Unification News for January 2005

String Quartet Creates Positive Image

By Bill Banks

Twelve years ago, the Rev. Elayssandria Kasongo, or "Rev. Elay," founded the United Family of Strings, a quartet of three violins and one cello.

This is a woman, born in San Francisco and raised in both northern and southern California, who has lived a singular life in her own right. She's a harpist and pianist with classical training, and a vocalist fluent in opera, traditional Christian hymns and black gospel.

For a time, she played the role of real life early-19th century slave "Miss Katie," re-enacting the woman's grand storytelling and gospel-belting persona at Stone Mountain Park.

She and her husband, Congolese-born Jean Kasongo, moved to Stone Mountain from New York City seven years ago. Although she has three biological children, she and her husband have long opened their homes to kids from diverse faiths and economic backgrounds. Some stay for a few weeks, some remain for years, with the Kasongos serving not in an official adoptive or foster capacity but, in the Rev. Elay's words, as "parental mentors."

From this perennial pageant of children came the origins of United Family of Strings.

"I had this conscious idea," Kasongo said, "of having young people play classical music for other young people."

"But the main emphasis behind this idea," she said, "was to create a positive image for African-Americans. Oftentimes the image of African-American youth is one of violence, decadence, of terrible disrespect. We want to show there is much more to life than drugs, violence, and this intense self-centered lifestyle."

Playing everywhere

By its very definition, the United Family of Strings, a classical quartet in which musicians pay constant attention to one another, is the antithesis of self-centeredness.

After a decade, the group now has a stable roster of violinists Shirley Mawejje, 20, Marlena Nkene and Angie Kifufu, both 24, and cellist Cynthia Mulat, 23. Nkene is Elay's daughter, though all of the four have known each other for years and at times all have lived with the Kasongos. All of them are students at DeKalb Tech.

When it comes to venues, the musicians have few limitations. They play at elementary and middle schools, Underground Atlanta, groceries, and restaurants like Decatur's Piccadilly Cafeteria.

Often they play for tips, or for a straight fee if they're performing weddings, banquets or corporate events. Sometimes, however, if they're at a homeless shelter or at a senior citizens home, they play for nothing.

Their repertoire consists primarily of Mozart, Bach, Vivaldi, and Schubert, along with (this time of year) a generous sampling of Christmas music.

"For the most part, the kids who hear us are great," said Mawejje. "Many [of the African-American children] don't even know what our instruments are. They say, 'What's that - a guitar?' It opens their minds."

"The little kids sometimes just zone out when they hear our music," Nkene said. "Some of the bigger kids will ask us to play [rapper] 50 Cent or other hip hop. They might say, 'Hey, you're supposed to be ghetto - this isn't black music.' But we just smile and say, 'Yes, but doesn't it sound so pretty?' "

Jean Kasongo, who books the group and tracks finances, says the United Family of Strings earns $10,000 to $12,000 annually. A portion of that pays the quartet's expenses, but most goes toward charities the Kasongos support: homeless shelters, battered women's shelters, or buying food and clothing for the many children who pass through their home.

Both Kasongos are ordained ministers and belong to the Atlanta Family Church, a branch of the Family Federation for World Peace and Unification, the movement founded 50 years ago by the Rev. Sun Myung Moon. The movement founded by the Korean-born and sometimes-controversial Moon has often been called a cult.

Jean Kasongo, who joined the Family Federation in 1977 (Rev. Elay joined in 1974) said that Moon "is not trying to steal messiahship from Jesus. He is a mainstream Christian whose ideas center around peace and a family-based and intercultural-based ministry."

It was church-related mission work that brought the Kasongos and their classical aggregation to New York City in September 2001.

"On the morning of September 11," said Mawejje, "we were playing at Grand Central Station. And suddenly people started coming out of the subway in tears. At first we thought it was because we were playing so good.

"But then somebody said, 'Didn't you hear that planes have crashed into the twin towers.' We wound up staying up there for a month. We actually met children whose parents worked in those buildings."

Elayssandria Kasongo said that whether they're playing in New York on Sept. 11, or delivering a Mozart lullaby at Piccadilly Cafeteria, "These girls have become seasoned artists with character."

Her daughter Nkene adds, "Of course we'd like to become famous, to gain professional recognition. But the main point always has to be that we're not out for ourselves. I think if we had one main goal, it would be to see these kids learn the history of these instruments, and these composers, and start playing for themselves."

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