COMMUNITY VOICES | Words from a composer: Creating “Olorund and the Orishas”


There is a new, intriguing orchestra on the Northside today – the Hopewell Community Orchestra.  The orchestra is comprised of students of a variety of ages, skills, and has both Hopewell students and community members. At Hopewell’s 2nd Annual Founders Day Funder this past April the orchestra had the opportunity to give a world premiere of Dameun Strange’s “Olorund and the Orishas.” 

Andre Bronson, age 18, plays the violin and when asked how he felt about performing the piece, stated “Playing Dameun’s piece was a lot of fun. I was nervous because no one has heard it before… but I thought of the story the piece told while playing it and had fun and the piece practically played itself.” Staff member Martha Chataleine asked Mr. Strange if he would explain the process he went through in composing his piece, and he was kind enough to put it into the following words. They will be playing it again as a part of their program during their Contemporary Composer Concert on Saturday, May 17th/3pm at North United Methodist Church, 4350 Fremont Ave North, Minneapolis, which is free and open to the public.

What type of musical piece is your orchestral composition?  “Olorund and the Orishas is a fantasy for string orchestra and piano that I composed specifically for the Hopewell Community Orchestra at the request of its director, Ellie Fregni.

Why did you compose it specifically for the Hopewell Orchestra?  It didn’t really come as a surprise that Ellie Fregni would be seeking original pieces for the orchestra as supporting local composers had always been a part of the vision of Hopewell when we created the cooperative. Ellie was very interested in what she described as a “composer sandbox” and was I extremely excited about the possibility of such a program based in North Minneapolis.

What was your thought process when writing this piece?  When Ellie asked me to write a piece for orchestra I had two things in mind from the very beginning; one was to write a piece that would be stylistically interesting and still be accessible and challenging for the multiple levels of playing ability that were present in the orchestra, and second was to continue my mission of writing pieces that tell stories about and from the African Diaspora.

When did you first have contact with anyone from Hopewell?  I first met Ellie and Jaette, the two other founders of Hopewell, when they were playing in my 15 member ensemble for a 2011 MN Fringe Festival show, Railing Forward, a collaboration with choreographer Erinn Liebhard.

Have you composed any other pieces?  I had composed the John Henry Suite for dance for the Minnesota Fringe Festival show in 2011. It was really the first of my African Diaspora story pieces. That show also featured my Langston Hughes song cycle, Dream Variations.

Can you explain the story of Olorun and the Orishas for our readers?  The tale of Olorun and the Orishas is inspired by one of the stories about the divinities in the Yoruba Pantheon from West Africa. Olorun is one the three manifestations of the Supreme Being and is known as the Ruler of the Sky. In this tale, the Orishas, the lesser gods are gathered essentially discussing how they could easily do Olorun’s job. Olurun overhears the conversation and decides to give them the opportunity. As the orishas set about taking on the responsibility things quickly go awry. The Orisha’s beg Olurun to set things right again.

And how does the instrumentation reflect the story?  In the piece, I use the low strings in pizzicato and sometimes staccato bowing to represent the footsteps of Olorun. Another fun device I use is the portmento in the high strings towards the end as Olurun sets things back into place after the Orishas experiment goes wrong. The portamento has the high strings sliding between notes; one could imagine or interpret this as Olorun shifting rocks and trees and such back into place.

Do you think that the Hopwell Orchestra performed the piece to your satisfaction?  Overall, I was extremely pleased with the piece and the performance by the orchestra. Many parents enjoyed the piece and wondered if I would continue to tell more of the tales from that Pantheon. Initially, it was going to be a “one off piece” but I have been inspired to continue to explore the Yoruba Pantheon. So look for more tales in the future.”