Mandolin orchestra hearkens back to Kalamazoo's history of stringed instruments

Dec 6, 2012

The Kalamazoo Mandolin and Guitar Orchestra performing at the Kalamazoo Public Library downtown in 2008.
Credit The Kalamazoo Mandolin and Guitar Orchestra

The Kalamazoo Mandolin and Guitar Orchestra will play Friday during the Art Hop at the Kalamazoo Valley Museum. I talked with the group’s founding members Jackie Zito and Miles Kusik to find out a little bit more about the mandolin and its ties to Kalamazoo.

“Mandolin is an instrument that is descended from the lute family. Most of the orchestra members play what is called a Neapolitan mandolin. It has a round bowl back on it. The mandolin evolved at the same time as the violin family. It is tuned like the violin family and has hairs of strings. They come in a range of sizes: there are mandolins which are like violins, mandolas which are like violas, and mandocellos which are like cellos. Same tuning only with frets and double strings.”

Jackie Zito says the American style mandolin has a special connection to Kalamazoo.

“That style, with the arch top and arch back was invented right here in Kalamazoo by Orvill Gibson, and that was the beginning of the Gibson Mandolin and Guitar Company.”

Zito says the mandolin had its golden age in the 1800s.

“There was a group from Spain that toured the United States and they played the Spanish version of the violin called the mandora, but no one in the United States knew the difference so it was called a mandolin orchestra. This group toured the country and they were a sensation, sort of like the Beatles but in the 1800s. And everybody wanted to take up the mandolin. And at the same time, you had Italian immigrants bringing these instruments and also starting groups.”

Zito says almost every town in America had a mandolin orchestra during that time and Kalamazoo had about four. She says the current Kalamazoo Mandolin Orchestra was even able to recover some old compositions from a few of those groups. Kusik plays the mandolin, but he’s primarily the conductor for the group: 

“One of my goals for the orchestra is to create new literature for the orchestra so they don’t become just musical mausoleums playing old things.”

About nine compositions have been commissioned for the Kalamazoo Mandolin Orchestra, many of which are from local and midwestern composers like Victor Garcia, Elizabeth Start, James Kellaris, and John Goodin. Zito and Kusik agree that the best thing about being in the Kalamazoo Mandolin Orchestra is the sense of community.

“It’s the combination of being able to create music—serious music—on plucked stringed instruments and socializing with people who have become very good friends of ours,” says Zito.

“There’s a level of camaraderie and community with a mandolin orchestra that tends to be different from a symphony orchestra,” Kusik says. “If you play for an orchestra you’ll be getting a paycheck, you may know other players, but there’s not always a lot of social intermingling. People drive in from different areas, play their gig and leave. And here it’s made up of people from the community. So it’s become a very tight-knit group.”

Jackie Zito, Miles Kusik, and the rest of the Kalamazoo Mandolin Orchestra will perform Friday at 6 p.m. at the Kalamazoo Valley Museum.