When Ben Borowiak was on stage playing music, he was in his own little world. His friend Kenny Hemler considered him "a mad scientist," able to make melodies from any instrument or any object ("saws, jugs...whatever") and play it well.
"He poured everything he had into his music," Hemler said, "and played with more passion than anyone else I know."
Borowiak, a lifelong musician who grew up on the east side and later lived in Ferndale, helmed the esteemed fuzz-warbling Hammond Organ B3 in garage-rock quintet Spitting Nickels for about three years before his tragic passing in early 2011, at age 29, after complications from minor surgery.
"When Ben died," said Grosse Pointe resident John Bissa, singer/guitarist of Spitting Nickels, "there was this feeling of ... there should be something more."
"For those of us who know Ben," Hemler said, "it was very clear he wouldn't want people sitting around moping about his death."
So his friends organized BENNYfit 2011, a six-hour rock show hosted at the New Dodge Lounge in April 2011 featuring bands Borowiak had played in over the years, or ad hoc/one-night-only bands made up of friends and family.
The concert raised more than $5,000 for the music department at De La Salle Collegiate in Warren, where Borowiak and Hemler met as freshmen.
Because Borowiak's close circle could see the impact their concert had upon the young students at De La Salle, they decided to dedicate themselves (and their new organization Ben's Encore) as a community outreach program ensuring that aspiring musicians in Metro Detroit are able to, as Helmer said, "carry on this city's rich musical heritage," thus taking up what they considered to be a personal mission of Borowiak's.
Said Bissa: "We wouldn't get people like Ben unless there was somebody else putting their arm around them at a young age and encouraging them."
As an in-house attorney for the Dow Chemical Co., Helmer - of Midland - is helping Borowiak's parents incorporate Ben's Encore and subsequently sit as its executive director and chairman of Encore's Board of Officers, which includes many family members and close friends.
This year's show will be June 23 at the Hard Rock Cafe in Detroit, kicking off at noon with music from the St. Clair Shores School of Rock Band.
Family-friendly activities are scheduled from noon-3 p.m. and live music flows all day long until the bar closes, with 16 bands scheduled (and a $5 minimum donation asked at the door).
Hemler also plays guitar in the Karate Dan Band, comprised mostly of Encore officers and directors, which will perform at this year's BENNYfit at 3 p.m.
Ben's Encore is still in its early stages, Hemler said, and so far has been able to put on a handful of educational programs for children interested in music - notably through the dedication of board members/officers and some private donations.
One workshop, "The Science of Sound," hosted at Chatterton Middle School in Warren and seen on video (attached), incorporated the scientific explanations behind tone, timbre and how we, with our eardrums, hear and perceive music.
Ben's Encore also participated in the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) Alliance of Michigan's kick-off event at the Detroit Parade Company with action stations set up educating students about facets of music and sound similar to the Chatterton program.
The hope, Hemler said, is to soon offer scholarships and grants to students striving towards music schools or camps.
At the BENNYfit on June 23, instrument-building workshops will be offered from noon-3 p.m. for kids to build Easter-egg shakers and other instruments that will then be used play along to/with one of the performers.
"Ben was one of the most musically gifted and kind-hearted people I have ever known," said Jamie Donoghue, of Madison Heights, who serves on the Ben's Encore board of directors. "The BENNYfit is important because it is an opportunity for those who knew him to carry on that legacy and share it with people who were not fortunate enough to meet him."
Hemler said he's most looking forward to all the positive energy on Saturday. "Ben was an extremely 'unique' individual, to say the least. I knew the guy for 15 years, but I always hear new, ridiculous stories about him at these types of events," he said.
Bissa (who will perform at BENNYfit with his new band, Six and the Sevens) recalls fondly the entire stage at the New Dodge last year, filling up with dancing bodies and streams of shaving cream during the last set; a throng of 40 people or more, mingled in with the band, in their own worlds inside the song, just like Borowiak when he'd play that organ.
"It's a celebration of Ben's life," Hemler said. "A celebration of music and of Detroit. Our city is at a crossroads right now and it's going to require the type of dedication and positivity that will be present at BENNYfit to continue to evolve. We're just glad to be a small part of Detroit's cultural rebirth."
Whether you knew Borowiak or not, it's not hard to get behind the purpose of music education (and cultural preservation). Come enjoy a full day's worth of sonic engagement, talk music, make music, think music and teach music.