Two Hashel Families, One Musical Offering to the Community

Two Hashel Families – One Musical Offering to the Community

by Earl Ross, Walker|West Faculty

Each year the Hashel Family of string players are asked to perform for the Christmas pageant at St. Peter Claver Catholic Church in St. Paul. The church, which sits on the North side of interstate 94 just East of Lexington Avenue, exists as the oldest predominately African American Catholic Church in Minnesota. The Hashels’ have attended St. Peter since their parents emigrated from the East African country of Eritrea in the 1990’s. The girls have grown up in the church, with several attending the church’s elementary and middle schools. From a very early age each of the Hashel girls have performed in the Christmas Pageant. For nearly 15 years, starting with Saliem, a member of the Hashel family has provided music for the event at the historic church. Christmas pageants are a tradition in many churches, but they are especially poignant in black churches, when one stops to consider that enslaved Africans were not allowed to worship together in their own churches in many parts of the South. The formation of African American churches stems from both a rejection by white congregations and a desire to worship in spaces that value the contributions of black culture.

This year at St. Peter Claver, like many churches, synagogues and mosques who celebrate the season within their traditions, has had to recalibrate how they gather. Things are necessarily different because of the coronavirus pandemic. What would normally bring families together in the warmth of the church to watch another generation of young people reciting the Christmas story and singing carols, has been suspended. We experience the holidays through the camera lens of our computers and phones these days. Music performance is more intimate and personal, less communal and collective. It doesn’t really feel quite like Christmas for many of us.

On Saturday, December 19th, 2020, the Hashels brought their violins and violas to the church to record music for the season. The sanctuary was empty except for their parents, a few cameras’ Benny Moreno, Walker West’s photographer and ( myself ) Earl Ross, their string instructor. Donned in their masks, sisters Saliem (22), Ariam (19), Asla (17), Rahel (13), and their cousins, Ream (15) and Senhit (13), played holiday favorites ranging from “Carol of the Bells” to “Angels We Have Heard on High”. The recordings will be shared with members of St. Peter and Camphor United Methodist Church, another predominately African American church located in the historic Rondo neighborhood. The Hashels have performed at Camphor for many years too and have been adopted as members of their worship community. Even in an empty sanctuary, magic was being made. There hadn’t been any time to rehearse together. Some of the students were sight reading their parts. Although I had shared some of the music, I warned them that I would be bringing additional music to “read through”. As their string teacher, I watched them, recalling how each of them struggled to hold the instrument and draw the bow across the strings for the first time. Here they were, their own unique beautiful wondrous personalities reflected in their playing.

One of the holiday pieces they recorded, is a medley of “I Wonder as I Wander” and “Rise Up Shepard and Follow”. The publisher titles the work as “Two Spirituals”. The work begins with a viola solo ( Ariam ) playing the haunting melody of “I Wonder as I Wander” unaccompanied. The ensemble then comes in with the melody picked up in the violins. When repeated, some of the violins play the melody an octave higher creating multiple registers that build to a climax that transitions from 3/4 to 4/4 time for the more jubilant, “Rise Up Shepard and Follow.”

Many may be unfamiliar with these two holiday songs. While described as a “Spiritual” in some publications, “I Wonder as I Wander” was actually “discovered” in 1933 by the folklorist, John Jacob Niles during his travels in the Appalachians of North Carolina. He only heard a fragment of the song. He later completed the additional stanzas and published the poem. Interestingly, Langston Hughes, the African American Poet, would later title his autobiographical journey of this same name in 1956. “Rise Up Shepard and Follow” was first published in 1891 as an embedded part of the fictional tale, “Christmas Gifts” by Ruth Stuart. Some years later, Hampton University ( Virginia ), published the song in their student journal, “The Southern Workman” ( February 1902 ). The school, a historic black college, was known for it’s collection and authentication of musical expression of the African in North America.

Befitting the history of the Rondo Community, the black churches established in this neighborhood and Walker West Music Academy, the Hashels provide their rendition of of these beautiful, but little-known Christmas/ Holiday songs.

All of the Hashels began their violin and viola training at Walker West. All are members or alumnae of the Minnesota Youth Symphonies and several have been participants in the Artaria Chamber Music School. Saliem, Ariam and Asla are also alumnae of the nationally acclaimed Sphinx Performance Academy. While in MYS, Saliem traveled to Cuba.

It is a rare treat to have all of the Hashels together. Saliem is a senior at St. Olaf College (MN) studying pre-med and music, and Ariam is a first year at Vaderbilt University (TN), studying computer science and music. Asla is in her senior year at Woodbury.

Here at Walker West we look forward to bringing music to our community again. Our strings students have a tradition of performing holiday music in the December recital. This year, it too was conducted remotely. And though it was still special, we missed surrounding our audience in the Performance Hall for our finale. As we say goodbye to 2020, enjoy this offering. Walker West and The Hashels will look forward to seeing you next year – hopefully in person!

In gratitude to our community of string students and families, and all who support music/ arts education, Happy Holidays!

Earl Ross

Watch the entire holiday performance via youtube.

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