Inspirational Band Brings TC Audience to Its Feet | Teachers College Columbia University

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Inspirational Band Brings TC Audience to Its Feet

New York City schools students pack the Cowin Center to hear Liyana, an exuberant group of young musicians with severe disabilities from Zimbabwe.

Liyana, the unlikely and exuberant group of young musicians from Zimbabwe who overcame their physical disabilities to win the Crossroads Africa Inter-regional Music Festival, brought hundreds of New York City schoolchildren to their feet at TC’s Cowin Center on January 27.

“I am enjoying each and every second of performing here in New York,” said Prudence Mabhena, the band’s lead vocalist. “Of course, it’s cold—but, hey, it’s all nice. Coming to America has been my biggest, biggest dream, and performing on stage in New York at a place like this is just great. And the kids—wow. This is a fantastic place. I love America.”

The Harlem students and their teachers—and a number of TC faculty, staff and students—clapped along to the music during Liyana’s two performances at the Cowin Center, at one point rising to their feet during a raucous, festive song that drew loud cheering from the schoolchildren and big smiles from the performers. The success of the eight self-taught musicians, ranging in age from 17 to 23, is remarkable because in Zimbabwe disability is often associated with witchcraft, and those with disabilities are usually shunned.

At TC, the band members, who make their own instruments, blended a mix of marimbas, African drums, shakers, pianos and vocals to create their signature driving, percussive sound that fans and critics have described as “Afro-fusion.”

“Every time we perform we get a great impression from people,” said Mabhena, who lost her legs when she was 11 and has only modest use of one hand, the result of a rare congenital disorder known as arthrogryposis. “People seem to enjoy our music and whenever I’m on stage, it’s the perfect time for me.”

To broaden the educational impact of the event, TC  faculty have developed companion classroom materials with a focus on global culture, which are being posted on Liyana’s tour Web site ( Teachers will be able to download the materials and use them to develop lesson plans in music and social studies instruction and to train teachers of children with disabilities.

“While children grow from exposure to the band and the music, we think it’s also important to provide teachers with concrete ideas to connect the concert-going experiences with mandated curricula, to optimize deeper learning,” said Harold Abeles, Professor of Music and Co-Director of the Center for Arts Education Research at Teachers College.

Emily Zemke, coordinator of TC’s Office of Community and School Partnerships, said that students from 13 Harlem schools attended the two Liyana performances at the Cowin Center, as well as a school in the Bronx for children with cerebral palsy. OCSP sponsored the Liyana concerts at TC.

“I would love to see more of this kind of thing in the future,” said Zemke, who coordinated the event. “It’s really a question of people knowing that we can do this, and of the schools coming to recognize us as a source of these kinds of opportunities and a venue for bringing the school community in Harlem together.”

The band, which writes its own songs, is on a month-long tour of the United States, having already performed at Stanford University, Disneyland and the Macworld Expo in San Francisco. The tour is co-produced by the John Lennon Educational Tour Bus, a mobile recording studio that provides students the opportunity to make music, and the Jonathan Plutzik and Lesley Goldwasser Family Foundation. The word “liyana” means “it’s raining” in Ndebele, one of the three official languages of Zimbabwe—where, because the country often is plagued by drought, rain represents blessings and good fortune.

One of the two Liyana concerts also featured a performance by Israeli singer-songwriter David Broza, and both shows included a video showing of photography by Boston-based photojournalist Bobby Sager, featuring children from around the world. In addition, an all-girl a cappella group, The Eightnotes, from the Park School in Baltimore, also performed.

The concert will be posted on the Office of School and Community Partnerships Web page at



Published Wednesday, Jan. 28, 2009