Oboist Toyin Spellman-Diaz and bassoonist Monica Ellis have been making music together throughout the world as members of the woodwind quintet Imani Winds since its founding in 1997. In this TIME IN interview, Monica and Toyin talk about how they've navigated the pandemic with music and related online activities, gardening, family time, and planning for the future.
Listening to Imani Winds perform is an ear-opening delight of woodwind voices singing and dancing with one another. Here's a 2013 performance of Umoja, written by Imani Winds founder and its former flutist Valerie Coleman:
In the years since its founding, Valerie Coleman and clarinetist Marian Adam have left the group, which now includes flutist Brandon Patrick George and clarinetist Mark Dover. Monica and Toyin are now the only two women. But the goal to make connections through "dynamic playing, adventurous programming and imaginative collaborations" continues.
Imani means "faith" in Swahili. Talking to Monica and Toyin, you get a sense of the good humor, love, and faith in the future that has been part of Imani Winds since its beginning. "Faith in our process, faith that we will come out of this pandemic, and we will all get back to what we love," says Monica (in conversation about their new album, BRUITS). "It's definitely a powerful part of this whole group, this whole journey."
Music brought Monica and Toyin together, first at Oberlin Conservatory of Music and later in Imani Winds. Monica, who grew up in Pittsburgh (rooting for the Steelers), in middle school took up the bassoon, which carried her through high school and on to Oberlin. There she met Toyin, an oboist who grew up in Washington, D.C., surrounded by classical music and jazz at home, frequenting concerts, operas, and ballets with her father, who worked for the National Endowment of the Arts. After Oberlin, they both earned additional degrees in New York, where in 1997 they joined Imani Winds.
From its earliest days, Imani Winds was expanding the repertoire for classical wind ensembles. "Very early on, Jeff Scott, our horn player and composer, and Valerie, were bringing original compositions that were part of their upbringing," says Monica Ellis. "Valerie grew up in Louisville, Kentucky, and Jeff, right here in New York City, listening to soul music and R&B. We grew up listening to 1980s pop music, and jazz, and all of this was seeping into their original music that really created the sound of Imani Winds."
In the decades since its founding, Imani has continued to expand the repertoire with commissions and collaborations with artists of various traditions, performing music that blends different styles and genres.
Here's a video of Imani Winds performing at the Kennedy Center with jazz pianist and composer Jason Moran on April 14, 2019.
In 2016, Imani Winds was added to the classical music section of the Smithsonian's Museum of African American History and Culture.
The ensemble, says Toyin, is like another family. "We're so used to being together in small spaces, whether it be on a stage, or in a van driving two hours from the airport to the gigs."
I met with Monica, Zooming in from her home in Harlem, and Toyin, from her home in Maywood, NJ in February of 2021.
Here are edited excerpts from our conversation.
Absorbing the News of the Shutdown
So, what were you each doing in the beginning of March of 2020?
Toyin: We had just come back from a tour of Northern California, and we were getting ready to pack and get back on the road. There was a very busy touring schedule in March and April looming ahead of us that we were excited to get to. And the first gigs started getting canceled, and the schools for our children closed.
So we were just sitting at home and figured we'd be back at it by the summer at the latest. In March we were saying, okay, let's keep the reeds hot and get ready to start back out in a couple of months. We thought it was gonna be a short-term situation.
Monica: Alas, it was not. The science was telling presenters to shut it down, and we were all just starting to see the domino effect of everything.
And for me, around June or so, well, maybe May, before the other craziness of the summer started, it was kind of a paralyzing time. Honestly, I just didn't know what to do, because it was the first time in as long as I can remember of being a professional musician, where I had no control over what was happening.
Of course, on the stage you have no control, but in the best of ways: the spontaneity, the music, the energy from the audience, that's what we look forward to. But to have no control over what's happening in such a negative way was really jarring for me, and obviously for so many others, it was deadly, sadly.
It took a while for me to dig myself out of the paralyzing feeling of what to do. Okay, I'm trying to practice; okay, I'm going to pull this etude book out and learn these etudes all over again. That lasted for like a day! There's just no energy; but you had lots of energy. So a very conflicting and confusing time it was in the beginning, until you started to settle in to this being the reality.
Also, you'd been traveling a lot and touring before the pandemic. To go from that kind of a lifestyle to being home full-time is hard, but you each have families, right?
Toyin: It is true. And Imani Winds is my family, too. We're so used to being together in small spaces, whether it be on a stage together, or in a van driving two hours from the airport to the gigs. So that family, all of a sudden, is socially distanced as well.
Life at Home
Did either of you find things you started doing that you hadn't done before? Things that you'll continue after the pandemic or things you've discovered about yourself?
Toyin: I started taking advantage of being a suburbanite. I lived in New York for 20 years, and then I moved to the suburbs about four years ago. And I have this beautiful backyard with plenty of space. And so I've started a whole vegetable garden.
We ate cucumbers straight from the vine, and these glorious tomato plants that just sprung out of our compost. It was great. It's a lot of work, but I'm getting into the natural part of suburban life more.
What I really like to do is sit on my couch and watch Netflix and sit next to my 11-year-old daughter. I'm going to continue doing that. Although I think I've seen all of Netflix and Amazon Prime at this point.
Toyin, you mentioned before that your husband is a percussionist and has been teaching at home. So, do you ever play music with him? Oboe and percussion?
We have a saying that we believe in the separation of church and state -- so we usually keep our lives pretty separate. But during the pandemic, it's a wonderful opportunity to make music with somebody.
So we have done several things together now at this point. It's fun. I don't know if that's going to continue much after the pandemic is over. He's an incredible musician. He's a great arranger, he's a composer. I've been just sopping up all of his knowledge and trying to make it come out of the bell of my horn.
Monica: My story is probably not as idyllic as Toyin's! I didn't start growing a salad's worth of vegetables, but I had to start being my son's teacher. In the spring of last year he was in kindergarten, he's in first grade now. It was a lot; I was completely out of my element and I just had to be right there on it with him being so young. But it was really pretty incredible to see him in an environment that I don't often see.
So all kinds of credit where credit is due to teachers and the monumental things that they did to make learning still occur. I am glad that they were able to go back. He needs to go to school. I need to continue to do what I've got to do. But it was fun.
Activities Online: Mentoring and More
Have you been doing things with Imani Winds online?
Toyin: Absolutely. A lot of what we're doing is having conversations with people about how to build an equitable business or an equitable ensemble, or have diversity within their music program. Or how we've done this. That has been amazing work. And it's a tremendously humbling honor; we're now officially middle-aged people.
Finally, we have a say in things and I feel we're able to take advantage of all that we've learned and give that back, and that's an amazing thing.
We've also had a few 'concerts,' created by certain presenters for their constituents, where we listened to some pre-recorded materials, and we also have one tile video that we created during the pandemic -- and we comment on it in real time.
Here's the tile video created during the pandemic (without the commentary):
And you had a chamber music festival?
Toyin: We've have had a chamber music festival for the past 11 years. It has been in person every year, except this past year. We did have it, and it was really rewarding to do it. We had the concert, we had relaxation, meditation for musicians with breathing, and some coaching of ensembles. So it was great.
So are there positive things that have come out of this experience in terms of reaching people in different ways?
Monica: Yes. In fact, I think we've reached probably more people in these past 10 months than we would have, unless we were just on the road nonstop, which years ago, was the case. I've been on a number of calls, where somebody's Zooming in from Taiwan or from London.
It's a tough thing though to grapple with, because you don't want to get too used to this, you don't want to think that this is a normal thing. There are two camps of people -- those who will never go back to the way we were and those who can't wait to get back to the way we were. I'm somewhere in the middle. This world will continue to a certain extent, but people will still need, and musicians still need, that personal connection.
What's up next for you?
Toyin: We have lots of great stuff coming up. Our new CD, BRUITS, is out; we're going to start doing performances where we're together and streaming. So that's going to be fantastic. We'll have another festival this year. The momentum is starting again. The choo-choo train is leaving the station. And that is super exciting.
Monica: Absolutely. Can't wait to be back on that stage. That's just what we're all working so hard to make happen.
Women’s History Month on WRTI is supported by Temple University, which celebrates the legacy of Agnes Berry Montier, class of 1912, and the first Black woman to earn a medical degree from Temple.