All Together Now: Border CrosSing Unites Communities through the Power of Song

Article by Anitra Budd

It’s not a stretch to say Ahmed Anzaldúa lives for music. Not only is he founder and director of Border CrosSing—a St. Paul organization focused on bringing Latin American choral music to new audiences— Anzaldúa also holds master’s degrees in piano performance and choral conducting, as well as a doctorate in music conducting from the University of Minnesota. And when he’s not working with Border CrosSing, he serves as director of music ministries at Unity Church – Unitarian, also in St. Paul.

Anzaldúa took time from his packed schedule to talk with MRAC about Border CrosSing’s history, his hopes for the future, and how choral music connects to his deep love of community. His comments here have been edited for length and clarity.

How did Border CrosSing get its start?
At first, it was just me and a group of musician friends. During our first year, the 2017–2018 season, we gained a bit of a following, but nothing huge. Then, in the summer of 2019, the Minnesota Orchestra had a program where they were going to fly in a Venezuelan choir to do a large-scale Latin American work called La Pasión. Because of the political situation in Venezuela, they weren’t able to bring the choir here, and they had to find a replacement. At the time we were pretty much the only choral group in the US consistently doing Latin American music at that level, so they chose us to perform with them. That concert ended up being one of the best reviewed of the year and just a big success for us generally.

What kinds of programming does the organization do?
We have four key program areas. The first is Puentes, our multilingual concert series. Puentes concerts are presented by a professional ensemble and centered around Latin American music, art, and culture, and collaborations with Latin American artists in Latin American spaces. The second program area is Community Sing, a more informal event series where people come together to learn different communal songs connected to an event or holiday, like Mother’s Day, for example. Our third programming area is school outreach—for two years we’ve sent a smaller ensemble into K-12 schools to give educational performances. And finally, our fourth program area is Heritage Choir, led by musician Natalia Romero. Heritage is a larger group, open to all skill levels, that focuses on entry-level choral singing. It’s based in one of the communities where we perform our Community Sings, so it’s building on connections and support we’ve grown over the last three years.

How does a Puentes concert come together?
We follow several guiding principles when building a Puentes series. First, the performances have to be relevant to Latinx cultures. We try to find stories that resonate with the Latinx experiences, build intentional connections between Latinx communities and other communities in the Twin Cities, and bring something new to the accepted narrative of what Latinx culture is.

Second, they have to be accessible. A lot of the time we think of accessibility as making our concerts affordable, so they’re all free of charge or pay what you can. But we also pay attention to how the concerts are presented. We try to make sure they’re at convenient times and places for the communities we’re performing in, and to maintain an informal atmosphere generally—we talk with the audience, we don’t come onstage in a single file, we have toys for kids, and so on. I also introduce each piece once in Spanish and once in English, to make the program easier to follow.

The final piece is accurate representation of different aspects of Latinx culture. Part of that work involves trying to put the work in a context that goes beyond music—What’s the history behind a particular piece? Where does it come from? How does it fit into a larger cultural narrative?

I would also add that we’re highly committed to appropriate payment for artists. Our board is half musicians, so a lot of our practices are centered around ensuring our work is sustainable and that we’re never abusing our power or exploiting artists. For example, we’ve never asked musicians to do anything for free. Some donate back what they make or volunteer or help us in other ways. But we’re committed to fair payment, and at the moment, I would say we’re one of the better-paying ensembles in town for professional musicians. Even now, as we’re talking about cancellations for the coronavirus outbreak, the idea of canceling shows and not paying musicians who’ve already committed simply isn’t a possibility.

What are your goals for Border CrosSing—any plans for expansion?
Part of our mission is to integrate historically segregated audiences and repertoire artists. Border CrosSing started with me trying to better represent my culture in the field of choral music, but gradually it became obvious that what’s true of how Latin American culture is portrayed in classical and choral music is true of many other underrepresented minorities. So our hope in the longer term is that our Puentes work can serve as a model for launching similar projects related to other underrepresented cultural groups here in the Twin Cities.

What’s your relationship with MRAC been like?
Simply put, we wouldn’t be around without MRAC. Back in our first year, we knew we wanted to create something, but we didn’t know how to go about creating it. At the time I was getting my doctorate at the U, and I had some free credits available, so I signed up for a class in nonprofit management taught by Laura Zabel of Springboard for the Arts. That class generally and Laura in particular were a big part of making Border CrosSing happen. She taught us how to write a grant application, how to articulate our ideas, and how to plan generally. She also put me in touch with Greg Nielsen at MRAC, who was so helpful with our first grant application, not just in putting it together but also in giving our projects shape and focus. With his help, we got that first Arts Project Support grant, which made our first entire season happen. I would say that grant is still funding three or four out of roughly ten projects per season.

With your academic and artistic background, there any many paths you could’ve taken into the world of music—why choral singing?
It might sound clichéd, but community is really important to me. Before Border CrosSing, I was a full-time pianist, and I worked with a lot of choirs. Through that work, I realized just how lonely the life of a full-time pianist is, and how much brighter, fuller, and richer my life was when I was directing ensembles, working as a conductor—collaborating with people, in other words. So I concluded that for me, choral music was better for my mental and emotional health than focusing on being a pianist or an academic. Also, I just fell in love with the choral repertoire—the music itself really, really speaks to me.

To learn more about Border CrosSing, including information about upcoming performances, visit their website at https://bordercrossingmn.org/.

Anitra Budd is a freelance copywriter and editor for a variety of clients, including independent authors, the Loft Literary Center, FedEx, Thrivent Financial, Wise Ink, Red Line Editorial, and 3M. In her past job as editor at Coffee House Press she worked with a number of authors, including Kirsten Kaschock, T. Geronimo Johnson, Kate Bernheimer, Ron Padgett, Lincoln Michel, Christopher Merkner, and many others. In addition to her writing and editorial work, she’s an editor mentor in the low-residency MFA program at Sierra Nevada College (Incline Village, Nevada) and has taught courses at the University of Minnesota and Macalester College.

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