Editor's note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan Second Wave's On the Ground Battle Creek series.
The world premiere of a musical piece composed by Flint native Gary Powell Nash
will be among the highlights of a concert on February 26 in honor of Black History Month featuring the Cereal City Concert Band
and the vocal talents of Carmen Bell, a soprano who lives in Battle Creek.
piece titled “Somewhere Within” will be one of many musical selections by African American composers that will be performed by the CCCB.
Heather Lane-Fowler, Treasurer and Operations Manager for the CCCB, says the world premiere of Nash’s piece came about as a result of the friendship between Stephen White, the CCCB’s Conductor, and Nash, Professor of Music Theory and Technology at Fisk University and conductor for the Fisk University Jazz Ensemble, which began when the two were students at Michigan State University. She says Nolan Cardenas, a former clarinet player with the CCCB who now works for the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, came up with the theme for the concert and the musical selections are an outgrowth of that theme.
“The composers we are playing, some are new and some are less known, but we’re concentrating on Black history. This is the first concert we’re doing featuring all-Black composers,” says Lane-Fowler a flutist with the CCCB. “The selection of the music we’re playing gives us an opportunity to perform music we’ve not done before and gives the audience opportunities to listen to lesser-known music. It’s educational for all of us and to listen to Carmen on top of that, it’s going to be something very special. We as a band are really looking forward to working with her.”
Bell, an Adjunct Professor of Music at Kellogg Community College, says she has been spending a lot of time working through how she’ll give voice to a poem associated with “Somewhere Within” which she’ll be performing.
Lane-Fowler says “Somewhere Within” is an orchestral piece, but written with a soprano soloist in mind.
"Somewhere Within" by Flint composer Gary Powell Nash is being premiered at Cereal City's Feb. concert.
“The piece is eight minutes long and very contemporary. Mr. Nash describes himself as neo-classical and avant-garde and the piece definitely has that feel," Bell says. “I will be singing for eight minutes.”
Because she will be the first to perform “Somewhere Within” she doesn’t have the benefit of listening to how it was sung by others and says this makes the entire process more exciting and challenging for her.
“It’s not something where I can just go and plug into YouTube to see how someone else sang it,” Bell says. “This gives me a lot of freedom to make it my own which is really cool.”
While she looks forward to performing in front of a hometown crowd, she says she thinks the CCCB’s decision to perform the music of African American composers is “amazing.”
“African American composers from the 20th
Century are not well known because their music isn’t played often,” Bell says.
Soloist Carmen Bell, Battle Creek soprano, will be premiering "Somwehere Within."
As an example, she cites the works of Edmund Dede
, a Creole from New Orleans who went to Cuba before the Civil War and then went on to France where he became one of that country’s most famous composers.
“The Cereal City Band could have picked one song everyone knows. Instead, they’re giving people the opportunity to hear music that isn’t performed and keep that music alive,” Bell says. “There’s a huge community out there doing amazing things with African American composers. I think that it’s been happening more within the last 10 years, but it depends on the area.”
As a board member of the Southwestern Michigan Urban League
, Bell says she always tries to give a performance or participate in other activities to commemorate Black History Month. She says she hopes that the focus on African American composers and their music will happen throughout the year and not just in February.
“I would like to see these composers and their music become standard parts of concerts,” Bell says.
A hyper-local experience
The CCCB was founded in 1987 by 14 employees from various government agencies within the Hart Dole Inouye Federal Center in Battle Creek who played Christmas Carols during their lunch hour. This group originated from a government agency, Quality Circle Change Initiative, which recommended that a Federal Center band be organized to play for internal Federal Center functions.
The band grew and became known as Uncle Sam's Band before eventually changing its name to the Cereal City Concert Band.
Cereal City Concert Band's next performance takes place Feb. 26.
The band, a non-profit, has grown to 54 musicians ranging in age from 17 to 83, says Ken Kropen, a CCCB board member who plays trumpet with the band.
“We are an all-volunteer band with musicians who come from all walks of life,” Kropen says. “We get together for our love of music.”
Although the majority of the CCCB’s musicians live in Battle Creek, members also come from Kalamazoo, Lansing, and Marshall. They perform three concerts each year, in addition to participating in community events during the summer.
Despite being in existence for 36 years and playing numerous concerts in Battle Creek, Lane-Fowler says. “It’s been a struggle” to pack venues where they perform.
“We always kind of tease that we are the best-kept secret in Battle Creek,” she says. “It’s really hard to publicize what we’re all about. We’re an all-volunteer group so we don’t have a budget for a marketing person. We just do the best we can with the limited staff that we have.The musicians work very hard to present a concert full of high-quality entertainment and enlightening performances for the good of Battle Creek and some of these musicians are in numerous groups so this is really their passion.”
That passion extends to the upcoming concert featuring Bell who will be performing for the first time with the CCCB’s musicians.
Bell’s love of music, particularly classical music, began as a child growing up in Battle Creek with a father who played the cello. After graduating from high school in 1968, Bell’s father had a full ride to Western Michigan University in Music.
“He ended up turning it down because of family obligations,” Bell says. “He got an Associate's Degree in Music and retired from the State of Michigan as a Social Worker. I’m the oldest of six and I feel like I’m an extension of the opportunity he had to focus on Music at Western. I had the opportunity to do something he was not able to totally see through.”
She originally majored in Education at WMU. A choir class there that she took “for fun” was all it took for her to “fall in love with singing” and pursue a degree in Music. She earned a Bachelor’s degree in Music from WMU and a Master’s degree in Music from Eastern Michigan University.
“Singing was extremely hard at first, especially when I was at Western, but I had really good support there. Professor Carl Ratner did a really good job of making sure I was connected and knew other Black singers out there,” Bell says. “It definitely was a struggle. What makes me happy now is to go online and see that there’s this huge group of students of color majoring in different areas of music.”
Now in her tenth year of teaching at KCC, Bell says she is hired to sing at various events and performs in faculty recitals at KCC. In November she performed with the Battle Creek Symphony Orchestra. She says she sings more for her enjoyment and isn’t interested in establishing a singing career or becoming famous because teaching is her calling.
“Teaching is my passion. I love being able to help people and watch my students learn and grow,” Bell says. “I have students who have degrees in music and they have really good careers.”
She says Battle Creek is home for her and she’s looking forward to being able to perform for an audience that will include her family who she says has been very supportive of her personally and professionally.
Lane-Fowler says the CCCB wants to support musicians like Bell as well as the community.
“We’re a growing ensemble and we are an ensemble of really good musicians and we want to support our community,” she says. “By putting on these concerts, we want to support our entire community and February being Black History Month is a good time to highlight that total support.”
The concert will take place Sunday, Feb. 26, 2023 at 3 p.m. at the Pennfield Performing Arts Center, 8299 Pennfield Rd. in Battle Creek. Tickets at the door are $10 for adults and $5 for students, seniors, and veterans.