When visiting a juvenile detention center to perform a concert with his band Suénalo, Chad Bernstein and the rest of the group tried to lecture the kids about how music could lead them on a better path. There was only one problem: No one was paying attention. That is, until Suénalo began playing.
"But as soon as we took out our instruments and started playing, the kids got engaged and involved," Bernstein remembers. "They got into the moment. It was beautiful to see the power of music as an escape for whatever they were going through."
Not long after that experience, Bernstein decided to start Guitars Over Guns in 2008, a nonprofit mentorship program pairing music professionals with underprivileged kids. Serving schools such as Citrus Grove and North Miami middle schools, Guitars Over Guns brings in local musicians — such as Spam Allstars trumpeter Ted Zimmerman and ArtOfficial MC Danny Villamil — to share their expertise with students in the hopes it might give them motivation otherwise lacking in their lives.
To help raise money to buy instruments for kids as well as expand the program to other schools, Guitars Over Guns will put on a benefit concert this Saturday at the Fillmore. All of the night's proceeds will go to the organization. There will be a silent auction with signed memorabilia from the Miami Marlins and Heat. The event will also feature Latin fusion performances by Locos por Juana as well as Tony Succar, who was just featured on PBS for his Latin covers of Michael Jackson songs.
Bernstein is most excited about one particular part of the evening, though. "Our talented students will be performing. They go crazy over this concert. Middle-school and high-school students will be playing hip-hop, pop, and acoustic guitar. Fortunately, we've been doing this long enough that we have high-school students who we've been teaching for years who can come in and mentor the younger middle-school students."
But one wonders if Bernstein's organization — with a name like Guitars Over Guns — has ever gotten a nasty email from the NRA. He laughs at the thought. "We try to stay as far away from the gun debate as possible. It's instead about empowering youth, so they're not going to school worrying about getting picked on or having gangs and drugs pushed on them."
When he's not working with Guitars Over Guns, Bernstein is a horn player for Suénalo as well as Spam Allstars, both of which will soon release new recordings. "Spam is finishing an album that is five years in the making. Suénalo is releasing a series of singles over the next year. So they're both in the recording studio and touring heavily."
But it is Guitars Over Guns that owns the majority of Bernstein's time and heart. He believes the program not only provides kids with musical training they otherwise wouldn't have access to, but also gives them an incentive to keep up their grades.
"Last year, one of our students, Xavier — you'll see him as one of our featured MCs at the benefit — was going to fail math. His teacher came to us and said she couldn't connect to him to get him to care. We have academic standards, so he missed out on filming a music video. His mentors worked with him and the teacher, and he ended up getting a good grade last year and continued it through this year."
Guitars Over Guns' Choose Your Sound Benefit Concert With Locos por Juana and Tony Succar. 7 p.m. Saturday, November 21, at the Fillmore Miami Beach, 1700 Washington Ave., Miami Beach; 305-673-7300; fillmoremb.com. General-admission tickets cost $103 plus fees and VIP tickets cost $181 plus fees via livenation.com.