WILLMAR - For the past several months, residents of the Willmar area have been discovering and sharing their musical and songwriting talents to tell the story of their community through original songs and poems.

Guiding these budding singer/songwriters through the process is Kashimana Ahua. A singer/songwriter/composer, as well as a performer from the Twin Cities, Ahua was chosen last year by a panel of Willmar community members to be the In Common composer-in-residence from July 2018 to July 2019. Her goal for the year-long residency is to assist this diverse community in finding what they have in common with each other while sharing their own stories and experiences, all through music and poetry.

"It has been very humbling and inspiring to see the topics they come up with," Ahua said.

Residency program

In Common is a year-long songwriting project through the American Composers Forum and funded by the Otto Bremer Trust. Partnering with Ahua to make the residency a success has been the Unitarian Universalist Church of Willmar, West Central Singers and the Willmar Community Center. The project grew out of other Forum programs and Willmar's multicultural makeup made it the perfect location for this collaborative and creative project.

"Songwriting is an amazing way to observe the world, see the world from a different point of view," Ahua said.

When Ahua applied for the residency program, she wasn't sure how good her chances would be, but she felt it would be a wonderful opportunity for her to grow as a musician. When she was chosen it was a surprise, but a welcome one.

"I'm proud to be the composer-in-residence," Ahua said.

Born in Nigeria, Ahua moved to Kenya and then immigrated to the United States. She first attended St. Cloud State University to study biomedical science, but changed course.

"Music kept calling my name," Ahua said.

She enrolled at the McNally Smith College of Music in St. Paul and earned degrees in production and composition and songwriting. In the Twin Cities, Ahua works with several bands and has released her own album, "Love from the Sun."

"I make music of all sorts," Ahua said. "I am a strong believer in music and how it lights up the whole plane."

Since July Ahua has been visiting Willmar often to hold multiple community songwriting workshops, along with performances and open mic events to allow local musicians and poets the opportunity to share their creations. From the start, Ahua said she has been helping participants push through their shyness and reticence to find that creative spark.

"Most of the events we've had have been geared toward people who aren't songwriters or musicians," Ahua said.

As the months have passed Ahua has definitely seen people's confidence and belief grow that they can create something wonderful to be proud of.

"We've been able to do that," Ahua said.

Ahua now has folders full of poems and songs created by people of all ages and backgrounds. During the last week of February Ahua spent time with fifth graders at Willmar's elementary schools, where the students tried their hand at songwriting.

"They wrote a song they are very proud of," Ahua said.

Bringing it together

The second half of the residency will focus on sharing the art created during the first six months with the rest of the community.

A Willmar community songbook, which will be available both online and in print, is in the planning stages. It will be filled with the songs, poems and art created by community members, which together will "weave a very bright and vibrant story" of the Willmar community.

Ahua and her partners are also working on community singalongs and poetry readings.

"We are looking forward to sharing what we've done," Ahua said.

When the In Common program ends later this summer, Ahua hopes it won't be the end of the music. She wants the people who have taken part in the residency events and performances to keep it going.

"We want people to continue writing. We want the open mics to continue," Ahua said. "We are looking for champions to continue the process."

The residency has been a learning experience not only for those who came to the workshops and events, but for Ahua as well. It has helped her become a better teacher and songwriter. She has also taken a lot of inspiration from Willmar's multicultural story.

"I was amazed to see the things happening in Willmar. The diversity in Willmar coming together," Ahua said.

A firm believer in the power of music and art, Ahua has enjoyed spreading her love for music in Willmar.

"... to see people light up when they have a song come to life," Ahua said. "The joy of seeing people make music, create something out of nothing, to connect with people on another level."

For Ahua, her music has helped her get through some very tough times, as well as being a perfect medium for creation and imagination. She hopes she has helped others see all the good music can do for one's physical and mental wellbeing.

"Music does that at a high level. Everything lights up. It is a healing force," Ahua said. "I also believe it is a connecting force. Words have such power."