Lift Every Voice ... Violin, & Steel Drum

Kathleen Cei PhotosThe St. Luke’s Steel Band and Music Haven’s Haven String Quartet may seem an unlikely combination. It is. They know it, and they made the most of it at a joint annual Dr. Martin Luther King Community Celebration Monday afternoon at St. Luke’ s Episcopal Church.

They lifted every voice — and every violin, and every steel drum.

“You can put on your dancing shoes now, and take off your cold weather shoes,” the Steel Band’ s conductor/arranger, Kenneth Joseph, announced before the classical/ Caribbean cultural combo launched into a Motown medley of “My Girl,” “Stop (in the Name of Love”), “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” and “I’ll Be There.”

This is after the groups had already combined on such novel numbers as Stevie Wonder’s Duke Ellington tribute, “Sir Duke,” and “Africa” by ‘80s rockers Toto. Over a dozen Music Haven students joined Steel Band members for a couple of Bill Withers songs, “Lean on Me” (click on the video to sample) and “Lovely Day.”

The St. Luke’ s Steel Band and the Haven String Quartet first came together when they heard each other rehearsing in adjacent studio spaces on Whalley Avenue. The steel band is organized by parishioners at St. Luke’s; the string quartet is based at next-door Music Haven, a not-for-profit that introduces urban kids to classical music and instruments (where Colin Benn, pictured, performs and teaches).

The Martin Luther King Jr. Day concerts have become an annual tradition, packing the pews at St. Luke’ s Church. Vocalist Margaux Hayes and saxophonist Richard McGhee III completed this singular ensemble.

The concert also has a keynote speaker. This year it was Erik Clemons, founding CEO and president of the Connecticut Center for Arts and Technology (ConnCAT).

“I knew that this was serious when I had to park at Popeye’s and walk,” Clemons quipped before discussing the Biblical tale of Peter living in the tanner’s house. He connected the scriptural anecdote to how he found his own calling, and reconnected with long-lost family members, amid unusual circumstances. The speech, about finding one’s special abilities as well as finding one’s family, evoked the special relationship which has formed among St. Luke’s, its steel drum band (which actually consists of two separate groups, Steel Band 1 and Steel Band 2), its Music Haven neighbors and the New Haven community at large.

Following the joyous pop of the first half of the concert and Clemons’ touching remarks, the concert continued on a spiritual note with “We Shall Overcome” (in a calm arrangement for just three drummers), Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On?”, R. Kelly’s “I Believe I Can Fly,” concluding with two great anthems of Martin Luther King’s civil rights era: “We Shall Overcome” (played by the Haven String Quartet alone, in a sharp clear arrangement by the Steel Band’ s Joseph, pictured) and “Lift Every Voice and Sing” (for all three of its long glorious verses).

As the percussionists laid down a full harmonic foundation and the violins, viola and cello pierced the air, there were rising calls and claps and cries from the crowd. That led to a rousing encore of Tony Allen’ s “Progress,” which had kicked off the whole eclectic concert 100 minutes earlier. This was classical. This was rhythmic. This was all kinds of musical. And it brought out a special kind of community, on Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

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posted by: SherryD on January 21, 2014  4:10pm

Every year this wonderful MLK celebration gets better and better! All I could think of yesterday was the 20 or so people I wish I had invited, but there would have been no room! SRO!!! Music Haven/Haven String Quartet and St. Luke’s Steel Band are a moving and beautiful combination. The energy nearly blew the roof off the church. Erik Clemons’ speech was very thoughtful and touching. Dr. King would have loved this lovely event. I felt privileged to be there.

posted by: Gretchen Pritchard on January 21, 2014  9:43pm

Fantastic!  What wonderful synergy.  Maybe next year they should move to a larger venue??