January 27, 2004

Performance mixes poetry, classical music

by K.C. Jaehnig

CARBONDALE, Ill. -- Mixing African-American poetry with classical music, Mwatabu Okantah and the Cavani String Quartet will present a free "Collage of Words and Music" at 7:30 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 1, in Southern Illinois University Carbondale's Old Baptist Foundation Recital Hall.

Okantah, poet-in-residence in Kent State University's Department of Pan-African Studies and director of the Center of Pan-African Culture there, first teamed up with the Cavani musicians in 1990 to develop and present this program in Cleveland-area high schools.

"His work is all about the African experience," said Kathleen C. Ginther, one of two composers-in-residence at SIUC's School of Music and organizer of the event.

"The Cavani play spirituals, African and classical pieces, and the music just weaves in and around the words. I think it's going to be a pretty cool event, especially as it takes place Feb. 1, which is the first day of Black History Month."

Okantah, who for a time was a griot -- historian/praise-singer/musical entertainer -- with the Iroko African Drum and Dance Society, now leads the Muntu Kuntu Energy Ensemble, a four-member group performing original poems and songs. He has performed and lectured throughout the United States, Canada and West Africa. Readers may sample his work online athttp://www.timbooktu.com/okantah/okantah.htm.

The internationally acclaimed Cavani String Quartet got its start in 1984 and in 1999 won that year's Walter W. Naumburg chamber music award, the most prestigious prize the field offers. The group has played concerts at Carnegie Hall and the Kennedy Center and is known for its powerful, elegant playing and adventurous programming.

In addition to their campus concert, Okantah and the quartet will perform at Bethel AME Church in Carbondale, at schools in Cairo and Meridian, at Cairo's public library and at Carbondale Community High School.

"One of the Southern at 150 goals is involvement with the community, and at the School of Music, we have recognized for years that we are an enormous part of the cultural life of this region," Ginther said.

"This concert seemed a natural for Cairo and Meridian, too, because music is a way to ignite the souls of young people and get them interested in something that can fill their lives. I know that talking about the power of music to transform a life sounds like a clichŽ, but it can really happen. I've seen it."

The quartet, which since its start has emphasized the importance of music education, also will put on a set of programs for younger children, including a musical retelling of the fairy tale Goldilocks for preschoolers in Carbondale's Eurma C. Hayes Center.

"They did this last year at (SIUC's) Child Development Laboratory, where Goldilocks was a violinist trying out different sizes of violins," Ginther said.

"The kids ate it up -- they were rapt."