The magic of SistaStrings is equal parts talent, training and telepathy. Sisters Monique Ross, 27, and Chauntee Ross, 25, finish each other’s musical lines the way they do each other’s sentences. In fact, they can communicate on stage with just a glance or a smile. “In the moment we can read each other,” says Monique. “It’s something I don’t have with many other musicians.”
The sisters have been playing together since they both received violins for Christmas when Monique was 5 and Chauntee was 3. (Monique switched to cello at age 10.) Their musical foundation was formed through classical training and playing gospel music at Milwaukee’s New Testament Church, where they eventually learned to improvise. In college at the University of Michigan, Chauntee started improvising over jazz fusion recordings, which inspired the duo to branch out into other genres. Soon after, they incorporated their voices into the arrangements, and made their debut at Riverwest FemFest in 2014. Since then, they’ve performed with other local acts including rapper Klassik, orchestral Americana group Mike Mangione and the Union, and folk artist Peter Mulvey. “Within a few seconds of hearing them play, it was clear that they have put in their thousands of hours,” Mulvey says. “They are able to improvise, listen and be utterly present and musical.”
Ignoring what might be expected of traditional string ensembles, the sisters fill their sets with pieces ranging from Vivaldi’s Concerto in A to Sam Smith’s “Stay With Me” to “Tomorrow” from the musical Annie to their own compositions. “We enjoy everything,” Monique says.
Perhaps where they shine brightest is when they infuse old standards with new life. An uplifting arrangement of the Impressions’ “People Get Ready” and a mash-up of Nina Simone’s “Feeling Good” with the Handel-Halvorsen “Passacaglia” highlight both their skills and range. “We choose songs that mean a lot to us,” Chauntee says.
This summer, they combined their love of diverse music with their passion for social justice. With New Age Narcissism’s Jay Anderson, they spearheaded Strange Fruit, a three-day music festival devised to bring Milwaukeeans together over issues of race. The fest took place on an August weekend that saw racial tension boil over in Sherman Park, underscoring the significance of the musicians’ work toward unity. “What is important about the Milwaukee music scene is the cross-fertilization of lots of different musicians from different genres and different parts of the city being aware of and working with each other,” says David Ravel, a Strange Fruit co-producer and former curator of Alverno Presents. “Chauntee and Monique embody that.”
‘Common Thread’ appears in the November issue of Milwaukee Magazine.
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