A meaningful cause and aural aesthetics seamlessly weaved together on the night of Saturday, May 13 when Michael Slajchert and Matt Scharpf took the stage at Molly Malone’s in Forest Park to raise money for We-ActX, an organization that helps Rwandan women and children that were raped and infected with HIV during the 1994 genocide.
With the venue’s calming yellow walls, the room’s inviting arrangement, and the unifying tunes that energized the air, it quickly became apparent that this was both a purposeful and playful benefit.
While the two acoustically-inspired musicians hoped to raise $1,000 dollars that evening, with a suggested $10 donation at the door, the primary purpose of the evening was to inform and inspire the public to act and help the Rwandan women and children that were victims of the vicious crimes against humanity in 1994.
“America dropped the ball in 1994. The government had been aware that 10,000 Rwandans were being killed each day for ten straight days. America knew what was going on, and we chose not to help. So, this benefit is a chance for us to help pick up the pieces,” said Slajchert, a theology teacher at Fenwick and musician for over 30 years.
“What’s unbelievable is that the men who infected these women and children are in prison, yet they receive treatment for the virus.”
Slajchert became aware of the tragedy after reading an article in the Chicago Tribune Magazine written by Dr. Mardge Cohen, director of the Crossroads Funds, which is an organization in Chicago that pools resources and funds for We-ActX.
“I had been teaching my students about the Rwandan genocide and, after reading the article, e-mailed Dr. Cohen and asked if she would come to Fenwick and give a presentation. Dr. Cohen agreed to do so, and she literally knocked the kids out, especially when she said that the AIDS virus was being used as a weapon of mass destruction against the Rwandan women,” said Slajchert.
After the successful and well-attended presentation in the Fenwick community, Slajchert came up with the idea of holding a benefit concert in the public community and invited Scharpf to join the performance. The two musicians, who both have ties with Fenwick (Scharpf taught math at Fenwick and also coached the boys and girls varsity soccer teams) had held similar benefits, but those concerts took place in the Fenwick auditorium.
For this cause, Slajchert and Scharpf wanted to branch out to a wider, more public audience, and Molly Malone’s, 7652 Madison Street, seemed like a perfect fit.
“Molly (owner of Molly Malone’s) has been great to us. She didn’t charge us for the room and has been extremely helpful with this benefit. [Molly Malone’s] is located close to the Fenwick campus and is well-known in the area, so it seemed logical,” said Scharpf, a former member of the successful band Jamestown, a staple in the Chicago music scene in the late 1990s. Slajchert is a member of the band The Blackbirds, along with former Fenwick student Claire Hellige, who joined the duo on stage during the benefit show.
With the venue selected, the only concern was whether a large audience would attend the concert, and the community definitely responded to the call. Comprised of mainly young adults and college students, the audience demographics did not surprise the musicians.
“There seems to be a movement taking place in America’s youth and their increasing knowledge of what is going on outside of the world. There seemed to be a drop-off after the 60s and 70s, but now it is starting to pick up,” observed Slajchert.
Scharpf attributed the revival to the technology boom, specifically the undeniable integration of the Internet into the lives of America’s younger population.
“It’s a lot easier to become aware now. The Internet allows you to find whatever you want. If you want to find it, you can. With the Internet and the inspiration from their parents who grew up in the 60s, kids are beginning to understand more that they are from the wealthiest part of the world. You cannot help but become aware of everyone’s dependences on each other in this day and age. America’s youth are making waves; it not just some rippling.”
Both musicians also praised the public’s maturing perception of which charities and benefits are credible and which will make the most impact.
“The public is becoming more sophisticated in how they donate and which benefits they care about,” admitted Slajchert.
Slajchert and Scharpf agreed that smaller organizations, such as We-ActX, are distinctly valuable in their size in that they reduce the distance between the donor and the cause. “With small organizations like these, you can meet the people that do the work, the people who work with the Rwandan women. You [the donor] are buying the IV bags and the medicine, making it seem more real. You aren’t just writing a check and sending it in, like you would do with larger charity organizations,” remarked Scharpf.
By the time the two singer-songwriters took the stage just after 9 p.m., the audience had grown to a sizeable crowd, including Dr. Cohen, and an enthusiastic buzz charged the room.
Scharpf and Slajchert played together and also took their turns on stage alone, increasing the intimacy that was already evident in the venue. With his silver acoustic guitar aptly named “Peace Machine,” Slajchert chose socially-geared songs that resonated with the night’s cause, such as Bruce Springsteen’s “Philadelphia,” and proved his knowledge of an emotional economy in music.
Scharpf energetically put rhythmic voice to his acoustic guitar on some classic American songs, and he pleased the crowd with some of his most memorable tunes as well, such as Jamestown’s “Roanoke” and his pensive song, “Leaving the Country.”
Midway through the set, Dr. Cohen kindly took the stage and addressed the crowd, informing them about the conditions in Rwanda and thanking the two musicians for trying to increase awareness in the community.
“My experience has been that people in Chicago want to help out when they hear about the circumstances in Rwanda,” Dr. Cohen said off-stage.
“Students are really starting to care about what is going on, and, hopefully, more students will begin to care about how to improve the world rather than how to get cheaper t-shirts and sneakers.”
The highlight of the evening came near the end of the set list when Slajchert and Scharpf shared the stage together for a personal, acoustic rendition of Springsteen’s “Born in the USA.” Though a majority of the crowd had not been born when the American hit dominated radio stations, the audience slowly and softly sang in unison during the chorus, which calls for political movement.
The benefit became an intimate evening within the inviting walls of Molly Malone’s, but its purpose was never silent or whispered; it was undeniably loud. And it was heard.
For more information on We-ActX, please visit www.We-ActX.org and www.crossroadsfund.org. For more information on the musicians, please visit www.blackbirdsmusic.net (Michael Slajchert) and www.mygiftismysong.com (Matt Scharpf).