Nnenna Ogwo — photo courtesy of the artist

5 Questions to Nnenna Ogwo (Founder & Artistic Director, Juneteenth LP)

Nnenna Ogwo is the Founder & Artistic Director of Juneteenth LP (Juneteenth Legacy Project). Juneteenth LP’s mission is to share the varied rich musical traditions from across the African Diaspora. The collaborative is comprised of Black musicians who fuse their classical training with other musical styles to present arrangements of music by Lizzo, Lil Nas X, and Tobe Nwigwe and many others. Through the support of a 2022 Chamber Music America Artist grant awarded to Ogwo, Juneteenth LP will present a week-long festival culminating in their seventh annual Juneteenth celebration on June 19, 2022 at Joe’s Pub in New York City. This year’s festival will also feature the world premiere of the Piano Quintet by Ulysses Kay.

What inspired you to create Juneteenth LP? Was there a particular moment in time or experience to lead you to creating it, and could you share some about that experience?

It began with us playing a handful of concerts at Joe’s Pub. The first Juneteenth Celebration concert was part of Toshi Reagon’s Good Folk series in 2016 and was where I first met cellist Eric Cooper, who later introduced me to singer Erika Banks. After realizing that we worked well together and that we are powered by a similar passion and mission, it kind of organically blossomed into this desire to establish an ensemble committed to playing the works of Black composers. From my perspective, relatively little is known about the contributions of our forebears — classically trained Black musicians — and I wanted to be part of chronicling and extending that rich legacy. We also felt it was important to engage in the kind of music-making that would grow and diversify the classical music audience. That’s why we have fun with these great pop arrangements. I want grandma to come to our concert because she wants to hear Stevie Wonder done on strings and while she’s listening, I get her to notice the blues scale in the bass line of Coleridge Taylor Perkinson’s Toccata for piano.

Anyway, none of this would have been possible without that initial chemistry and a spirit of musical generosity. I call it musical generosity, because these incredible musicians came together and said, OK, this is about family and legacy and so we’re going to do this.

Juneteenth LP – photo courtesy of the artist

Juneteenth LP — Photo courtesy of the artists

In addition to being the Founder & Artistic Director, you are also the pianist for the collaborative. How does being a performer influence the artistic direction for each of the concerts?

I think I’ll take the long way to answer this one. When I was a student at the Liszt Academy in Budapest, Hungary, the brilliant Zoltan Kocsis gave a lecture at the academy. I was there with several other international students with varying levels of Hungarian language comprehension skills and we were kind of collectively sorting out a translation in real time. Anyway, he said something that stayed with me. Very loosely translated:  “To the extent that you can control this… never play or record anything you do not love, because the audience can tell.”

Perhaps a better way to say it is that an audience can always tell when a performer truly loves a piece because that love shines so very brightly. So what does this mean for us when we are talking about new music — scores that we have never played before, for which there is no established recording? It means that before we get to fall in love with the piece, we have to first fall in love with the process of learning the language of this new work or this unfamiliar composer.  As a performer, it’s important for me to love what I’m playing. As a performing Artistic Director, I try to choose repertoire that we either love or that we love the idea of learning more about.

However, I feel like the best concerts take us on a journey, with the musicians leading the way as we explore the music’s vast and mysterious terrain. As musicians, as artists, we’re here to take the audience by the hand and say, “come… there is something extraordinary just beyond that ridge…” As a performing Artistic Director, I’m led by the idea of exploration, constantly asking myself, what kind of musical journeys am I truly interested in? What kind of journeys are my audience members interested in? What kind of journeys can we take them on that they might never have known until that evening that they wanted to embark upon?

Nnenna Ogwo – photo courtesy of the artist

Nnenna Ogwo — Photo courtesy of the artist

The COVID-19 pandemic brought Juneteenth to the consciousness of many, especially after the death of George Floyd. How has the collaborative evolved over the past two years to respond to this rise in interest in Black music?

I feel like this question is perhaps not so relevant for a Black organization. While others were busy evolving, we were trying to hold each other close and check up on each other emotionally. We were talking about how some of us couldn’t stomach watching what amounted to one more in a hideous series of snuff films with a black man/woman/child as the central character. It was horrifying and painful in a way that makes it hard to breathe when you think about it or remember it. And so now, suddenly, everyone wants to play Black composers. There is something so disturbing about that. I am not sure why it was George Floyd’s death in particular that was the catalyst, but it became the spark for the change America needed in all aspects of society. Please don’t misunderstand me. I am grateful for those changes even as I wonder how long they will last. But for now we are trying to greet them with grace as we try to thoughtfully transform this grief into something beautiful and creative that speaks to who we are as an ensemble.

You have grown the project from one concert to a week-long celebration. What challenges have you faced in growing Juneteenth LP?

Ha! It’s more like, what challenges haven’t we faced in growing Juneteenth LP? For myself, I know that the one thing I didn’t anticipate was how much more help we would need as we grew from one to four concerts. I’m still learning not just to actually (finally) ask for help, but learning how best to ask for help and from whom. The matter of logistics alone is daunting. With the grant that made this growth possible we can finally take advantage of having the funds to archive these performances. Suddenly I’m having to figure out lighting design and videographers and show runners and producers. It is a wonderful problem to have. But of course, my eye is already looking ahead to 2023 and how in the world that will be funded.

I envision collaborations that explore the musical possibilities at the intersection of African and Asian, Caribbean, European, Indigenous and Central/South/North American cultures. From there I’d like to flesh out the music education modules that we have been working on to support arts learning in a post-pandemic virtual era.

What are your future aspirations for Juneteenth LP, and how can others best support your work?

I’d like to see our work grow into a season-long series of performances that starts in the fall and culminates on Juneteenth. I envision collaborations that explore the musical possibilities at the intersection of African and Asian, Caribbean, European, Indigenous and Central/South/North American cultures. From there I’d like to flesh out the music education modules that we have been working on to support arts learning in a post-pandemic virtual era.

By 2024 I see us putting together the final pieces of our Juneteenth LP Legacy Commission Project, which will serve as an engine driving and supporting Black composers and their work. Creating a prize of significant value will not only expand the repertoire for our ensemble (and its many permutations), but it will also allow us to create a repository of music submissions by Black composers. Taking this a step further, I’d like to see a centralized database of Black composers, their scores and recorded works. So many different music research organizations, academic institutions and private foundations all over the world are engaged in this work in some way and I believe that there has never been a better time for us to come together collectively and share our resources to create one organized library of scores from African Diaspora composers.

In terms of support, there are so many ways to support us and we are so new to this that we might not even have the language to articulate what we need! But perhaps you (our audience and your readers) might know. As with any organization, we need funding… not just for projects but for infrastructure and we are fiscally sponsored through Fractured Atlas, so that is clear and easy.

But also, we need a home here in Harlem. We need a rehearsal and performance space to call our own, where Black people feel comfortable, welcome and like they have ownership of the creative space. As rich and rewarding as our residency at Reservoir Studios in midtown has been, it has made us acutely aware of this need.

So there are many things that we need help with, but the best way to get started is to sign up for our newsletter at https://juneteenthlp.org/about at the bottom of every page. See what we’re up to and if you’re interested, let’s start a conversation!

 

Juneteenth LP 2022 Festival Dates

Tuesday, June 14, 2022, 7:00pm – Live at Cary Hall at the Dimenna Center for Music, 450 West 37th Street, New York, NY 10018, featuring the world premiere of Ulysses Kay’s Piano Quintet. Tickets: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/counterpoints-the-black-vanguard-tickets-318584694397

Friday, June 17, 2022, 7:00pm – Live at Bronx River Arts Center (BRAC), 1087 E. Tremont Ave., Bronx, NY 10460. This concert is free and open to the public.

Sunday, June 19, 2022, 2:00pm – Live and outdoors in Astor Plaza, New York, NY. This concert is free and open to the public. 

Sunday, June 19, 2022, 7:00pm – Seventh annual Juneteenth Celebration Concert at Joe’s Pub, The Public Theater, 425 Lafayette Street (at Astor Place), New York, NY 10003. Tickets: https://publictheater.org/productions/joes-pub/2022/n/nnenna-ogwo–juneteenth-lp/

 

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