Chauntee and Monique’s inspirations are Lianne La Havas, a soulful singer with an amazing voice; Monica Martin, the lead singer of PHOX; Erykah Badu – “If she could be my godmother, I would pass away and die,” Chauntee says; Lauryn Hill; classical violinist Hilary Hahn; and Kim Burrell, an amazing gospel singer on Frank Ocean’s latest album. Chauntee laughs — “It was funny, I grew up listening to Kim Burrell, and then I read this article ‘introducing’ her…are you kidding?!”
This Sunday at church, our priest spoke about being vigilant. Not for crime, or bad news, or others’ behavior—but for goodness.
Linking together the messages throughout the service, Father Bob did an artful job of highlighting the urgent need for all of us to be awake.
Be awake to the good things going on around us in our world.
Be awake to the fact that we can create that goodness ourselves, in moments both small and momentous each day.
Be awake to others’ challenges and victories, and lend a hand how you can.
It’s not news that those are effective ways to start making change. But the reminder is key: No matter our talents or situations, we have a little spark within us, ready and waiting to make a difference.
Chauntee and Monique Ross understand this so beautifully. These two are sisters, some of Milwaukee’s most gorgeously talented musicians, and incredibly authentic, inspiring humans—and they got their start in a church.
“We were Sisters of PraiZe,” says Chauntee, laughing with Monique about her sisters’ string quartet that toured the church circuit in the ‘90s. “I found a really heinous picture of the four of us with string instruments and our flutes just laying around—laying around!—wearing our little leather jackets.”
I wish I had access to the Ross family photo album for this gem, but instead I got a way better gift. Read on for the best parts of a few hours on the porch with SistaStrings—a violin-cello string duet making heartfelt music for expression, connection and social justice.
People with Panache: What was your first instrument?
Monique Ross: I started piano when I was 3. My parents saw I was picking up music quickly, through ear training—and so did my piano teacher. In lessons she would play the piece, and I would play it back to her. I got to a level where I should be able to sight-read the next piece, and she realized, “Oh! You can’t read music!”
Chauntee Ross: Mine was violin… I got mine when I was 3. It was the best Christmas ever. Our oldest sister was the ultimate coolest big sister in life. All of our sisters, all of our cousins, all of our friends thought she was amazing. She played violin, so I wanted to play, too.
Our mom grew up on the west side of Chicago. Her mom was an alcoholic, so she didn’t invest in her kids like she should’ve. So when my mom got older, she had a personal mission to invest in her children.
PWP: How did your parents support your music growing up? I want to be that kind of parent!
Monique: Dad did IT at M&I Bank, and Mom home-schooled us. But they were also traveling street evangelists.
Monique [right] speaks so highly of Wendy Warner. “She spoke into my life so hard as a senior in high school and prepared me for college auditions. Her main focus was not technique—we’re going to work on musicality of your playing, how you feel, how you’re going to interpret this piece, how you’ll put yourself into the music. She is a very beautiful, professional solo cellist, which is so hard to do, and she saw something in me.”
Chauntee: Growing up playing in churches was really good for our ears, which plays into how we play now. You go to a church and somebody will break into song, some old gospel spiritual, and you just pick up on it and go.
When we do string arrangements, playing with various hip hop groups and singer songwriters, it’s very easy to fall back into that. We also went to The String Academy of Wisconsin, are classically trained, went to college and did the whole conservatory life.
We started SistaStrings in 2014, and I moved to Milwaukee rather than grad school because I was kind burned out from the whole school scene and competitive aspect. Everyone wants an orchestra or chamber job.
PWP: A lot of my favorite songs I’ve heard of yours have a really deep message. How do you tie social justice in?
Monique: Growing up, we were home-schooled, and it was very important to our parents that we learned correct black history. You don’t hear about Stokely Carmichael in school, for example. History was very important to my parents. Obviously these things, like his work with civil rights, have been happening but you are more aware of it as you get older. We are the generation to do something—we can’t pass this up.
I have a daughter now. I can’t be like, I didn’t do anything to make this world better for you.
We start every show with “Lift Every Voice and Sing” and Chauntee does a great job explaining why.
Chauntee: Growing up, we were two of the only black kids playing classical music—in every class. There were maybe about five other black students in The Academy. Of course you notice a difference in how sometimes teachers treat you.
When Monique first started violin at the Conservatory of Music, there were a lot of great people, but the guy who was teaching her wouldn’t teach her because he said he didn’t teach ‘her kind.’
I would go to orchestra concerts, our parents would get us tickets, and we would be among the very few people of color in the audience, let alone on the stage. We would notice and carry on with our education because our parents are amazing people.
“I know how blessed I was to have teachers who believed in me as a person,” Chauntee [right] says. “That’s what fed me and kept me going to where I am today.”
It became more prominent in how we produced music. How I relate to classical music might be different than how the next person who is white might. For example, when I hear Vivaldi, a very classical composer, he had really funky beats, kind of like hip-hop beats to me. I’m relating to it in a different way.
Now we combine “Passacaglia,” a famous classical duet, with Nina Simone’s “Feeling Good.” It just spills forth.
PWP: After your experiences, and teaching young people music yourselves, what lesson do you want to share with your students?
Monique: Put your pain into your music, your happiness, your hurt—all of that is so important. That’s what I want to give.
Chauntee: The most recent impactful music moment was when Philando Castile and Alton Sterling were killed. I had a new emotion going on; I was just feeling very helpless, and I hated how helpless I felt.
But that’s incorrect. Let me go back to what my parents taught me and what we’ve learned by talking with good people: We do matter, and we can make an impact, even a small one.
So we had a bunch of artists come together over dinner here. We laughed, we talked, we cried, we shared experiences. Now that we’re together, we asked, what can we do to make a difference in our community? Tarik Moody from 88.9, Jay Anderson, Johanna Rose, Airo Kwil, Bo Triplex, Zed Kenzo, Siren, a whole bunch of people were here—so we had a huge long dialogue. Obviously we’re all artists, and our form of protest is going to come through our music. We put together a music fest that came together the weekend of the Sherman Park situation. Then we started getting all these texts about what was going on: “You need to go home!” Actually, we were right in the middle of the right place right now, with all these beautiful people who understand. Music was the way to communicate that. Since then, it’s been a whole new mission for me.
What’s it like playing together as sisters? (Besides having trouble stopping laughing, like in this attempt at a photo…) “When you run into hard times with people who aren’t your siblings, you might end it,” Monique says. “With sisters, you work through it. For our Sofar session we played an original piece we’d done a million times before and since. It hasn’t happened since then, but we just vibed off each other in a different way, and when those moments happen it feels like it wouldn’t happen with anyone but my sister.”
Monique: It was a beautiful thing. Chauntee is the more vocal between us. For me personally, with everything that’s been going on recently, I realized I need to find my voice.
Chauntee: It’s sometimes very painful playing these songs. Like we have done the song “Strange Fruit” I think since the end of 2014, when Tamir Rice was killed.
I’d been to the art museum in Detroit and saw a quilt called Strange Fruit. The quilter had listed any name she could find of a person who had been lynched. And it was enormous. You know so many nobodies were not even represented. It was really heavy, and ever since then, that song meant a lot to me. There was no “Now we’re going to be social justice women.” But it was like this is what’s happening, and it’s reaching us on so many levels: our nephews, father, brother, friends.
The power of song and lyrics, the power of sound to pull on heartstrings…from there you can go and hopefully make some type of small difference in one person’s life.
Monique: The only way things change is if people make it happen. Hopefully it will spread and something will change.
PWP: When you play, your body, your heart, your soul is just so obviously part of your music.
Chauntee: I’m so glad that comes through. One of our teachers used to ask: What do you want to say when you play this? He showed us how to move our hands, our bodies, to share a feeling, get to the audience’s heart—it’s a whole different way to relate to students.
That’s why I’m so passionate about the future of musical education. So many kids are going to come up and do some shit because they have the right tools to get a message across to anyone who hears them. That’s the thing that keeps me from being down on myself, the community, the country and whatnot.
When I think about the possibilities of the future, what we can do in a feasible way makes me very, very happy.
Catch SistaStrings on December 10 at the VoodooHoney Unveiling Show, January 19 at FemFest, and watch their Facebook page for more.
[Photos by Alysse.]
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