A dozen musicians crowded the stage at the North Philly venue Warehouse on Watts on a recent Thursday night. Under glittering disco balls, a circle of dancers swayed to the jazzy rhythms from saxophones, flutes, drums, keys, and guitars firing off in unison. An artist to the side of the stage touched his brush to canvas. Incense swirled in the air, mixing with occasional whiffs of garlic wafting up from a dumpling vendor on the edge of the dance floor.
Momentum was building and the crowd growing as the latest edition of GLBL VLLG — a monthly jam-session-meets-concert where “the audience is the headliner” — drew near.
As the clock struck 9 p.m., two dancers pulled out microphones and instructed everyone to sit. “This is the village,” they called out. “This is the village,” the room repeated back.
The call and response continued for a few rounds as 200 or so people arranged themselves in a seated circle on a hodgepodge of throw rugs. For the next two hours, three mikes circulated around the room, giving those who wished a 60-second opportunity to sing, rap, or harmonize to the ongoing music.
The Philadelphia area’s jam session scene is broad and deep. From Northern Liberties to Newtown, from South Street to Burlington, bars and clubs offer onstage outlets for jazz and bluegrass musicians, drummers, vocalists, guitarists acoustic and electric — even local digeridoo players have a gathering. But GLBL VLLG stands out in its emphasis on the audience, which often numbers in the hundreds.
“The entire jam is based around inclusion, and it’s not just for musicians,” said Raph Jones, one of GLBL VLLG’s three cofounders. “There’s a great culture of positivity ... [but] it’s also one big networking opportunity — a lot of people meet their best friends here, their co-collaborators, their partners for life.”
Held at various venues, each GLBL VLLG jam draws people of all ages and backgrounds, many of whom sit as silent participants on the rug, swaying to the beat. There are young college couples sitting in one another’s laps, and moms whose babies sometimes try to steal the mike as they deliver short bursts of rap lyrics. Occasionally, people stand to bust out free-flowing moves.
"I’ve been to other jams in the city, where they’re really intimate and usually people know each other already, and I’ve just never felt compelled to perform,” says Baseerah Sabreen, a GLBL VLLG participant from West Philadelphia. “But here, I feel fearless. I know if I mess up, people will just encourage me to keep trying. Once we walk into that jam, we become a conglomerate of loving energy and there’s this unparalleled togetherness.”
“The jam is a place for you to be yourself, and immerse yourself in what you’re feeling,” said GLBL VLLG cofounder and CEO Lyonzo Vargas. “If you’re feeling an emotion, feel it. If you want to dance, dance. This is your time to explore your identity.”
Vargas and his partners launched GLBL VLLG — styled as an urban wellness and entertainment company — in December of 2016. While the group curates occasional pop-up events, such as yoga classes and creative writing workshops, the jams are at its core.
“Growing up in the inner city, before I knew what meditation was, music was my wellness,” Vargas said. “GLBL VLLG is a safe space, where people are invited to open up and release what they might be holding inside.”
The sentiment is embraced at the alcohol-free events, with people belting out soulful lyrics and fierce raps that touch on self-love, dealing with depression, and finding purpose in life.
All jams adhere to a loose theme. Recent topics include female empowerment, facing fear, and connecting with African heritage and other roots.
Those who take the mike can sing in any style that they wish, but no covers are allowed. The founders want participants to draw on their own experiences and emotions, whether subconscious or conscious.
Ahead of each jam, two spotlight artists are chosen and then given the opportunity to perform a full song toward the middle of the event. Often, the platform gives rising artists a chance to test out new material.
A massive huddle closes out each night, as all participants stand and entwine their arms around each other’s backs. Together, the circle — or “the village” — pulses, building energy that grows until the end of the concluding song. Participants are then instructed to drop their arms, hold hands, and settle into a brief standing meditation.
“Take this time to visualize where you want your future to manifest,” says a closed-eyed Vargas during one of the meditations.
As for GLBL VLLG’s own future, Vargas plans to launch the concept in other cities across the world.
“I want it to be so that no matter where you can go, you can find a VLLG,” says Vargas. “Wellness goes way beyond the gym or yoga studio — wellness is listening to the right song when you need it or simply making a really good connection with another human being. These jams are designed to help people — especially in the urban community — acknowledge that you don’t have to deal with issues alone.”