Singing and Stick Pounding for Refugees in MN

Celebrate Minnesota’s history as a refuge for immigrants with vocal advocate Melanie DeMore and VocalEssence


Melanie DeMore takes the stage. Photo by Bruce Silcox.

Minnesota made history this month when it joined Washington state in a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of President Trump’s immigration travel ban. This Sunday, choir concert “VocalEssence WITNESS: Underground Railroad” will cast the state’s stance as just one instance in a long legacy of welcome. After all, 19th-century St. Paul was a stop on the Underground Railroad—that warren of secret routes branching from the southern slave states into the free states and Canada—and since 1979, more than 95,000 refugees have found haven in Minnesota.

The concert unpacks more than a century of exile. One song tells of Harriet Tubman’s 19 trips south to usher slaves north. Another asks, “Would you harbor me? Would I harbor you? Would you harbor a Christian, a Muslim, a Jew…?” Another takes inspiration from a poem written by a 14-year-old at the Minnesota International Middle School in Minneapolis, where East African immigrant students were asked to write about their experiences coming to the U.S.

After a sold-out 2014 show, vocal advocate Melanie DeMore will team up again with the VocalEssence Chorus, along with four area school choirs. Special this year, DeMore brings the traditional Gullah art of stick pounding to Orchestra Hall in her original song “Sanctuary.” Slaves using pestles to pound corn used them also to communicate rhythmically when slave owners banned drums, DeMore explains in short documentary Stick & Pound. Slaves from different regions, who spoke different languages, could communicate this way. As an advocate, DeMore pushes for that kind of cross-cultural communication today—and Minnesota makes a great place to try it.

“VocalEssence WITNESS: Underground Railroad”
Feb. 19, 4­–6 p.m., plus a pre-show conversation with Melanie DeMore at 3 p.m.
Orchestra Hall, 1111 Nicollet Mall, Minneapolis
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