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Musical Conversations: “Collage: Poetry and Music” combines artistry this week

They set out to combine two art forms that weren’t part of the mainstream pop culture scene: chamber music and poetry. Mwatabu Okantah will read his poetry adding new layers to the music of Cavani String Quartet this week.

 Poet Mwatabu Okantah recites poetry with the Cavani String Quartet.  Courtesy Photo

Poet Mwatabu Okantah recites poetry with the Cavani String Quartet. Courtesy photo

Serving as a universal form of communication, the arts are able to inspire and transcend the differences between diverse groups of people. Despite their notable attributes, the government cuts funding for the merited programs that promote them. Luckily, devoted enthusiasts fight back with innovative ways to expose people to differing crafts. “Collage: Music and Poetry” is a program combining the beautiful melodies of the Cavani String Quartet (Cavani) and the poetry of Mwatabu Okantah. Though Cavani has played in Wilmington before, this week will mark their first “Collage” performance in the port city.

First forming in 1984, Cavani cultivated relationships with universities and performance halls around the country, eventually becoming the Quartet-in-Residence at the Cleveland Institute of Music in 1988. Rich in history, chamber music serves as a time machine that can whisk audiences and players throughout multiple centuries.

“Some of the greatest masterpieces of music have been written for the medium of string quartet, which was invented basically as we know it today in the 18th century, [around the same time] when the nation became independent,” founding member Annie Fullard explains.

One of Fullard’s favorite composers to play is Beethoven, whose life and subsequent works were greatly impacted by a sadness that plagued him. Unrequited love and a desire to be understood shines through in his heart-wrenchingl pieces and becomes something everyone can relate to. It’s a priority of Cavani to intimately understand the historical context and mind-set of the composers they play. “It’s living history [and] it’s never dull,” Fullard enthuses.

Despite the serious nature of the music, Fullard maintains that when her and Cavani members Mari Sato (violin), Kristen Docter (viola), and Merry Peckham (cello) are together they cultivate a light-hearted atmosphere. Their relationship culminates in a give and take that typifies their performances together. They even consider themselves to be somewhat of a choir.

“Those four voices have a really intense intimate, fiery, emotional conversation,” Fullard divulges. “You get to have your own voice, you play a solo part and yet you play together. The ultimate relationship is how you interpret these really amazing pieces that are as transformative to listen to as they are to play.”

Eventually, they set out to combine two art forms that weren’t part of the mainstream pop culture scene: chamber music and poetry. After calling around they found Okantah. He was recommended to them while he worked for an arts institute in Cleveland. Unfamiliar with their work, he listened to them play, which solidified his role as the fifth member in their intimate conversation. His perspective and writing results in new layers to the music played by Cavani.

Growing up in Newark, New Jersey, Okantah was part of the football team and even recalls a poetry assignment during that time. He refused to do it because he felt the form of artistry was too effeminate. After some “old school” coaxing from his father, he eventually did write a poem in high school. However, it wasn’t until Okantah’s freshmen year in college at Kent State University that he truly developed a passion for writing.
“I had an instructor who required that we keep journals and much to my surprise writing was easy,” he says. “It was therapeutic. After being exposed to Richard Wright’s ‘Native Son’ and the ‘Autobiography of Malcolm X,’ I discovered feelings I did not know I had and writing in my journal became my primary means to get those feelings out.”

Focusing on English and African-American studies, attending college during the height of the civil rights movement, and meeting an African forced him to reflect on his identity. Fully immersing himself in his heritage, he changed his name. Okantah in the native language Ga means “a breaker of rock.” Mwatabu is a Kiswahili name that means, “child born in a time of difficulty or sorrow.” The lasting impact of his deep connection with the African culture manifests itself in his poetry.

Okantah’s work with Cavani has been magical. Both artists separately consider themselves having a spiritual experience through their respective art forms, but when combined they truly soar. Okantah even likens it to making love to his wife. Throughout their time working together they have developed a symbiotic relationship that allows them to work perfectly off of each other. Okantah even notes that part of his draw to being part of “Collage” is receiving the opportunity to play with his sisters.

Highly in-tuned with his craft, Okantah uses what he hears and feels when listening to the music to dictate which poem he performs with a piece. Having had experience singing in church, his instinctive predisposition to music shines through in his recitation of his poem “Collage.” His vocals haunt, falling perfectly in rhythm with the mounting melodies of Cavani. Though he selects readings that complement their music, Peckham has also composed music that she felt as a result of his poetry. Their work together has even inspired living composer Eric Gould, Okantah’s former band director, to write a piece to accompany the poem “homeboy.”

This week they will hold free workshops. Registration is open and folks can email One will be held at Virgo Middle School at 1:30 p.m. on Thursday, January 23rd. Later that day they will hold a free concert at 4:30 p.m. at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, in association with DREAMS—a non-profit that promotes the arts. Following will be an artists meet-and-greet at 5:30 p.m. There will then be another free adult workshop that with the “Black Arts Alliance Poetry Jam” from 5:30 to 7 p.m. On Friday, January 24th, they will have a live broadcast at WHQR from 12 p.m. to 12:30 p.m.. The same day from 1 p.m. to 2:30 p.m. they will have a free writers workshop on the art of listening at the UNCW Cultural Arts Building. On Saturday, January 25th a concert will take place at the History Place in Morehead City at 8:00 p.m. On Sunday, they will present “Collage: Music and Poetry” at the Beckwith Recital Hall in UNCW’s Cultural Arts Building on Sunday, Janurary 26th. Tickets can be purchased at the Kenan Box Office. The performances also will feature Barbara McKenzie, artistic director of Chamber Music Wilmington, on piano. The concert will be held at 7:30 p.m. with a pre-concert meet-and-greet at 7 p.m.

Collage: Music and Poetry
Fri., Jan. 23rd, 4:30 p.m., free
St. Mark’s Episcopal Church
600 Grace St.
Sun., Jan. 26th, 7:30 p.m., $26
Beckwith Recital Hall, UNCW Cultural Arts Building

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Encore Magazine regularly covers topics pertaining to news, arts, entertainment, food, and city life in Wilmington. It also maintains schedules and listings of local events like concerts, festivals, live performance art and think-tank events. Encore Magazine is an entity of H&P Media, which also powers Wilmington’s local ticketing platform, Print and online editions are updated every Wednesday.

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