Ensemble Spotlight: Imani Winds

A. Kori Hill

If you play a woodwind or brass instrument, chances are you’ve played in a wind quintet. And you’ve likely come across the work of Imani Winds. They’ll perform in Cincinnati on March 10th at New Prospect Baptist Church and March 12th at Memorial Hall through Chamber Music Cincinnati.  

Imani Winds was founded in 1997 by flutist and composer Valerie Coleman. She wanted an ensemble dedicated to performing works by underrepresented composers and serving as a model for African Americans and people of color. This mission is reflected in the group’s name: Imani is Swahili for “faith.”  

Figure 1. Imani Winds members (L -R). Jeff Scott, Monica Ellis, Toyin Spellman-Diaz, Valerie Coleman, Mariam Adam

The original lineup was Coleman on flute, Toyin Spellman-Diaz on oboe, Monica Ellis on bassoon, Mariam Adam on clarinet, and Jeff Scott on French horn. Imani Winds’ current lineup has two original members: Toyin Spellman-Diaz and Monica Ellis, with new members Brandon Patrick George (flute), Mark Cover (clarinet), and Kevin Newton (French horn).  

Their first album, The Classical Underground, was nominated for a GRAMMY in 2006. Two years later, the group established the Legacy Commissioning Project. This expanded their performing mission to include commissioning works by composers of color. Originally slated to commission ten works over five years, it is now in its 16th year with 45 total commissions. Each piece on their Cincy program was written in the last year or two and commissioned through this program. 

Figure 2. Current members (L-R) Brandon Patrick George, Toyin Spellman-Diaz, Mark Dover, Kevin Newton, Monica Ellis

One of these pieces is BeLoud, BeLoved, BeLonging (2022) by Andy Akiho. This was inspired by a 2019 protest by inmates of the Metropolitan Detention Center over lack of heat and unsanitary conditions. The work grew into a collaborative project between Akiho and men awaiting trial on Riker’s Island, where it debuted in October 2022. “Andy worked with them to create interlocking rhythms,” Kevin Newton explained in an interview for the University of North Carolina School of the Arts. “It serves as a beautiful capsule for those young men, their hopes, and their fears. We hope it serves as a beautiful monument to them. It’s melodic and rhythmic. He picked chords and set pitches – it’s also through-composed.”  

BeLoud, BeLoved, BeLonging is for wind quintet and steel drum. It has sections that shift between the quintet and solo steel drum. The first section is built on a perky motive. Next is a haunting solo moment for the steel drum, followed by a serious section with a new motive. Another steel drum solo takes center focus, then a quintet section that is more animated. The character grows more determined, even playful. The clarinet launches into a klezmer-inflected solo, which blossoms into a cacophonous, rhythmic texture, evoking the sounds of protest. BeLoud, BeLoved, BeLonging ends abruptly with a punch, a reminder that our progress to justice is not finished and that we need each other to get it done. 

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