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Breaking barriers: Black luminaries in classical music

Black classical music pioneers

INDIANAPOLIS (WISH) — Two exceptional local musicians are making waves, proving that classical music is a universal language that transcends racial boundaries.

“There is only a handful of Black organists in the United States that do what I do,” said pipe organist Wolff von Roos.

Classical music is taking on a transformative dimension as Roos and pianist Teneh Karimeo are paving the way for a new generation of Black musicians in the classical world.

According to a 2023 study published by the League of American Orchestras, Black musicians only made up 2.4% of orchestra musicians nationwide.

“My mother, Patricia Karimeo, God rest her soul, she was very adamant about bringing me to spaces where African Americans or black people weren’t necessarily seen,” Karimeo said.

Karimeo says seeing a person perform who was similar to her was eye-opening. It led her to pursue her musical career and add flares from African American culture.

“I learned about Hazel Scott, which she was an incredible muse for me. She was known for jazzing up the classics, and as I continue to learn my soul’s curriculum, I take from her,” Karimeo said.

The pipe organ also echoes with soulful interpretations, blending the classical with rich African American musical heritage.

“In regards to black musicians, Wayne Marshall. He’s from the United Kingdom, but he does the same thing I do. He is also a fantastic improviser,” von Roos said.

Not only do these two musicians excel in their craft, but they are also driven to nurture the younger generation.

“I don’t think they’ve really been exposed to the classical scene. I don’t think people are resistant. Classical is a story genre. I think its rare in audiences these days, especially organ concerts. I just think people need to be more aware and that it’s out here,” von Roos said.

Karimeo and von Roos both actively advocate for a more diverse and inclusive classical music community.

“I think it’s important for little black, brown, non-binary, LGBTQIA+ kids to see themselves everywhere. In every single possible space that they can,” Karimeo said.