When Mankwe Ndosi was a little girl growing up in a basement apartment behind the old Viking Bar on Minneapolis’ West Bank, she became fascinated by a cat perched in front of an apartment across the way. She studied it, listened to it, sought to get its attention.
“Then one day, I made the right sounds. Once that cat turned its head and looked right through me, sure there was another cat around, I knew I had got it!” Ndosi cried, tagging the anecdote with one of her frequent heartfelt laughs.
Ndosi has been mesmerizing — and unsettling — cats, humans and other sentient beings with her voice ever since. She is quick to give credit to signal events that have helped her formulate her distinctive artistry.
Lullabies sung by her mother. The Miriam Makeba records her father brought over from his native Tanzania. Her Breck classmate Craig Taborn, now a renowned jazz pianist, telling her to sing anything that came to mind as they played together in the school chapel. Local jazz sage Douglas Ewart, hearing her off-the-cuff vocalese one day and inviting her to join his ensemble and eventually Chicago’s landmark jazz collective, the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM).
“She had a unique approach to singing that caught my attention,” Ewart recalled. “She was interested in sounds, unusual sounds, and she broke up the lines as she was singing as opposed to a ‘follow the chords, follow the melody’ approach. ... I asked her to join the ensemble not only for the vocal possibilities but the poetic possibilities.”
Almost two decades later, Ndosi is capping off a remarkable year of artistic growth by curating an ambitious monthlong series at Icehouse in Minneapolis that she calls Great Black Music Mondays.
Each Monday evening in December will begin with a half-hour soundtrack of a black woman jazz composer (in chronological order: Alice Coltrane, Geri Allen, Nicole Mitchell, Betty Carter and Abbey Lincoln). Then Ndosi will take the stage for a live show featuring a different ensemble each week, the styles ranging from Afro-centric hip-hop/jazz to avant-garde improvisation and even a vocal sextet. An open mic-style jam will close each evening.
“I wanted this to be more than concerts, to find a way to bring my experiences with the AACM in Chicago back here. That was my real graduate school,” said Ndosi, who chose the life of an artist over law school after graduating from Harvard in 1993.
“December is the time for people to come together and ruminate, marinate together, and strengthen our connections. I want this to create an environment for that to happen. And I am grateful that all these world-class musicians said yes to me.”
Among them is cellist Tomeka Reid, one of the most influential young performers in contemporary jazz. She was Ndosi’s roommate in Chicago in the early 2000s and appeared on her 2012 record “Science and Spirit.”
But more than fame, Ndosi has programmed the series with musicians who want to take chances. Who can, as she says, “take people on journeys they didn’t know they needed.”
The light and the flame
In sync with her musical work, Ndosi is a self-employed consultant working at the intersection of “creativity and healing justice,” including body-practice workshops and community dance and theater projects. All that is a natural outgrowth of her risk-taking artistry.
“I want to make spaces that are delicious and juicy but also provide some challenge, so we get used to being uncomfortable, sometimes in the service of finding something beautiful, or that builds a capacity in us to become more generous and nourishing human beings.”
Drummer Davu Seru recalls seeing Ndosi at the Acadia Café in Minneapolis nearly 15 years ago. “She brought awkwardness to the comforting illusion of art,” he marveled in a blog post on his website, pointing to a recent solo performance by Ndosi titled “Awkward Heat/Resistance” that included poetry, music, movement and drama.
Seru and Ewart will perform with her at Icehouse on Dec. 9 in a band that has never played before, called M4D. Another member is Douglas Kearney, a spoken-word artist who returned to the Twin Cities last year after a long stint at CalArts. He and Ndosi first performed together in May, but really established a connection this summer when Ndosi suggested a meeting to see if Kearney would be a good fit for the Icehouse series.
“It was a visceral connection,” Kearney said. For an hour, the pair just walked around and engaged in spontaneous song and wordplay.
“We did whatever came into our ears and our eyes and our heads,” he said. “There was everything from sketch comedy riffs to pop song to different sounds and utterances. We’d go deep into the passages of life and then go to the life cycles of ants in Argentina and on into breakfast cereals. It was like, ‘Will you go there?’ ‘Yeah, I’ll go there.’ ‘Is this too ridiculous?’ ‘No, not if you go here with it.’
“Whether it is an exaggeration into grotesquerie or the sweetest sound of a croon, Mankwe will go where it needs to go. She isn’t afraid to enter the space of conjuration, to make herself available not only to her technical craft but to the demands of her tradition.
“That unguarded capacity can make for extraordinary performances that can also make people uncomfortable. But if you want the light, you also have to catch the flame from her.”
Being a ‘beginner’
Of course Ndosi can be beguiling as well as challenging. When a series of local ensembles formed to honor AACM composer Henry Threadgill at the Walker last winter, she stole the show with a vocal rendition of Threadgill’s “Apricots on Their Wings” that was coquettish and sly, the texture of her voice stretched suggestively over the fanciful lyrics in a manner that was at once innocent and nasty.
Sarah Greer is one of six women in the a cappella group Give Get Sistet, which will close the Icehouse series Dec. 30. Her takeaway from working with Ndosi is that “a person can listen really well and accept new ideas and info, but also have a point of view that is clear and direct. That is so important when you are improvising, because it is hard to join in when someone is noncommittal and doesn’t have an idea that you can help develop.”
It is no coincidence that the artistic growth Ndosi has demonstrated in 2019 is mirrored by her personal development. In July, she said she was working on adopting the attitude of a beginner — a process that still continues, she says now.
“Every day I try and allow my belief that creativity, through music and poetry and dance and theater, is the way that we open and soften. Growth only happens where you are tender, not when you are rigid. Our opportunity is in those spaces which are the most tender, but also the most frightening in some ways.”
For the next five Mondays, those spaces will open up at Icehouse.
Britt Robson is a Minneapolis journalist and critic.