Watoto de Afrika reaches out to wider audience
By Chris Conley, firstname.lastname@example.org
Posted June 9, 2009 at midnight
For 22 years, the Watoto de Afrika organization in Memphis has been introducing children to African-American history and culture through dance and music.
Now, with the help of friends, the group has a chance to reach out to a national audience, possibly through such kid-centered outlets as the Disney Channel.
Under the guidance of its director, Donald O'Conner, the group on Monday celebrated the grand opening of its WatotoMemphis Youth Development Center, at 55 S. Main, with performances and a street party.
WatotoMemphis will serve as an umbrella for the various facets of the organization. WatotoMemphis troupe members are ages 4 to 18.
Special guest Dan Zanes, a Grammy-winning contemporary kids' music star, performed with the Watoto group's Funzzies, a Memphis version of the Mouseketeers, at Court Square Monday morning.
Since its founding in 1987, the Watoto program has had an impact on more than 3,000 children, O'Conner says. The mission of the organization is to transform the lives of urban youth.
"Our kids graduate in the top of their class. We've been sending kids to college for 22 years," O'Conner said.
In March 2008, Zanes and O'Conner teamed up for a packed-house performance at the Germantown Performing Arts Centre, and their relationship has flourished.
Zanes, whose videos are shown on the Disney Channel and on "Sesame Street," was impressed by the group's talent and competence.
"What they (Watoto performers) are doing will find a wider audience, and a good home," Zanes said, as he and O'Conner toured the Stax Museum of American Soul Music Monday afternoon.
The New York-based performer plans to act as an advocate of WatotoMemphis with his contacts: "Stay tuned. I'm going to bet on this horse," Zanes said.
The pairing with Zanes inspired O'Conner to develop a musical program for his students called "Welcome to Funnzville," which features Zanes' music.
Kids learn about the Watoto organization mostly through word of mouth, and can get information on the Web at
-- Chris Conley: 529-2595