The World Music Institute has had to cancel at least two months of live performances but its mission is continuing digitally.
Gaby Sappington, executive director of the Brooklyn-based organization, has found herself in a position she never thought she’d be in.
“March and April are our busiest months, we had to cancel 12 shows so far, which has been painful,” says Sappington.
WMI aims to continue to bring cultures together through music by promoting its artists on social media, posting live streams of performers playing from home and creating a Spotify playlist featuring the artists who were scheduled to perform at the lost shows.
The institute, founded in 1985 by Robert and Helene Browning, started out as a concert series at New York’s Alternative Museum designed to promote cross-cultural awareness. The organization, which only has six employees, spotlights artists from across all continents.
It has hosted performances throughout the city, in venues like the Apollo Theater, Kaufman Music Center and the Peter Norton Symphony Space. Seventeen shows were scheduled for the Spring 2019/Summer 2020 season, featuring artists from Guinea, Spain, Kenya, Ireland and more.
Sappington says she gave patrons the option to receive a refund for the canceled performances or to consider their purchased ticket as a donation. With so many people falling on hard times due to the pandemic, most opted to receive refunds, which ranged from $25 to $45.
As of March 23, the organization already had to refund $2,535 and had lost an additional $20,630 in venue deposits and projected revenue.
It’s too soon to tell if the institute will ever be able to recoup the money. Moustapha Fall, director of the Hip-Hop Collective at Cornell University, fears musicians will be performing to half-empty venues for weeks after the lockdown eases.
“This outbreak has made it hard for people to feel safe and be able to see themselves with large groups of people,” he says.
Sappington says her main concern now is the health of the performers and fans.
Natu Camara, a Guinean soul singer, was scheduled to perform at the institute’s Africa Now! concert at the Apollo Music Café in Harlem on April 3.
“I feel sorry for all of us who can’t perform,” says Camara, 38. “People are traveling around the world and cannot do what they want to do, but it is not safe for us or people who have to come to the show.”
Camara, who lives in Harlem, says now that all of her performances are canceled, she worries that she will no longer be able to help support her extended family in Guinea.
“It’s hard to support my family when I can barely support myself,” says Camara, adding that she is spending every penny she has to make it through the crisis.
Camara is finding some comfort in her music and hopes musicians can help soothe their listeners as well. “When I’m feeling heavy or scared, I pick up my guitar, and play, I relieve my stress,” she says. “Play your instrument through social media and spread positivity to others.”