I am not a music critic or a musician. I have been very blessed from an early age to witness up close and in person a lot of world class performances in a number of different genres: classical, folk, rock, jazz, and blues.
Jazz greats I have seen perform, some of them in small clubs with few people there, include Dave Brubeck, John Coltrane, Dizzy Gillespie, Charles Mingus, Thelonious Monk, Sonny Rollins, and Annie Ross. I am also a groupie for our local jazz masters: Bob Thompson and his Unit members - Tim Courts, John Inghram, Ryan Kennedy, and Doug Payne. These experiences have given me the feeling that I know good jazz when I hear it.
Listening to Minor Swing, featuring Alasha Al-Qudwah on fiddle and Ray Singleton on guitar, plus other guest guitarists, has been a revelation to me. I knew that their roots went back to Django Reinhardt and Stephane Grappelli in Paris in the 1930s. I only just learned that the term gypsy jazz is a relatively new term. There has been a renaissance of this genre with international musicians and festivals. Based on their new CD, I believe that Minor Swing deserves its own place in this universe.
If you have not heard their music, I suggest that you set this feature aside and let your fingers do the walking to their website, minorswingwv.com, where they are generously sharing their playlist. Better yet, donate to support digital access and buy a CD. Then come back to this feature to learn more about them.
In talking with Alasha and Ray via zoom, I could feel the same kind of energy, passion, depth, thoughtfulness, and attention to quality and detail that I could hear in their music. There were even moments – evoking my favorite experiences with live jazz – where the flow of their words demonstrated the gee whiz wonder of listening to and building on each other’s flights of inspiration.
Ray told us that making music makes him happy. If he can share this feeling with other people through his music, that is what it is all about.
Alasha said that music is personal for her. It originally saved her from a rough path growing up. She was raised mainly by her grandmother, who we discovered I had known as a bright light in the DHHR office where we both worked back in the eighties. Music gave Alasha inspiration, meaning, and the enjoyment of playing with others in our local youth orchestra. She wants to help children especially, and the rest of us also, make the same discovery of how music can accompany us through joy and sadness and help us to comfort each other.
Both Alasha and Ray have a classical academic background in music. They bring professional level skills along with their own unique paths and creativity. Building on the original standards established by Reinhardt and Grappelli, Ray writes new music that brings in the traditions of bluegrass and old time music that are native to our state and our region.
Alasha was a music major at Ohio University before coming back to Kanawha County to finish her degree and spend an additional two years studying education at West Virginia State University. She now works as a full time general education teacher at Mountaineer Montessori School in Charleston. Playing with Minor Swing fits well as a part of her productive lifestyle as both a teacher and as a mother to her ten-year old daughter, who shares her interest in the violin.
Ray started college in Colorado and finished a music degree from Morris Harvey College the year before it became the University of Charleston. He earned a masters in reading from the College of Graduate Studies and a PhD in curriculum and instruction from Marshall University. He retired as a nationally board certified teacher after teaching middle school for thirty years while raising his family. He then taught at UC, where he was the chair of the department of education. He now spends a few days a week teaching reading at Mountaineer Montessori and serves as an adjunct for the Marshall University graduate school, where his newest class is on writing for publication.
Ray said that over the years he played music at every bar on Capitol Street. He has also played with the Contemporary Youth Arts Program and the Charleston Light Opera Guild. He just finished a stint with the CLOG production of Paradise Park, adapted by Danny Boyd and Larry Groce from their original film.
Ray was born in southern Ohio, where his father worked construction and eventually followed building the interstate into West Virginia. His family moved to the Kanawha Valley when he was in junior high. He and his wife have chosen to raise their family and make their home here.
Alasha was born and raised in Kanawha County with an Appalachian-Palestinian heritage. Her father, who she has gotten to know as an adult, is from Gaza. She noted that, even though she did not grow up with middle eastern music, the tones now come out as she mixes all of her influences into one pot. The birth of her daughter while she was in college brought her back home to West Virginia to be with family. She thought her aspirations might be over until she discovered that she could perform here more than ever before. Her daughter was also the reason she became a Montessori teacher.
Alasha met Ray when she worked with his daughter at Charleston Montessori before she was hired to work at Mountaineer. She is now committed to staying in Charleston in order to play with Ray in Minor Swing. She said they have a special connection that allows them to finish each other’s sentences.
I can testify to this connection from my experience during our interview. When I asked what they were most excited about doing in the future, I stopped separating out in my notes exactly who said what. The simple answer is: playing. They are looking forward to an increasing number of performances during 2022.
Both Alasha and Ray affirm that the most enjoyable thing for them is to play live music. They have both really missed the kind of connection with the audience that infuses this experience.
They plan to promote their CD and for people to hear them and recognize their efforts. They also want to be a meaningful part of the music scene in our state and to record more, including a live performance.
They noted that they came close to the energy of a live performance in the first track on their new CD. They only did a few takes together with their sidemen, and the first take was used on the CD. They described it as being raw and true to who they are. It exemplifies how their music brings their skills, creativity, joy, and love to the table.
Alasha and Ray also want to reach out and expand who hears them. With no vocalist, they have to find bookers who appreciate them for the high quality of their instrumental music.
They described to me how, within their group, the violin goes ahead and the guitar players really have to be on it. This requires both practice and precision. A great deal of difficulty goes into the performance, to the point where Ray commented that sometimes they even need for Alasha to slow down. When they do it all well, it sounds easy.
With the CD as an introduction, they are hoping to reach the biggest possible audience. Even with the barriers caused by the pandemic, they were able to get the CDs to some fellow musicians who appreciate their work. They reported receiving positive feedback from colleagues who they themselves look up to and respect.
Next steps may involve more live performances, marketing the CDs, and possibly doing a music video as another way to promote their music.
My own wish for them is that they be invited to the kinds of festivals I read about. The next time I do a search about musicians who exemplify this genre, it would be great to see their names are on the lists. I can envision them more than holding their own with their fellow gypsy jazz artists anywhere in the world, and I know that all of us will benefit from them sharing their music and energy as ambassadors from our city and state.
As an addendum, after our interview, I followed up with a couple of questions via emails. One of the things that interested me was which teachers most influenced each of them and what kinds of music initially inspired them. I figured that these were the kinds of questions that serious students of the music might want to know more about.
There is not room to go into everything they said here, but I want to share my takeaways from the responses they sent me.
Ray had said that he started playing in country bands from the age of ten. He first learned to play when he was 7. His first inspiration came from Chet Atkins, along with many of the other country players he heard as a child. He was also influenced by classic singer-songwriters like James Taylor, Jackson Browne, and some of the jazz/rock/blues players like Larry Carlton, Steve Lukather, and Steve Ray Vaughan. His teachers were Richard Pavlov from Cambridge, Ohio, who he started studying with as a child. Also Vince Lewis, during high school and college here in Charleston. Bands he has played with in the past included Sleeper and Souvenir. He is continuing to play with Big Planet Soul and One Foot. His work with the Contemporary Youth Theater Company and the Charleston Light Opera Guild goes back fifteen years.
Ray also remembered meeting Alasha through his daughter Sarah. He had been looking for someone to play “this gypsy stuff” with. They got together to try it out and it just grew from there.
Alasha started her music obsession at 12 with J.S. Bach and Vivaldi. I was not surprised at these roots since the quick tempo and virtuosity of these classical composers still come through in her playing. Then Dvorak was at the forefront of her inspiration until she found Yann Tierson, who is still her favorite composer and musical artist.
She was also influenced by Fiddlers Bid and Mark O’Connor. She went to Mark O’Connor’s fiddle camp outside of Nashville as a teen, where she met him a few times. Crooked Still helped her to integrate folk and strings. She said that she loves their cellist. Alasha’s first teacher was Ian Jesse, who started her on violin in the 4th grade at Montrose Elementary in South Charleston. He connected her with Sandra Groce, who was her first private instructor.
Darrell Murray was a huge influence in introducing her to the variety of genres where she could play the violin. He taught her to improvise when she was thirteen. He also helped her with college auditions, grants, fiddle camp, and the world of fiddle contests.
Her last and most recent influential teacher was Amelia Chan before she moved back to Hong Kong. She taught Alasha the art of becoming one with her instrument.
This last connection really brought things full circle for me, since I so greatly admired Amelia Chan when she was the concertmistress of the West Virginia Symphony Orchestra and I used to see her in passing around town. Alasha said that she always uses the lessons that she learned from Amelia and passes these on to her own students.
This all feels like a powerful reminder of how people who do not stay on in Charleston can leave such a wonderful legacy that keeps their spirit alive here even as they move back to their own homes, which may be halfway around the world.
I know this may sound totally crazy, but in some ways I feel that we really are at the center of the world here. The creative life knows no boundaries from this point of view.