse has steps that are good for sitting. It’s also adjacent to a grassy hill where people can bring children and dogs, spread blankets, plop down lounge chairs, and picnic while listening to the music.

“I think everyone just kinds of needs that literal breath of fresh air,” said one fan, Jackie Padilla. “But also just hearing them reminds you that it’s still summertime, and we still can be a community.”

Said Jahyile: “When people come here, they come to have a little good time, to have a picnic with their family, their friends, their lovers. And then the music takes them to another level. So, it becomes a daily thing.”

People ask him, “‘Are you going to be here tonight?’ And I say, ‘Yes. This is your daily rendezvous until the next snowflakes. I will be here.’”

Kraszeswki has his own take: After each performance, as the musicians leave, “people on the steps say, ‘Thank you for doing this. I haven’t heard live music in months.’ Ironically for us, if there were just three people, we would still be doing the same thing.”

New York City is in the second phase of reopening and gatherings are restricted to 10 people or less.

The constant work is good for the band’s music. “We get to keep working on our skills and on our sound while also building an audience, turning our music on to new people,” Kraszewski said. It has become, he said, “our own self-generated concert residency in Prospect Park.”

And the crowds are enthusiastic. “We’ve had really lively concerts that rival where we would have been playing in bars and clubs. Some nights it’s better,” Kraszeswki said.




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