The Coronavirus Pandemic Has Kept People Apart, But Music Brought These Chicago Neighbors Together

Yakini Ajanaku-Coffy
Yakini Ajanaku-Coffy performs on the front porch of her North Kenwood home on July 2, 2020. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ
Yakini Ajanaku-Coffy
Yakini Ajanaku-Coffy performs on the front porch of her North Kenwood home on July 2, 2020. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ

The Coronavirus Pandemic Has Kept People Apart, But Music Brought These Chicago Neighbors Together

“Come on, Tina! Hey, hey! Take it down low! I love it,” Yakini Ajanaku-Coffy yells to the crowd outside her North Kenwood home.

Ajanaku-Coffy, who on this night complemented her black face mask with an orange headband and hand-carved wood earrings, danced to the beat provided by her husband, Jean-Paul Coffy.

Every evening since March 22, Coffy has played from the couple’s stage: The front porch of their home on South Lake Park Avenue.

This is “Lake Park Fired Up!” And, yes, the exclamation point is required when you experience this nightly event.

The couple perform a wide array of music — including world music, Stevie Wonder covers and even some songs of their own — for neighbors who dance in the street or relax on their front porches with a glass of sangria.

Their primary instruments include Haitian drums, bongos and colorful tambourines.

During a recent performance, a woman in a silver Volvo stopped in front of the Coffy home, rolled down the windows and clapped along to the beat.

But the last scheduled performance of “Lake Park Fired Up!” is Saturday, July 4, from 1 to 6 p.m.

“To us, it was a way to get everyone to do something positive,” said Coffy, wiping sweat from his face after a high-energy, 30 minutes of percussion on a hot and humid summer evening. “The energy [during the quarantine] was really low, it was getting longer and longer, and the music just gave everyone a chance to step out on their porch and connect with each other and dance and move.”

Coffy, 45, said the neighbors started telling him how important the music was to break up their days.

Jean-Paul Coffy
Jean-Paul Coffy performs on the front porch of his North Kenwood home on July 2, 2020. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ

Alisha Dickinson, her fiance and her 2-year-old son, William, live across the street in a statuesque Graystone that’s been converted to condos.

Dickinson, 37, runs a boutique PR firm from their home, and since the stay-at-home order has been chasing her toddler around because daycare is closed. The family moved to the neighborhood just last December.

“This is the way that we’ve met people, just coming out and everyone is out on their porch, because in the wintertime, you’re not outside,” Dickinson said.

When asked if “Lake Park Fired Up!” concerts have made her appreciate the move to the neighborhood, Dickinson’s response was ecstatic: “Oh my God, yes. We don’t want to leave off this street. We’re waiting for a house to go for sale. We love this neighborhood.”

Charles Johnson, who lives on the block with his wife and 2-year-old daughter, said the Coffys have brought the community together — and introduced neighbors to each other.

“I speak to mostly everybody on the block, but I didn’t know their name, didn’t know much about them, they didn’t know much about me,” Johnson said. “Everyone now has come together and knows each other, and even the neighbors, ten houses down, now they bring mixed drinks down.”

“COVID basically put people in their individual spaces across the globe, and sort of broke the connectivity around the globe,” he said. “COVID over here brought everybody closer.”

Yakini Ajanaku-Coffy
Jean-Paul Coffy (left) and his wife, Yakini Ajanaku-Coffy, have put on a concert from their front porch every night since March 22. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ

Johnson, a partner in a construction consulting firm, played an integral part in ensuring the concerts happened nightly. One evening, after becoming accustomed to hearing the music outside their window, the sound suddenly stopped. Johnson soon learned through text messages that the Coffys’ sound system had blown out. The neighbors wanted to start a fundraising campaign to buy them a new one, but Johnson didn’t want to wait.

He purchased a new sound system for the Coffys. “We wanted to give them a quality system that was going to last, be durable, and carry on the party.”

‘You don’t know who you’re reaching’

Ajanaku-Coffy said the pandemic isolation has been especially difficult as an extrovert and “people person.” Before the stay-at-home order, the Coffys ran a music-based preschool out of their home. They have yet to reopen.

However, they still lead their Music Magic program, a music-based interactive educational curriculum for children — but like most things, it’s only virtual. Ajanaku-Coffy said she became depressed because of the physical distance from their students and the inability to see the couple’s 24-year-old daughter in New York and 21-year-old son in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

Ajanaku-Coffy, 54, said that stepping out on the front porch, singing along to her husband’s beats, clapping her drumsticks and calling out the names of the neighbors as they dance has helped through some of the pandemic sadness.

“When I get a chance to reach and touch and develop someone, and I can’t physically touch, but I can say your name, and I can say, ‘I’m thinking of you, you matter,’” Ajanaku-Coffy said.

And she’s not alone. Ajanaku-Coffy said one neighbor in hospice care asked to be put next to the window every night to hear the music. “We just said, ‘Wow, you don’t know who you’re reaching, you don’t know who you’re touching.’”

Charnell Thomas
On a muggy Thursday evening, about 20 neighbors convene in front of the Coffy house and dance in the street. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ

As of now, Saturday marks the end of 100-plus days of music, but neighbor Charnell Thomas said the block may need to come up with a similar communal event if there’s a second-wave of COVID-19.“We had the opportunity to be together and not be so isolated,” Thomas said.

And find a beat, dance, smile and feel those brief, fleeting moments of joy and normalcy.

Carrie Shepherd covers arts and culture at WBEZ.

Correction: A previous version of this story misidentified the person in the last photo as Charnell Thomas.