Ten years ago this month, Los Angeles was torn by riots and racial hatred. On the anniversary of the disturbances, April 29, 600 children will join in a concert that community leaders say marks a new sense of harmony in the city.
The riots were sparked by the acquittal of four white police officers who had beaten a black motorist. The acquittals released racial tensions. More than 50 people were killed and at least 2,000 were injured. More than 100 buildings were burned to the ground.
The place where the riots began, South Central Los Angeles, was once mostly African-American. Today it is home to a mix of races. There are immigrants from Mexico and Central America, and many shops are run by Korean-American merchants who live in a nearby district known as Koreatown.
Some of those shops were targeted during the riots, a fact that disturbed African-American and Korean community leaders. Loretta Jones was one of the leaders who decided to build some bridges. "I have worked with a civic society, which is an African-American/Korean project that happened after the civil unrest, which brought business people both from the African-American and the Korean community together where we actually spent time, Saturdays, learning each other's cultures, learning how to get along with each other, learning the differences and valuing the differences as well as valuing the commonalties," she said.
Ten years later, says Ms. Jones, racial relations have improved dramatically. A concert in a Baptist church on the anniversary of the riots will feature children of all races singing together. Korean American Chan Ho Yun is musical director for the event.
"Everyone coming together on the 29 of April, it is a kind of microcosm of Los Angeles being scattered. It was scattered, but 10 years later, we are going to show that this city is unified and we would really like to ignite the fire of unity and harmony," Mr. Yun said.
At 15 sites around the city, in church halls and community centers, small groups of youngsters are practicing for the concert. At the Foshay School in South Central Los Angeles, music teacher Vince Womack is working with some sixth graders.
When Mr. Womack heard about the concert to bring together children from the inner city, he knew it was something his students needed to be part of. "We are talking about our community here. And there are so many things that happen in our world today that we hear about, watch on TV and say, man, I wish there was something that I could do to show how much I want things to be better, and this is an opportunity for me and my students to try and make a difference," he said.
Leilani Murakami, 10, will be part of the choir that will perform April 29. Leilani studies the flute, and wants to take part in the concert because she loves music. "I started playing the flute because my cousins play flute, so it was a great influence on me. That is why I like it, and it is pretty sounding," the girl said.
Leilani's classmate, 11-year-old Demitri Adderley, plays the trumpet. "Music is a good way of expressing myself, because without music the world would be pretty boring," he said.
African-American community leader Loretta Jones says the concert will feature the ethnic groups of this neighborhood. "There is going to be singing, and then there is going to be a dance group from the African-American community, a dance group from the Korean community, and dance group from the Latino community to show that we can have differences, but we all do the same thing," she said.
Music director Chan Ho Yun believes music brings people together in a way that other activities do not. A teacher at the prestigious Colburn School of Performing Arts, he holds a doctorate in music and he spends his spare time teaching music to inner city children. He says if people can harmonize their voices, they have made an important step toward becoming friends.
"Music is an international language that speaks to all of us, and we must, as teachers, civil leaders, adults. We must promote more cultural forms so that our kids can get together and share their thoughts and their love and what is inside them through music," he said. "It does not matter if you speak Chinese, Japanese, Spanish, what have you, as long as we promote more cultural events, the city is going to be literally in the future a "city of angels."
And that, of course, is what "Los Angeles" means in Spanish, the City of Angels. Organizers hope the concert 10 years after the riots will make that name a more fitting description of their city.