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Rochester violinist advocates for Black classical musicians

Sheridan Paige Photography
Violinist Epongue Ekille

Violinist Epongue Ekille from Rochester is one of the people calling for a greater recognition of Black musicians’ contributions to classical music. She shares her experiences and some listening recommendations.

Epongue Ekille has played the violin for as long as she can remember.

"My dad is from Cameroon and he comes from a very musical family, that didn’t have any formal training," she said. "He was a choirmaster when he was in school, and the rest of his family plays an instrument or sings in some fashion. When he came here, he wanted his children to take formal lessons. So he was the one who started me on violin; I was too young to choose an instrument. I started, and I haven’t stopped ever since."

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Ekille grew up in Rochester, went to school in Fairport, then studied music at The Hochstein School. She has played as part of the Gateways Music Festival.

Ekille is now going into her senior year at Yale, where she majors in Environmental Studies. Music has remained an important part of her life; she plays violin in the Yale Symphony Orchestra, where in 2018 there was a controversy over music the orchestra played.

She recalls that, "the conversation with the orchestra really brought to light the issues within classical music regarding race."

"I obviously had a lot to say during that conversation. And after that I made this playlist, just so my friends could be listening to the amazing music that I had been talking about for months, but no one had really had gone out of their way to listen," she said. 

That playlist is recordings by Black classical musicians. It mostly languished afterwards as everyone got busy with school and moved on with other concerns. Then, after the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, the Black Lives Matter movement regained momentum - including in the world of classical music.

"Then I went back to this playlist and thought, okay, this is a little sparse, let me just add a little more - and a little more ended up being around 12 hours of music," she said. "You can’t say that it’s hard to find this kind of music, when it’s not." 

Some highlights from those 12 hours include "Delights and Dances" by Michael Abels, a composer who is also known for his film scores for Jordan Peele’s movies "Get Out" and "Us;" a sonata by pianist-composer Stewart Goodyear; and a choral piece by fellow Yale student, Joel Thompson, "The Seven Last Words of the Unarmed" with music sung by the Morehouse College Glee Club in Rochester and Ekille on violn in that performance.

"Just hearing this huge group of Black men, singing these powerful words 'I can’t breathe,' there are no words to describe it," she says.

Ekille says she is encouraged by organizations paying more attention to these issues, and says people can learn more by listening to musicians who have been sharing their stories and experiences online, following the work of groups including Castle of Our Skinsand the Sphinx Organization, and taking some time to listen and get to know this music.

"Art and music are avenues that make people tap into emotions that usually don’t come out in a person," she said. "To leave that for a later date, I don’t think would be wise, especially for Black people who want to find comfort in the music they’re hearing, not questioning why the radio is only playing white male composers. So I hope that this is not just a trend - that people take this very seriously, that institutions take this very seriously."