Kids Against Malaria is an inspiring project by the kids (ages ranging from five to 11) who study music and the arts at the CIAMO school for arts and music in the city of Ouidah in the West African nation of Benin. With the help of their teacher/songwriter Sim D' Souza, school co-founder, Sarah DuPont, and an international super team made up of film maker Jon Fine, Grammy winner and world renowned grande dame Angelique Kidjo, and musicians spanning from Brooklyn to Benin, the children have given us a video and song both important and, frankly, banging to be used in combatting of one the world's great killers, malaria.
In times when headlines and Facebook posts fight to bring new terrors to our attention, each one more novel and apocalyptic than the last, it's easy to ignore the threats that are less "sexy" and more difficult to take an outraged position on. Even if 1,300 children a day are dying from said threat and it's—through prevention and education—entirely preventable. Malaria, a disease spread by female mosquitos infected with the Plasmodium virus, potentially affects 3.2 billion people. It's been with us for so long that it's often overshadowed by the news of the minute, but it's no less deadly for it. Scientists are even debating the ethics of altering the genome of the mosquito to possibly eventually eliminate the disease but while that debate occurs, hundreds of thousands of people, mainly in developing countries, and mainly children, die.
One of the most potent tools used against the contraction and spreading of malaria, especially in places where there just isn't the infrastructure or money for other options (such as adequate sewage systems), is education. "Awareness" is all too often shorthand for "we're not going to do anything, really" but in the case of malaria prevention, awareness and education is absolutely essential. Normalizing the use of netting, purchasing said nets, water safety instruction, and encouraging those who are ill to immediately see a doctor does tremendous work to cutting down infection rates.
The song (and accompanying video, beautifully shot and educational) is a wonder. PSAs have no right to be this entertaining. The message is vital but besides that the song is a jam; the kids are adorable as all heck, the production of both song and video perfect, and the fantastic performances by both the kids and the more established luminaries, make the video eminently re-watchable. Which is exactly the point.
Filmmaker and humanitarian, Sarah DuPont who, with Gigi Hancock (wife of Herbie Hancock), cofounded the International Center of Art and Music at Ouidah (CIAMO), thought of the project initially. Her co-producer is Jon Fine, who, among many other things did the documentary of Bill Withers documentary "Still Bill" that I think about at least once a week.
I asked them both about the song's origins. Jon says, "Sarah had always been intrigued with the idea of producing messaging through the lens of the arts and had engaged the students of CIAMO to create a musical PSA about malaria, still one of the world's deadliest killers of children. The goal was to give a voice to the kids and empower them. About a year ago, Angelique's brother, Dah Kidjo (Director of the CIAMO School), emailed me and Sarah a rough acoustic demo of a song that the school's music teacher Sim D'Souza had written with the students. The song's beautiful melody and the kid's voices immediately captured my attention."
Sarah knew Kidjo as a supporter of the school from the beginning "and (Kidjo) saw potential in using the kids' song to increase awareness around malaria. Angelique is an incredible humanitarian as well as a brilliant artist and she's like royalty in Benin." Jon adds, "Once she heard we had Antibalas and Gangbe Brass on board she was thrilled. She suggested we reach out to (rapper) Logozo too while we were in Benin."
The song sounds so good (maybe my bar for educational songs is low, but I stand by this) that I wanted to know more about the actual recording, secondary as this may be to the message. But is a school for art and music so I figured why not talk about art and music? Jon and Sarah were game. Jon says, "The song was recorded in New York, Brooklyn, and in Cotonou and Ouidah in Benin. After we heard the acoustic version of the song, Martin Perna and I got together and worked on a new arrangement. We brought in Jordan Mclean, Miles Arntzen and Nikhil Yerawadekar from Antibalas to record a rhythm track here in NY. And Angelique and Jean Hebrail recorded the vocals in their studio in Brooklyn."
"We took all of those tracks to Benin expecting to record the children's chorus but were surprised to find the kids from CIAMO had learned all the rhythm section parts so we recorded more bass, drums and rhythm with the Ahouansou Family Band (the kids playing in the beginning of the video). And we recorded the CIAMO kids choir at the CIAMO School in Ouidah (and also shot the video while we were in Benin too).
"We did the final recording at Dah Kidjo's studio in Cotonou with Benin's Gangbe Brass Brass band and Logozo. Logozo came in and wrote his verse (in the local language Fon) in the studio after watching some of the dailies of the video we'd been shooting. His lyrics added information about stagnant water and counterfeit malaria medication."
Sarah adds, "The kids from CIAMO actually just performed the song live in Benin for the local launch of the project!"
Finally, I wanted to know how others could get involved. The awareness is so important locally but there's always more that the watcher, should they have the means, can do. Jon says, "JON: At this point it's an awareness campaign that is targeted to the most vulnerable communities in Benin. With help from UNICEF, the Peace Corps, USAID, and local health agencies in Benin, the song is currently being shared throughout the country via radio, TV, online and soon there will be ringtones distributed locally for free via cell phone providers." And Sarah says, "The goal is to work with our partners to scale up the project to not only create awareness about malaria treatment and prevention across Africa but to again bring attention and support from the rest of the world to be part of the voice to end this crippling disease. Proceeds generated from the song and any donations made via the website "kidsagainstmalaria.org" will go directly to 3 organizations: UN Nothing But Nets Foundation, Harvard T.H. Chan Defeat Malaria Research Initiative and CIAMO School of Art & Music in Ouidah."
In the words of Angélique Kidjo: "I am a great believer in music as being the ultimate weapon to break silence and to move things forward. You hear the joy the children have in singing this song. It is about time we really tackle the eradication of malaria in this world."
Zachary Lipez is a writer based in Brooklyn. Follow him on Twitter.