We’d all be better off if we embraced a bit more “kids’ stuff” at New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, presented by Shell.
Try it this year: If you happen to enter by the Grandstand, make the Kids Tent your first stop. You might see a brass band throwdown, a storyteller, lion dancers or a family band. You might learn to flamenco or square dance. You could see stilt walkers or a puppet show. And if you stick around, you’re likely to see the next generation of New Orleans talent.
While the whole family can roam through the fête at the Fair Grounds, the Kids Tent offers a concentrated dose of the essential Jazz Fest, highlighting the heritage and culture of south Louisiana through a mixed-genre showcase of musicians, dancers and performers of all ages.
Since 1979, Karen Konnerth has been helping create the Kids Tent’s mini-fest. Every act that takes the stage over seven days has to be entertaining, but beyond that, Konnerth’s bookings also provide an opportunity for community building and sustainable arts education.
“I feel like it has to be two-way,” Konnerth said. “For so many of the groups that perform, even what they’re paid by the festival is really important for the continuation of their work in the community. There are some fabulous community groups here that teach children. ... It’s really important to me to continue that connection.”
Despite the name, the Kids Tent isn’t just for kids. “Really, I try to have most of (the performers) appeal to everyone,” Konnerth said. “We’re situated right near a gate, so people are coming in, and very often we find people will just be drawn over by the sound of what’s going on in the Kids Tent.”
Pressed for recommendations, Konnerth rattled off more than a dozen acts: the first Friday’s Brass Band Throwdown; the Rising Dragon and Versailles Lion dance teams; storyteller Sylvia Yancy Davis; Lost in the Holler’s square dance (with a caller); family band Pelican 212; Sundays in Congo Square’s traditional drumming and dance; International School of Louisiana’s Circus Arts students; storyteller Grayhawk; musician duo David & Roselyn; Kai Knight’s Silhouette Dance Ensemble; Opera Creole; mime artist Erik McCallister with NOCCA; Young Guardians of the Flame Mardi Gras Indian group; and festival closer Culu Children’s Traditional African Dance Company and Stilt Walkers.
The Kids Tent gets to play it both ways, with interactive adult performers who get children to the stage and with child performers who get their own time in the spotlight.
“We’ve got these lineages of jazz families, and often the youngest ones start on the children’s stage, which is really cool,” said Laura Westbrook, who coordinates the Kids Tent’s craft activities. “They usually open one of the days, and you can get over and see them before heading out to the adult stages. … They are the same entertainment value as watching their older siblings on some of the other stages.”
The Kids Tent is big on equalization, giving its best lineup to please an all-ages crowd. Expect to see children onstage or close to it. At the other tents surrounding the big stage, children can fully interact with various activities and crafts.
The 2016 theme is Earth Day, as Jazz Fest’s particularly early season means opening day falls on April 22.
“Everything we’re doing this year is either directly connected to Earth Day and ecology and recycling,” Westbrook said, “or, like the (hula-)hooping and the circus arts, they’re zero-footprint activities. We’re really focusing on having fewer takeaways and items that will end up on the ground, and more experiences and things that kids will remember.”
Children can make “seed marbles” (known as seed bombs in the Guerilla Gardening guide). They can make their own Martenitsi, woven Bulgarian gifts to herald spring. They can learn about wind power and solar power and backyard habitats. Highlights also include a regional music workshop and a young artists workshop.
Westbrook also hopes to bring adults into the mix.
“One of my primary goals is to bring parents into the activities and not have them be just for children, where the kids walk into the tent and do crafts and the parents kind of visit. … I want it to be a dynamic area where kids do activities with their parents, and then hopefully they go home and do these things together.”