Artists from MetroPerforms! take the stage at the Kennedy Center


Street performers Nana Malaya and Brother Sidiki, both of Washington, D.C., perform a traditional African song and dance at The Kennedy Center for Performing Arts on August 12, 2013 in Washington, D.C. The street performers will be playing at The Kennedy Center's Millennium Stage on August 18th. Sidiki's real name is Sidiki Paul Lancaster. (Ricky Carioti/Washington Post)
August 16, 2013

Ah, the joys of transit by Metro. So much unpredictability! You never know when, or if, your train will arrive, just how long you’ll be stuck in some tunnel underground (“we should be moving again shortly,” the voice vaguely promises), or if you will be one of the chosen few to wind up on a car without air conditioning.

Yet sometimes the Metro brings us moments of unexpected joy: a baby is born at, of all stops, L’Enfant Plaza; violinist Joshua Bell, sets up shop in the subway posing as an ordinary fiddler; and through MetroPerforms!, the performing arts piece of Metro’s Art in Transit Program, you may find the soundtrack to your commute provided by a local musician.

On Sunday, the Kennedy Center’s Millennium Stage, in partnership with WMATA, will showcase the talents of some of the most interesting artists from MetroPerforms!: a barbershop quartet, a teenage harpist, an all-male a cappella trio and more. We talked to a handful of these artists about their passion for performance, which Metro stations are the best for busking and the logistics of attaching a 40-pound instrument to the back of a bicycle.

Nana Malaya Rucker

is a storyteller.

“I always say that I came out dancing on the steps of a hospital and I’ve been dancing and performing ever since. Ever since a very, very young age, as soon as I could walk, I was dancing, I was singing. I grew up in the time before TiVo and instant replay, and oftentimes I would be asked ‘What did they do on that program?’ and I was the instant playback.

“I started studying dance from other places around the world, everything from Haitian dance . . . to various places on the African continent. I studied at Ailey School, all the prolific developers of black dance as it came to be. I’m over 50, and when I was growing up, the only black dancers were tap dancers. I was a teenager before Ailey came to be recognized. Now I have students performed with Ailey, which I’m very proud of.

“The company I direct, the Nubian Dance and Music Company . . . [uses] dance and music and song. And we can tell stories about historical figures such as Rosa Parks, or about our communities and our families, or traditional songs and dances from the [African] continent, as well. . . . I try and make it an interactive experience. It’s always one that helps bring us together.

“I often end my program by saying, ‘our hearts are a drum’ . . . All of our hearts can beat in harmony, together.”

Nicholas Wilson

is a 26-year-old violinist.

“I just came from underground because I’m always in the subway. It started in Northern Virginia. After I graduated from George Mason, I went back down to Norfolk, where I’m from. I was there for six months, doing retail, being with family, and I was like: this isn’t fulfilling at all. I’m sustaining myself. But there’s another level of fulfillment, self-actualization, not just meeting basic needs. And there’s more prospects in D.C. for music.

“I came back up. I was visiting a friend . . . and he suggested just to see what happens if I play in the Metro. The closest one was Vienna. I’ve been playing violin for 16 years. . . . I’d always entertained the idea of playing in the Metro, but I never did, and I was kind of scared to do it, because it’s very unconventional. I’m used to the environment [in which] you rehearse, you’re on a stage, it’s air conditioned, it’s quiet, people are coming to see you, not stumbling on you. . . . But I did it as an experiment. And I played for 45 minutes, and I made $92.

“It was weird when I first started. I played, I was playing ‘La Folia.’ I didn’t play the whole thing, just some of the variations. And I stopped. And that sensation of stopping a piece and no one clapped or anything! It definitely bruised my ego. So I would just play and instead of stopping I’d just keep playing.

“I moved up to Alexandria. I supported myself, $800 monthly rent, just from playing. I’d play in the morning and the evening. I got it down to a science. My friend and roommate at the time, we organized this chart: the stations we went to, time of day, how much I made. Certain stations would have the same effect on the same day. Wednesdays were really good at L’Enfant Plaza, always.

“I got a few stations that I’d cycle. I’d be in D.C. all day, because I never really explored D.C. when I went to Mason . . . so it was all really new for me. I’d just go the whole day, going to stations . . . It was a really incredible experience. I didn’t think that I had that ability, but so many people would tell me how tremendously important it was that I play . . . [they’d say], ‘I’m so happy to come to work in the morning now because you’re playing!’ It was really cool. People would leave notes and even wrote poetry and put it in my basket.

“Now that I live in New York . . . I am playing in the subway. I recently had an audition for the New York Chamber Players, and I was accepted and am studying privately with the director of the orchestra. So that’s a really cool step in the classical direction. I have several lines cast in this little boat.”

Patricia Tommy

is a vocalist and Maryland native. She is a 19-year-old music major at St. George’s Community College.

“When I was a little girl, my father used to make me watch shows and recite poems and songs . . . [Now] I mostly sing R&B. To me, it’s just very soulful . . . My favorite song to sing is “I Will Always Love You” It is a lot of pressure [to live up to Whitney Houston], but I believe it’s pressure that I can handle.

“I was singing “At Last” at a wedding [recently] and while I was singing, everyone started crying. Just to know that I have that effect — that my voice has that effect on people — it was really touching.

“I perform at festivals, weddings, funerals or any gig that just happens to come about, or even office parties. And through Metro Performs at Metro stations. . . . A friend told me about it. I’d never heard about it. And literally, a few days later, I went for the audition.

“My first performance was at the National Mall. Just to be singing there and having people walk by and stop and listen, it was all very new to me. I’d never sang outside! [It was new] just to have that attention on a more personal level because [the audience is] right in front of you.”

Kristopher Wright

is a 32-year-old saxophone.

“I was in elementary school. The band teacher pulled out every possible instrument. And just the look of [the saxophone], curved and shiny and all the buttons, just the way it looked, hit me. I knew at that moment, that was the one. And my favorite thing, for the first few months or maybe year was just to open the case and look at it, stare at the thing, hold it. It was just the visual, the aesthetic of it.

“I worked on a cruise ship. I wasn’t on the ship as a musician; I was on as a ‘computer at sea’ instructor. I was teaching computer classes to passengers and crew. But I quickly learned there’s a huge music community on the cruise ship, so I’d always bring my sax on board. I got to meet and fortunately perform with folks from all over the world. A lot of Caribbean guys, a lot of English folks. There’s generally not many people from the U.S. that work on cruise ships.

“I still gig, and I do weddings, and I’m actively playing with a few folks. And if it all works out, music would be my main thing. . . . I currently work in Washington for an environmental nonprofit group. I’m on their data team. And I do a lot of busking, instead of practicing in my apartment to piss off my roommate.

“I like going near Metro stations and just playing during rush hour and play for a few hours. I’m currently testing every single one, and I’m going to write a book about it. I enjoy Clarendon and Pentagon City . . . because the flow of traffic at rush hour is really high. I try to play down in the Metro at Pentagon City, underground in the tunnel. If you can get down there with a sax and play loudly, the acoustics are phenomenal, and creates this chamber, church sound. Although the police keep kicking me out and I have to go out by the sidewalk.

“I try to go to lighten the mood of what is otherwise a zombie 9-to-5 commute . . . My best single day busking was $85 for two hours. I got lucky that day – a middle school band from somewhere around the U.S. came by . . . and everybody threw money in. I have to be careful not to go on windy days so the money doesn’t blow away.”

The Light

is an all-male a cappella trio: Herbert Johnson, Nels Olson and Terance Hope. Hope is quoted below.

“I’ve my singing since I was 10 years old . . . and my family has a long history in music. My uncle is Elmo Hope, a contemporary of Thelonious Monk, and he did the bop style of jazz. So it’s been in the family for a long time.

“The Light, we’re all part of the same [church] choir. . . I give thanks to God in everything that we do. And I just follow the Yellow Brick Road, honestly. So as the pavement lights up in front of me, I take the walk in that direction.

“Our group is very organic. We’re very improvisational. Our songwriters, myself and Herbert Johnson, we tend to be very creative and quick at writing. So we will rehearse and come up with a vibe of something, and then follow that through.

“A lot of our songs are faith-based and inspirational . . . We have a couple of signature songs that we’re known for. Right now, it’s called ‘In the Beginning.’ It’s a very unique R&B-oriented piece, with kind of a pop music sound, and it’s about the first book of the Bible, Genesis. But it’s a very sweet tune, painting pictures with words as the world is being created and the music is all around us.”

SynchroniCity

is a sextet that performs neo-soul instrumentals: Jamal Brown on flute, Marcia McIntyre on violin, Leslie DeLaine on viola, Steve Perkins and Sean Anthony on percussion, and Élise Cuffy on cello. Cuffy is quoted below.

“SynchroniCity [is] a fusion of classical, rock and a little bit of jazz. We’re trying to cross all the boundaries and fuse them, not just play one type of music at one time. . . . We play Bach’s Double Violin Concerto. And we start it off classical and then we jump right into a more Latin feel and — because we’re all from the D.C. area — we go into go-go.

“Four of us were classically trained at the D.C. Youth Orchestra program . . . and I listened to the 95.9 station,WHUR, and also listened to Q107, the rock station. So I had a lot of music coming at me. And my parents would always play music, from classical to West Indian to Motown.

“Most of us are music teachers. I teach at the Arts and Technology Academy, a charter school in Northeast D.C., and I teach at the D.C. Youth Orchestra. Oh my gosh, it’s great to go back! Because I get to see them and say, ‘Enjoy the moment now. I’m not asking you [to] or making you become a full-time musician, but enjoy this opportunity you’ve been given. Soak it up, and make sure that when you’re playing your music, play what you love to play.’

“[I was inspired to play the cello] because of the TV show ‘Fame.’ That was around when my parents said, ‘Okay, we’re going to put you in a music program for the summer. You pick the instrument, and we’ll sign you up.’ And ‘Fame’ was on, and Julie [played by Lori Singer] was my favorite character and she played the cello . . . She did some great acting, because she played that cello like it was a part of her, of her soul.”

Nora Kelsall

is a 16-year-old harpist and a rising high school senior.

“It started really at my school. There was a girl at my school who played the Irish harp for some school events, like talent shows and stuff like that. I saw her, and I loved the sound of it. It was beautiful. And so I asked my mom if I could take lessons. . . . Now I play the pedal harp.

“It’s such a unique instrument. It’s not something that a lot of people have heard before. It’s something different, and it’s also gorgeous. I really like Celtic music. It’s a type of thing that is often heard on the harp, and there’s so many different styles of it: ballads and lullabies that are very unique, the jigs and reels that are completely different.

“I sometimes play in Georgetown on the waterfront. And both my parents work, so it’s difficult for them to drive me down there. I bike a lot of places generally, and I was trying to find a way to bring my harp with me. It’s about three or four feet high, two feet wide, and one foot in depth. It weighs about 40 pounds. I decided to try to have something that would carry it behind me, since putting it on my back wouldn’t really work so well. So the only thing I could think of that trailed behind my bike were those trailers that people take their kids in. I found one that we had from when I was a kid, and we went through a lot of variations of how to strap it in. We eventually decided to do it with a bunch of bungee cords and different padding. And the first time, my mom rode her bike behind me to make sure it stayed on.

“I think it’s incredible to be able to share such a beautiful thing with other people. Personally, it’s a great achievement to be able to play these different pieces. And the joy other people get from hearing music is such a fantastic thing to be able to give to people. I just think it’s extremely fun to be able to have something beautiful and to be able to share it with another person.”

See Jane Sing!

is a female a cappella group. The barbershop quartet doesn’t actually include any Janes: The singers are Chantel Pomerville, 29, Bonnie Cardwell, 56, Paulette Sandene, 57, and Emily Faalasli, 52. Sandene and Pomerville are quoted below.

“We’re all members of the Vienna-Falls Chorus of the Sweet Adelines. And that’s how we met. . . . We sing a whole variety of different types of a cappella music. Most of it is standard barbershop songs, but we’ve also learned some jazz, some folk songs, popular music like the Beatles, [and we] turn them into barbershop.

“We’re not just singing the music, we’re performing the music. We’re very strong on characters and putting out a lot of emotion. It’s a storytelling kind of music.” — Sandene

“When there aren’t pop songs that are already arranged for barbershop, we can arrange them ourselves . . . [Barbershop] really is truly an American art form. It originated over here. Nobody else’s country can take claim to it.” — Pomerville

MetroPerforms! Showcase

Sunday at 6 p.m., Kennedy Center Millennium Stage, 2700 F St. NW. 202-467-4600. www.kennedy-center.org. Tickets are free.

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