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Students Listening Outside of the Box with Sweet Plantain

Sweet Plantain

The Reading Symphony Orchestra reaches out to new audiences with guest performers and music beyond the classic orchestral repertoire. WRTI’s Susan Lewis reports.

Sweet Plantain is a string quartet based in New York, whose members and music celebrate diverse family trees, with Latin American and African American roots.

Members of Sweet Plantain talk with WRTI's Susan Lewis about their approach to music and music education.

Who are the musicians of Sweet Plantain? There's Venezuelan Eddie Arnoldo Venegas, who plays violin and trombone, even though — as he says, smiling — this is a string quartet. African American Orlando Santiago Wells plays viola, and Argentian born/Canadian raised Leo Grinhauz, cello. There's also Joe Deninzon — Russian born, American raised — on violin, mandolin, and vocals.

There's a whole world of music to explore...and you can do whatever you want with your instrument. —Violist Orlando Wells

They write and play music informed by their classical training and what they heard growing up - from salsa and hip hop to jazz and rock. Eddie Venegas wrote Danson Pa Ti, using elements from Cuban music, such as the bass parts, the percussion, and  the way a singer improvises with the chorus. "I take those components," he says, "and make it into a string quartet."

The Reading Symphony brought Sweet Plantain into the city’s high school, where the quartet taught students Brake My Chains, by Chacho Ramires. Orlando describes it as a Latin piece, "with a lot of complex rhythmic elements...It makes them listen."  

Learning to listen, they also learn to improvise — and begin to realize that classical instruments can create all sorts of music. "We try to instill that idea," says Joe. "Jam on your instrument, go home and explore. When you hear that, you hear classical music in a different way."

Leo adds, "It's actually tremendously liberating to cross the line, to come out of your box." 

Sweet Plantain’s week-long residency with the Reading Symphony took the group into every middle, intermediate, and high school in the Reading School District.

Susan writes and produces stories about music and the arts. She’s host and producer of WRTI’s TIME IN online interview series, and contributes weekly intermission interviews for The Philadelphia Orchestra in Concert series. She’s also been a regular host of WRTI’s Live from the Performance Studio sessions.