Young, gifted, and black
by arwulf arwulf
From the May, 2019 issue
Teenaged cellist Ifetayo Ali-Landing's online presence includes a trail of videos leading back to her earliest public performances of chestnuts from the European classical repertoire. The one that moves me the most, shot three years ago, shows her navigating the swirling, jagged emotional terrain of the opening movement from Dmitri Shostakovich's Cello Concerto No. 1. Every time I replay it, her throw-down approach to this passionate piece of work gives me gooseflesh. Somehow the gifted, self-assured young woman from Chicago has managed to internalize all of that powerhouse Slavic duende and make it her own.
During interviews and a TEDx talk, she is politely candid about her initial feelings of intimidation and estrangement as a "little African American girl" entering a field largely dominated by Asian and Caucasian performers. Continuous encouragement and unwavering emotional support from her parents have bolstered her confidence. But she is growing up in the shadow of a deeply entrenched, racially encoded caste system that continues to marginalize classical musicians of African descent, who constitute approximately two percent of the players in American orchestras today.
Ifetayo's mother, violinist and educator Lucinda Ali-Landing, grew up on Chicago's South Side and founded the Hyde Park Suzuki Institute in 1998. In honor of the family's West African ancestry, her daughters Adjedmaa, Ifetayo, and Kai Isoke each underwent a traditional Yoruba naming ceremony. All three girls began playing the violin as soon as they were able to stand; Ifetayo switched to cello at the age of four and has been inseparable from the instrument ever since.
The philosophy of life on which the teachings of Shinichi Suzuki were founded emphasizes mindfulness, personal development, and character building, rather than the forging of famous child prodigies. Suzuki believed that exposing children to musical instruments as early as possible enables them to absorb the language of music as readily and lastingly as they do when learning their mother tongue.
While Ifetayo's many awards and accolades are important milestones, the homeschooled teenager insists that
she has a lot in common with other people her age. She enjoys singing, dancing, and soccer, and has mentioned Beyonce, Twenty One Pilots, Chance the Rapper, and Alabama Shakes among her favorite popular musicians. "I even shaved my head and had a mohawk when I was nine," she adds.
Everything suggests that whatever she accomplishes will be done exceptionally well. Will she balance her interest in computer programming and investment banking with her devotion to the instrument that is her constant companion? Her fans and admirers will continue to watch and listen.
Ifetayo Ali-Landing will present a matinee chamber recital at Kerrytown Concert House on May 19.
[Originally published in May, 2019.]
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