MUSIC | “As the Rhythm Changes”: Mankwe Ndosi explores the crossroads of music and poetry


Mankwe Ndosi is a one-woman clearinghouse of accomplished artistry. For going on a second decade, after establishing herself at a young age on Penumbra’s stage in Keith Glover’s masterpiece Coming of the Hurricane, Ndosi steadily has built a flourishing, multi-faceted career, never letting renown at one artform pigeonhole her into limited horizons.

For instance, she’s long been heralded as a fixture in Twin Cities spoken word—one who, around 2000, segued into singing and musical improvisation. For the full lowdown, her press bio reads, “Mankwe Monika Nkatuati Ndosi, vocalist, producer and multidisciplinary performer, has been working for over a decade in the mediums of theater, dance, music, spoken word, and improvisation.” She is a part of Douglas R. Ewart & Orchestra Inventions (an improvisational group rooted in creative black music and based in Chicago), is on the board of Speak-Out Sisters, and works with the group “in the belly” on creative workshops for youth and incarcerated populations. She orchestrates a “freestyle playroom for all creative disciplines,” the Friday Front Porch, from 4-7 p.m. at Bedlam Theatre on Minneapolis’s West Bank every other Friday through June 18th.

This week, you can catch her performing with Aimee K. Bryant, Sarah Greer, Libby Turner-Opanga, and Kenna Sarge in As the Rhythm Changes: songs, improv, and movement devised by Ndosi featuring instruments by Ewart. For this work she curates conversation and concepts to examine and illuminate aspects of the one constant in our lives that never stays the same, change. A daughter of Minneapolis—she’ll pipe right up and spiritedly tell you, “I was born at the University of Minnesota”—she met me right after shuttling in from her other base of creative operations, the Windy City. Last week, gearing up for the premiere of As the Rhythm Changes, she met with me at Mapps Cafe on the West Bank and chatted over tea and coffee.

You called from the airport. Where were you on your way in from?
Chicago. I had a gig out there. I’ve been going back and forth about ten years. Doing [work with] the creative music community there, at places like the Velvet Lounge. Actually, Douglas Ewart is collaborating with me on As the Rhythm Changes, letting me use some of his instruments.

Is the group Poetree still goin’ on in Chicago?
I’m not sure. I’ve been less involved in the spoken word community and more with musicians. I did a lot of spoken word. Was in a group Arkology with e. g. bailey. I’d been singing, but I’ve started doing more [of it]. Douglas heard some of the experiments I was doing and started bringing me to Chicago about ten years ago. I’ve kind of had two very different performance communities. As the Rhythm Changes is at the intersection.

Where’d It come from?
I started mulling around in my head, to look at, okay, what is the crux of change, what makes us change, when is change real. There are different rhythms, different lengths, like musical phrases. Starting and stopping to some of it. Sometimes, like, look at Haiti. New Orleans. There’s no going back. Having a child, there is no going back. You’re never going to be the same. I try to talk about these things without getting didactic, too preachy. I started to do some residencies around the issues, to talk to people and think deeply about how do you start a conversation. Ultimately, in performance or not, just in terms of relationships, it feels like stories are are what help us see each other. Even across differences, across paths. We see each other in very small windows. We make judgments based on those windows. Our stories allows us to link up with each other.

You started with residencies?
I figured [they] involved too many people. So, I began doing interviews with people in the Twin Cities. A little bit in suburbs. I have a relationship with a community in Wykoff, a farming community. There’s a woman, Eva Barr, a theatre artist. She and her husband run an organic farm, Dream Acres. In the summertime, they have a creative camp for kids, an artists camp. I came out and did performance with the [children] for a couple of summers. It’s called Flourish. Now it’s for adults as well.

How’d go about bringing in artists to do As the Rhythm Changes?
I gathered together women who I really enjoy singing and performing with. Who I’ve also done improvisational work with. I love to harmonize with Aimee. She’s an amazing performer.

What’s next?
I’ve working on a second CD [following Do Gooder Blues] with Medium Zach of Big Quarters. I just came from doing some work with Nicole Mitchell at the Museum of Contemporary Art. I’ll be doing some work in Chcago. And in my garden.

Mankwe Ndosi’s As the Rhythm Changes premieres May 14th and 15th at 7:30 p.m., May 16th at 2 p.m., Dreamland Arts Performance Studio. Tickets: $12.