Born in a Village in Liberia.
Momoh Freeman was only 9 years old, but he vividly remembers
the first time he heard and saw a church pianist in his home
country of Liberia. Freeman was captivated by the sound of the
piano and decided he would become a pianist. It was the start of a
journey that would take him thousands of miles, to Shepherd of
the Hill Presbyterian Church in Chaska.
Freeman’s decision to play piano was no small ambition in one of
the poorest countries in the world—one that has been plagued by
civil wars and generations of poverty and unemployment. There
were no pianos in Freeman’s vicinity, so he began an every-other-
day routine of walking 18 miles to a church with a piano, and
spending most of a day practicing, teaching himself to play by ear.
At 14, Freeman began playing for Sunday church services, relying
more on his ear than his rudimentary music-reading skills.
In 2000, Freeman, who is now 27, emigrated to the U.S., following
in the footsteps of his mother, Mary, who came here in 1997.
While attending Park Center High School in Brooklyn Park,
Freeman would arrive at school two hours before class to practice
piano and practice another three or four hours after school.
In July 2004, Freeman responded to a help wanted ad seeking a
pianist for Shepherd of the Hill. He got the job, and, in the
process, has given church members more reason not to miss the
9:30 a.m. Sunday service. With his knack for improvisation, what
Freeman can do with traditional hymns like “Elijah Rock,” “Just A
Closer Walk With Thee” or “Amazing Grace” is, well, amazing,
says Pastor Gordon Stewart. “He can take any hymn and just go
with it, and he doesn't know where he is going when he
Freeman’s embellishments combine “classical, jazz and gospel in
ways that take our breath away, sometimes,” Stewart adds. “He is
at his best when he does improv. He has people just hanging on
Freeman has also bought fellow Liberians Moses Punni and
Johnny Russell to the church as guest baritone soloists in morning
worship and at Martin Luther King, Jr. Day celebrations. Their
soaring solos also “send shivers down the spine and lift our hearts
in joyful praise,” Stewart says.
Before emigrating to the U.S., Freeman had limited exposure to
American music. “The only music I heard was from our culture,
except for a little bit of hip hop,” Freeman says. “And my parents
listened to Kenny Rogers.”
In 2006 a friend took him to the Sunday night jam at Famous Dave’
s in Uptown where he first heard blues and American rhythm &
blues in person. “I said ‘Oh, my God, I want to learn this music,’”
In addition to his work with the church, Freeman is currently
attending Anoka Ramsey Community College working on an
associate’s degree, and he would eventually like to earn an M.A.
in music. He’s also working on a CD of his original music, with
vocals, and an instrumental CD of church music. He’d like to finish
those in time to release them this spring.
When he’s not tearing up Sunday services at Shepherd of the Hill,
Freeman plays piano with Eddy Bungalow, a local jam band, at
places like the Golden Valley VFW, Whiskey Junction and Blue
Nile, and he’s played reggae and African music with other local
groups. He also plays piano on Saturdays at a Seventh Day
Adventist Church in South Minneapolis.
As impressive as Freeman's musical skills may be, he is as
impressive a person, Stewart contends. “There was a time he and
his mother were in financial need. I had spoken with Momoh and
he was going through some stuff. He didn't know how he was
going to pay for school,” Stewart recalls. “The next day, he came
in with a large bag full of canned goods for the food shelf. When
he learns someone in congregation is ill, he's one of the first
people to ask about them. He’s just a caring guy.”