Many Conversations in North Dakota

By Lindajoy Fenley

Several opportunities for deeper conversations—from the well-attended reception on the first day in town to an impromptu post-concert party in our hotel lobby—happened during the Wahpeton, North Dakota, residency last week.


Older hands and little hands move to the music during Arts Midwest World Fest workshops.

All Arts Midwest World Fest workshops feature Q&A sessions where audiences ask artists about their country, culture, and music. At high schools, students sometimes ask only a couple questions, while at many elementary schools there are so many curious kids that it’s impossible to respond to them all. Invariably, many of their questions are familiar.

Many people in Wahpeton also sought out closer contact with Lorraine Klaasen and her ensemble. One was two-year-old Josephine, who danced every minute of the Saturday night concert. Another was a well-dressed centenarian at Saint Catherine’s Living Center, who told the South African singer she’d still be remembering Lorraine on her 100th birthday next May.


Two fans got to spend more time with Lorraine Klaasen after workshops.

In addition to the wide age range of people the ensemble reached during the week—from the young dancer to elderly people in the Arts for Life program to everyone in between at elementary and secondary schools plus a college—the South African artists also met Native Americans from various tribes.


Drum circle greeting for Lorraine and her ensemble at Circle of Nations.


Reception line where all students greeted each member of Lorraine Klaasen’s ensemble before the workshop at Circle of Nations.

Young residents of the Circle of Nations, an inter-tribal off-reservation boarding school, greeted Lorraine’s ensemble with a drumming circle and a reception line. Girls too timid to ask questions during the Circle of Nations workshop took time to chat with the singer before the presentation at the Native American school.


Native girls ask Lorraine for an autograph.

However, when Lorraine asked why they found it easy to ask for an autograph before the workshop but not participate in the Q&A, one replied they had approached her earlier because she looked bored. The singer, who had already told how she had come from a disadvantaged situation to find success by following her dream, warned them against being bored or even using the word. “I’m never bored,” she said. “Boredom leads to trouble.”


Posed photo at the end of the workshop at Circle of Nations.

Guitarist and Musical Director Mongezi Ndaka, who rode in the lead vehicle everyday while the rest of the ensemble followed in a van, had a chance to find out a lot about North Dakota life from our host Wayne Beyer of the Wahpeton Parks and Recreation Department.


Wayne Beyer took the ensemble to sites around Wahpeton for photos on our day off.

“We had very good candid talks,” Wayne said. “He’s a reader and I’m a reader too. He’s a gardener, and I am too. We had a lot in common. It was non-stop talk… It was truly a great experience for us.”


Bryan Akipa’s red cedar flutes.

Mongezi also enjoyed extended conversations about current Native American issues during the week. He met with Bryan Akipa, an acclaimed Dakota Flute Maker and Player and 2016 National Endowment for the Arts National Heritage Fellow, before Akipa played seven of his handmade flutes at an art reception at the Red Door Art Gallery. Mongezi also had long conversations with artists Laura and Felix Youngbird, both at the gallery reception and the post-concert party.


Felix Youngbird tells Mongezi how he applied photos of his ancestors to an old buffalo skull.


Mongezi chats with Laura and Felix Youngbird at the post-concert party.

Other ensemble members also had interesting conversations with community members at the post-concert party. Drummer Noel Mpiaza, originally from the Congo, explained the complex and conflictive situations of several African nations to Roelle Bertsch and her husband Larry Merbach. Roelle, a member of the Wahpeton city council as well as the Three Rivers Arts Council that hosted Arts Midwest World Fest, accompanied the group throughout the week.


Noel chats with Larry Merbach.

Andre Whiteman, bass player, found lots to talk about with Beth Gigante Klingenstein, the executive director of the North Dakota Council on the Arts. Both are professional musicians who have been involved in education. Dr. Klingenstein had driven about four hours from Bismarck, ND, to attend the concert.


Andre chats with Beth Gigante Klingenstein.

There are so many wonderful Wahpeton memories that it’s difficult to sum it all up. There were great conversations, excited children who knew something about South Africa even before we arrived, and surprisingly warm days. One last surprise was that after I had dashed out to the lobby to set up the CD table after the ensemble took a final bow, I continued to hear live music. The warm Wahpeton community’s plea for an encore brought on a song I hadn’t heard before: “Meadowlands,” a hauntingly beautiful protest song about the forced removals from the township Sophiatown in apartheid-era South Africa.


Final bow in Wahpeton, ND.

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