I have been playing the piano since the age of three, but for most of my time at the instrument I was oblivious to the long history of African-descended classical musicians. Today, as a music historian and performer, I am drawn to narratives from and around the African continent and diaspora: to make sense of the histories and contributions that were suppressed during my earlier education, and to also make sense of my own place within what I now know to be an incredibly diverse Western art music tradition. Through processes of learning and unlearning, I have arrived as a classical musician, empowered by the knowledge that people of African descent have long participated in a genre regularly mischaracterized and propagandized as being “not for us.”
I am endlessly amazed by music’s capacity to tell us something of our collective past. Music has often functioned in society as a means of storytelling, community-building, and world-making. Music is a form of archive, holding hidden truths waiting to be re-sounded. As a concert pianist, my instrument becomes a sort of time machine where performance allows me to transport listeners to different contexts and bring history to life.
When I first started writing about early 20th-century African American composers like Florence Price and Margaret Bonds, I also started playing their music. Hearing their sound worlds under my fingers continues to give me insight into who these musicians were. I am listening for what they were trying to say in their time; I am also listening for how their messages might resonate with us today.
Through performance, I came to understand how composers like Price, Bonds, and many others brought aspects of their Black heritage into classical genres like symphonies and string quartets in an era where proponents of Jim Crow deemed classical music beyond the intellectual capability of African-descended people. But people of African descent have been composing orchestral works, chamber pieces, operas, and more for centuries. As virtuosos they stunned in various concert halls and courts with brilliant instrumental and vocal displays. The marginalization—even absence—of this reality in so many of our present-day music institutions builds directly on a history of anti-Blackness, reinforced by unrelenting systems of exclusion, segregation, and apartheid. These systems still cast long shadows through our present era, even after being legally overturned. My piano performances are vehicles for disruption, restoration, and justice. It was inevitable that my instrument would lead me to Castle of our Skins.
Castle of our Skins is a Boston-based educational series that celebrates Black artistry. Through performances and community-grounded events, the series fosters cultural curiosity in the unsung and more familiar figures of the past and present. Founded by Ashleigh Gordon and Anthony R. Green in 2013, Castle of our Skins draws its name from a line in Nikki Giovanni’s “Poem (for Nina),” which begins, “We are all imprisoned in the castle of our skins / And some of us have said so be it / If I am in jail, my castle shall become my rendezvous.” This poem, as Castle of our Skins puts it, “beautifully captures the sense of adoration and celebration for the very fabric that makes us who we are: our skin.” Giovanni’s call to redefine and illuminate the many shades of Blackness resonates just as deeply in my work as it does in the mission of Castle of our Skins.
Our album “Homage: Chamber Music from the African Continent and Diaspora” represents the fruits of a collaboration years in the making between me and Castle of our Skins. As an ensemble comprising violinists Gabriela Díaz and Matthew Vera, violist (and founder) Ashleigh Gordon, cellist Francesca McNeeley, and me on the piano, we bring together a variety of styles and influences with works for piano quintet, piano trio, and string quartet that are infused with African narratives. I also intersperse some solo piano interludes between the chamber works: Zenobia Powell Perry’s spiritual-inspired “Homage” and Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s energetic “Moorish Dance,” Op. 55.
The album begins with Bongani Ndodana-Breen’s “Safika: Three Tales of African Migration” for piano quintet (2011). The composer writes:
Dispossession, migration and translocation have been key themes in the painful historical narrative of blacks in South Africa. This was a consequence of colonialism and apartheid chiefly through two pieces of legislation, The Glen Grey Act (passed by Cecil Rhodes in 1894) and the Natives Land Act of 1913. These two pieces of legislation were at the core of South Africa’s migrant labour system that forced blacks off the land, into a wage economy without the benefit of an education, to be a source of cheap labour.
Safika, a Xhosa and Zulu word meaning “we arrived,” captures Bongani’s personal reflections on this history. He says, “The unifying factor in all those who were touched by these journeys is memory. By quoting and paraphrasing aspects of African music and dance, ‘Safika’ alludes to memories of lives left behind, the people, the songs, the dances and the connection to the land.” It is a powerful three-part suite that leads with a variety of South African musical idioms, from interlocking mbira-style patterns to echoes of the drumming used in traditional Zulu war dances.
The next chamber work is Undine Smith Moore’s “Soweto” for piano trio (1986), another work in three movements. This is what she says about impetus behind it:
Like almost everyone else, I am aware of some of the conflicts and confrontations there – perhaps particularly the incident where the people not only suffered the shooting murder of 22 of their number, but were then denied the right to bury their dead.
Though it was a moving incident, the experience was quickly lost to me in the hurry and bustle of daily life. I never thought of it. Weeks later, very early in the morning, I awakened suddenly. I heard the single word, Soweto. I sat upright astonished – and I knew then that my new piece would use the rhythmic motive Soweto and it would inevitably have other overtones, some of conflict. There must have been deep internal turmoil to bring that word to me. I felt I did not choose the word. The word chose me.
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And you can hear the rhythm housed in the syllables of So-we-to throughout the second movement. As an African American woman, Moore’s commentary comes with cultural distance as she responds to contemporary events. We don’t hear overt South African idioms in this music as this is not part of her language. Compared to “Safika,” Moore’s musical language is visceral, rather than narrational. We hear her anger, empathy, and solidarity.
The final chamber work on the album is Frederick C. Tillis’s “Spiritual Fantasy” No. 12 for string quartet (1988). The four movements, each based on a Negro Spiritual, are: I. “Nobody Knows the Trouble I See,” II. “Wade in the Water,” III. “Crucifixion – He Never Said a Mumblin’ Word,” and IV. “I’m A-Rollin.’” The suite, Tillis says, “pays tribute to the essence of the musical expressions of pathos and triumph over worldly obstacles encountered by a people who found hope and strength through faith in God.” It is the perfect way to close this album: It amplifies individuals and communities of Black music makers, and foregrounds their personal strength and kaleidoscopic expression in the face of political oppression and violent hegemonies.
Our album features two world premiere recordings: “Safika” and “Soweto.” On the one hand, these premieres show that we still have a long way to go in the representation of African-descended artists and African-inspired artistry in classical music. But our album also recognizes how far we have come. As captured in the title “Safika,” it celebrates the many ways classical practitioners of African descent have arrived. “Homage” honors the diverse Black histories and geographies that brought us here. ¶
“Homage: Chamber Music from the African Continent and Diaspora” will be released on October 28, 2022 by Lorelt. Samantha Ege will perform Zenobia Powell Perry’s “Homage” and Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s “Moorish Dance,” Op. 55 at the Milton Court Concert Hall, Barbican, London, on November 29.
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