Afro Yaqui Music Collective Works to Resurrect Silenced Voices

On Thursday, October 24, 2019, the Afro Yaqui Music Collective took the stage on Pittsburgh’s North Side for an evening of jazz-fusion fueled activism in the name of unjustly forgotten or silenced voices–in particular, that of Puerto Rican historian, writer, and civil rights activist Aruturo Alfonso Schomburg. A work of theatrical poetry, Afro Yaqui’s Erased: A Poetic Imagining on the Life of Arturo Alfonso Schomburg has been in development since 1999 under the pen of Puerto Rican-American poet Magdalena Gómez, who has sought to illuminate the contributions Schomburg made to civil rights and preserving the histories of displaced persons of African ancestry. After learning about Schomburg in 1993, Gómez was amazed to find his work to be so deeply and critically significant, while Schomburg himself is to this day commonly unknown and left out of the intellectual canon. Gómez herself only learned of Schomburg when offered to join a field trip to the Schomburg Center for Research and Black Culture in New York City and subsequently wondered about the center’s namesake. The juxtaposition of a research branch of the New York Public Library in Harlem bearing his name and the near complete absence of awareness—even locally—of this significant figure was an awakening moment, and so Gómez’s mission was born.

Magdalena Gómez--Photo by David Roth

Magdalena Gómez–Photo by David Roth

Knowing the project would require a musical dimension, Gómez connected with Ben Barson, frontman and co-founder of Pittsburgh’s Afro Yaqui Music Collective to collaborate as composer. Established in 2016, the mission of this ethnically diverse ensemble has been a “response to the rapidly changing political climate, in which working immigrant communities have come under attack, and climate change has threatened peoples across the world.” The October 24th venue, City of Asylum, completed the near perfect constellation that has formed around Gómez and Barson’s emerging theatre piece. A focal point of Pittsburgh’s literary community, City of Asylum is a multi-faceted space that houses an independent bookstore, restaurant, stage, and accommodations that provide sanctuary to endangered literary writers-in-exile.  

The show opened with a survey of pieces, some established canon and others composed and workshopped by various members of the collective. The opening number, Nonantzin by Salvador Moreno, was sung by Afro Yaqui co-leader Gizelxanath Rodriguez in an Aztec dialect, enhanced with original lyrics by visiting emcee, New York based Hip-Hop artist Nejma Nefertiti. Nefertiti’s effervescent stage presence and skill as lyricist and performer deserves particular note and praise, culminating in the full band rendition of Ya Habibi with lyrics by Nefertiti. Anoda Day by ensemble keyboardist Samuel Okoh-Boateng emanated a kind of bossa-nova vibe with whispers of Maynard Ferguson, followed by Sam Cooke’s A Change is Gonna Come, which was sung with beautiful conviction by Afro Yaqui collaborator Jason Gordon.

Nejma Nefertiti with Afro Yaqui--Photo by David Roth

Nejma Nefertiti with Afro Yaqui–Photo by David Roth

To close the first half, the group performed Underground Railroad to my Heart by Asian-American jazz composer Fred Ho, which was dedicated “to all who fight against slavery.”  Ho’s work offered a stark contrast to the rest of the first half, rising to a distinct level all its own that seemed to energize the group and evoke an even higher degree of skill in the performance. Magdalena Gómez joined the group with a reading of her stirring poem “Eleanor Bumpurs” woven into Ho’s music. Despite the eclectic mix of styles and sources, the first half felt tight and cohesive, with Ho’s work providing an excellent conclusion to a programmatic crescendo.

Following a short break, the band returned to the stage to present three sections of Gómez’s play. According to Barson, this performance was to-date the most complete in the work’s ongoing evolution, with previous workshops having taken place at the Bing Arts Center in Springfield, Massachusetts (where Gómez was recently honored as poet-laureate), The National Jazz Museum in Harlem, and the Kelly Strayhorn Theater Alloy Studios in Pittsburgh.

In the opening scene, we learn from a chorus of four, Black midwives that the infant Schomburg was born in Puerto Rico to a German merchant and a freeborn Black midwife from St. Croix. Performed by Hope Anthony, Sydnee Turner, Alec Redd, and Gizelxanath Rodriguez, the folkish banter and gleeful complacency of these characters are spoken and layered into the tapestry of Barson’s skillful composition. Anthony returned in the following scene, joined by Kelsey Robinson in a portrayal of the young Schomburg. Anthony was transformed into Schomburg’s white European school teacher, who lectures the headstrong boy and asserts that people of Black African descent possess no history and therefore are precluded from future accomplishment. Motivated by his disbelief, Schomburg resolves to become a historian and uncover and document the ancient, vibrant history from which he descends.

Kelsey Robinson--Photo by David Roth

Kelsey Robinson–Photo by David Roth

In the final scene, Robinson returned as Schomburg, this time as an adult delivering an impassioned speech before the Masonic assembly of Prince Hall Lodge Number 38 (which still operates on West 155th Street in Harlem). This speech opened into Barson’s instrumental outro, and subsequently the show’s final number, “Serve the People, Organize the People, All Power to the People!” from Fred Ho’s Black Panther Suite. Gómez’s passionately crafted language inspired extended applause and a standing ovation, perhaps most of all for Robinson, whose portrayal of Schomburg was truly excellent.

The importance of a work like this is difficult to overstate. As Gómez asserts, it is Schomburg’s work that established the platform that later made the Civil Rights movement possible, and yet the man himself has somehow faded quietly into anonymity. With the infusion of such fresh and urgent voices to this cause, there is reason to be optimistic his resurrection will gain the prominence it has long deserved.