Spoleto’s ‘Tell Your Story’ Project Connects Festival Musicians to the Community | Spoleto

Spoleto Festival USA is pairing three musicians with three members of the Johns Island community for an experimental outreach project that festival leaders hope can set a precedent for long-term engagement.

This is Spoleto’s first time pursuing a community musical collaboration, and it provides a model for auditory storytelling and a mechanism for professional artists to elevate voices that would otherwise not be heard by regular audiences.

“We wanted a way for musicians who visit Charleston each year, and people who love the festival, to build relationships and use music to build collaborations,” said Renate Rohlfing, festival pianist and music therapist who helps lead the project.

The initiative is informed in part by ethnomusicological practice and in part by oral history practice, with a large dose of musical creation thrown in for good measure.

Rohlfing said the small team wanted to tap into the memories of local residents to learn more about their stories and create an innovative document for posterity.

How it works? Three orchestra musicians – violinist Aurora Mendez, bassoonist Joy Guidry and flautist Viola Chan – teamed up with three Johns Island residents identified by Our Lady of Mercy Community Outreach.

Antwoine Curtis Geddis, owner of Dj Sporty Entertainment and Dj Sporty Mobile Sugar Shack, shared aspects of his life experiences with Mendez. Jacqueline Grimball Jefferson, a woman in love with the nature of the islands of the sea, met Guidry. Christina Hunter McNeil, storyteller and singer, spoke with Chan.

The conversations were recorded.

A few musicians also captured various sounds from the area. The end result is less performance and more of a transformational process, Rohlfing said.

The musicians then reconstituted a “sound memory”.

McNeil, 64, said she was happy to participate and share stories that could help keep her legacy alive. It was something she had promised her mother to do. Born and raised on Johns Island, McNeil had a career as a nurse’s aide until she was forced to quit due to physical disabilities resulting from a childhood car accident.

She told Chan about this accident, how he took her sister’s legs and forced McNeil to undergo a cast for a year. She told the flautist about her rural upbringing and the lack of electricity and plumbing.

And she spoke of her childhood in the church and her love of gospel music, her experiences singing in choirs and the pride she has in her daughter Leandrea, who has just graduated from university.

The Tell Your Story project at the Spoleto Festival has given her a welcome new opportunity to share anecdotes about her upbringing, culture and life experiences.

“I’m excited about it,” McNeil said. “I told my mum that I would continue, if I have to do it myself.”

Chan said she decided to fill her sound memoir with a lot of McNeil’s own voice. She added some of her flute and jazz saxophone to create a free flowing sound impression.

“I’m just helping along with the storytelling,” she said.

Chan welcomed the opportunity to amplify underrepresented voices, she said, adding that as an Asian American, she was able to relate to the feelings of marginalization expressed by McNeil.

She knows what it’s like to be invisible, Chan said.

Or, conversely, what it’s like to be noticed as someone who stands out, who is different. On the streets of Charleston, she will often feel the eyes of passers-by watching her, she says.

Rohlfing said the results of the project will find their way into a digital map on Spoleto’s website, which will also contain musical clips and portions of the raw interviews. A private event will be organized for the participants.

She said the pandemic has contributed to a growing sense among professional musicians that building the relevance of the arts requires community investment and relationship building.

“This idea that community engagement only works for community members is totally archaic because people need experiences,” she said.

The Spoleto festival will likely develop and expand the Tell Your Story project in the coming years, increasing the number of couples, expanding the work across the calendar, engaging musicians based in Charleston and not necessarily affiliated with the festival, and by associating with an additional community. organizations.

Little by little, the sound memories will multiply, and a new type of oral history project will take root.

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