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Notes from the Walker West Music Academy String Department

In March the String Department celebrates two significant events: National Women’s History Month and Kamoinge Strings, STRINGOCRACY Concert.

Last year after our final string recital, we scheduled more departmental recitals starting in the 2023-2024 season to accommodate our growing enrollment, and the longer pieces our string students performed as they progressed in their studies. We also decided to establish formal Kamoinge Strings concerts in addition to the recitals. The ensemble, traditionally performing several selections at the end of our department recitals, had outgrown these programs. Fast forward to Saturday, March 9, Kamoinge Strings performs its STRINGOCRACY concert at Prospect Park United Methodist Church (22 SE Orlin Ave, Minneapolis, MN). Their first concert of the season was the Holiday Concert in December at our partner church, the Lutheran Church of the Redeemer in Saint Paul. Although the ensemble has performed at numerous venues this season, including at the Filmore – Minneapolis for the Minnesota Association of Black Lawyers (MABL) Gala and most recently, at the Target Center for the Timberwolves’ Black History Night Game in February, Kamoinge Strings performs just two unaffiliated concerts each season.

This month’s concert is part of our year-long project, STRINGOCRACY, funded partly by the Eastman School of Music’s Paul R. Judy Center for Innovation and Research at the University of Rochester (NY). If the term “stringocracy” sounds a bit like “democracy” to you, don’t be deterred by the homophonic similarities. It is deliberate.

This year of presidential primaries and national elections seemed the perfect time to align our music-making and education with those ideas embedded in democracy. From the Greek words demos (people) and kratos (rule), organizations and governments that engage in democratic practices must make space for individual expression. This can be both empowering and messy! As James Baldwin wrote, “Every human being is an unprecedented miracle. One tries to treat them as the miracles they are while trying to protect oneself against the disasters they’ve become.” Okay, this may sound harsh, but when participating in collaborative expression, dialogue shared freely and cooperatively can be challenging if not in agreement with the majority. Yet, it is empowering and dynamic, nevertheless. In music-making and music-sharing, the dialectic of the demos (musician and audience) is translated through the “call & response”, improvisation, piece selection, and interpretation.

STRINGOCRACY will combine these ideas through works from the Baroque period by composers such as Telemann and Vivaldi and jazz standards by Bobby Timmons and Duke Ellington arranged for strings. The concert will also include a work by the Mali composer Hawa Kassé Mady Diabaté that the Kronos String Quartet commissioned. Referred to as the “Clapping” the music is inspired by the songs of the girls and women of Diabaté village.

Kamoinge Strings will perform works from across cultures and centuries, putting their stamp on the familiar and not-so-familiar. As a string ensemble comprised on primarily students of color, Kamoinge adds to the dialectic and creative expression demographically by their presence. Through its name, the ensemble calls attention to the act of community (group working together) and representation (inequitable number of Black and Latino students in youth symphonies and professional orchestras)

The concert is part of Prospect Park’s Concert Series and is FREE. However, we ask audiences to give what they can to support student scholarships and the work of the String Department at Waker West. String faculty Earl Ross, Ernest Bisong, Patty Ryan, Jack Barrett, and a guest rhythm section of student musicians round out the performer roster.

Wacheke Njoroge, one of our Kamoinge strings students and Kamoinge members, got a head start on celebrating women in music. On February 11, she performed as a guest musician with the Sisterhood Swing Band in a concert featuring sacred music by the great African American Jazz pianist and composer Mary Lou Williams. The concert was at St. Thomas More Community Catholic Church in Saint Paul. The all- women swing band, founded by Sarah Schmalenberger, is the only band in the Twin Cities. Wacheke, who is a senior at Roseville High School, sat in at the She Rock Open Jam on Saturday, February 24, a bi-monthly event at the academy where women, non-binary and trans musicians of all ages and skill levels “jam out” together. Talk about the alignment of STRINGOCRACY and National Women’s History Month!

Because there are still far too few BIPOC women in Classical and Jazz music, we celebrate the extraordinary talent of just a few here.

Diane Monroe (violinist) – Learn more First in her class at Curtis Institute, Diane, a native Philadelphian, performs in Classical and Jazz idioms

Regina Carter (violinist) – Learn more With roots in Detroit, MI but currently living in New Jersey, Regina is arguably the most renowned Jazz violinist performing today. Regina will be the headliner this year at the Twin Cities Jazz Festival in June.

Tai Murray (violinist) – Learn more When she performed with Minnesota Sinfonia 16 years ago in a performance of the Paganini Violin Concerto, several of my students attended this concert. They have never forgotten her presence as a Black woman at the front of a professional orchestra. Tai, who hails Chicago, currently teaches at Yale University’s School of Music and performs internationally.

Tomeika Reid (cellist) – Learn more American composer, educator and cellist, Tomeka is a 2022 MacArtur Grant Award (colloquially known as the Genuis Award) recipient. She pushes the boundaries of contemporary, classical, jazz, and avantgarde music. She performs at the Walker Art Center in March.

By celebrating their (her)stories and musical genius, we encourage our students to see themselves and their possibilities as string students and musicians. Happy National Women’s History Month from the Walker West String Department!