Nnenna Ogwo’s Fifth Annual Juneteenth Celebration Pulls from the Archives

Origin stories can say it all. For the narrator of Sam Cooke’s song “A Change is Gonna Come,” having been born by the river comes first. Each subsequent lyric betrays a restlessness; he remembers its fugitive flow, claiming it as his own defining trait. So to note that pianist, composer, and educator Nnenna Ogwo celebrates her birthday on Juneteenth is not to introduce trivia. The holiday, itself a birthday for freedoms too often infringed in the 155 years since, occasions both joy and reflection. Accordingly, so did Ogwo’s fifth annual Juneteenth Celebration concert, premiered as a pre-recorded video on June 19, 2020. Hosted as ever by Joe’s Pub at New York’s Public Theater, the event remains posted on the venue’s YouTube channel. Featuring performances of new and favorite music, including “A Change is Gonna Come,” the show is a must-watch. (Readers seeking the full experience may want to pause and prepare one of Ariyana Bowman and Ayasha Simpson’s signature cocktails.)

However, the video premiere also raised sobering questions through both its medium and its message. Should annual events go on recurring without the ability to play live? Will communities built around events like this survive the pandemic? Can artists do much to keep songs like “Strange Fruit” from being immediately relevant in any given month? For Ogwo and collaborators, pandemic-imposed limitations made organizing this year’s concert a matter of archival digging. Clips of varying quality from previous years’ shows blended together, and occasional abrupt transitions called attention to this process.

Nnenna Ogwo--Photo by Les Henry

Nnenna Ogwo–Photo by Les Henry

Accompanying composer/vocalist Tariq al Sabir, Ogwo opened with solemnity and grief, commensurate with our sociopolitical moment despite being pre-recorded. Abel Meeropol’s “Strange Fruit” demands haunted urgency from performers; al Sabir delivered beautifully, in a tenor ranging from veiled to ringing. Ogwo built from numb chords to a maelstrom, her arrangement gradually lifting lynching from horrific facts to a horrified feeling. With killings still looping on “instant replay,” the HAPPY JUNETEENTH banner that followed the performance landed as a gut punch.

As Ogwo insisted afterwards, “it has never been more important to celebrate than now.” The comment would have sounded commemorative and/or prophetic regardless of when she first made it. The concert’s annual run began in 2016. That year, the killings of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling sparked protests just over two weeks after Juneteenth. Celebration feels necessary whenever a society makes mere survival more contingent than it has to be. Joyful music therefore followed.

Violinist and composer Edward W. Hardy, of featured quartet Sterling Strings, brought virtuoso flair to his own aptly titled “Evolution.” Like a composite of multiple Spirituals at first, it later grooved and soared, Hardy displaying technical and expressive finesse. Harry Burleigh’s “The Jungle Flower” bloomed under Ogwo’s hands and in soprano Erika Banks’ voice, bright yet hazy like late summer. Continuing as a duo, Banks and Ogwo treated Burleigh’s love song “Worth While” as a showstopper.

Nnenna Ogwo and Erika Banks

Nnenna Ogwo and Erika Banks

Bach’s Suites for cello can still say new things when intentional and sensitive performers like violist Patrick Page play them. As the D-minor “Prelude” melodies fanned out, Page let an intensity creep in at the high and low edges. A highlight arrived when Ogwo took to the keyboard alone to play Ulysses Kay’s Three Inventions, thornily classicist yet gorgeous. Violinist Frédérique Gnaman led with soloistic panache in Sterling Strings’ lively, lovely performance of “A Change is Gonna Come.” Ogwo’s own Benediction for quartet and djembe followed, opening with lush solos for cellist Eric Cooper and violist Patrick Page. Mongo Santamaría’s Afro Blue sounded amazing in the full group’s reading, even singular. Gabia became the star of the show right away, but Cooper and Ogwo took impressive solo turns as well. Relaxed yet insistent, elegant yet intense, the performance enthralled.

Music by living composers dominated the final arc of the concert, starting with excerpts from Evan Williams’ Cantigas. In a series of short movements, Cooper shredded, danced, grieved, and sang his way to transcendence through his cello. Nkeiru Okoye’s Dancing Barefoot in the Rain and Dusk brought Ogwo back for gentle dance and Romantic introspection, respectively. DeBarge’s “I Like It” remains a reliable jam for good reason, and translates shockingly well to instrumentals. Stevie Wonder’s “If It’s Magic,” on the other hand, seemed to call for a questioning of the pop/classical binary. Its melodic arcs recall those of Spirituals, its phrases not looping so much as reaching toward closure never quite found.

Nnenna Ogwo and Sterling Strings

Nnenna Ogwo and Sterling Strings

Endings, like origins, can communicate something essential about a project. The inclusion of a “Happy Birthday” jam for Ogwo at the end of the video was no mere touch of fun. It said something about the communities that regular performance builds, the bond between composers, performers, and audiences that develop over time. The positive energy of this conclusion did not entirely banish this reviewer’s sad thoughts about the concert’s virtuality. Ogwo’s productive collaboration with Sterling Strings is a light against the shadows that loss casts over too many Juneteenths. Will highlight reels once again yield to at least livestreams soon, if not in-person events, making this video a one-time exception?

We can hope that next year, IRL applause for Ogwo will replace applause emojis. We can, of course, also build on the efforts of those first Juneteenth celebrants of the 1860s. As Otis Redding sang in 1965, shifting Cooke’s lyrics ever so slightly: “a change has got to come.”