From African Diaspora, New Song Cycle by Shawn Okpebholo Takes Flight

Quiet as it’s kept, the banjo is an instrument of the African diaspora. In a performance at the Metropolitan Museum of Art on Jan. 12, Rhiannon Giddens talked about the theft of the banjo and the forms of music that came from it. The concert, the world premiere of Shawn Okpebholo’s song cycle Songs in Flight, opened with three original songs performed by Giddens, whose banjo and lyrics communicate just as much as her spoken interludes between pieces.

“I learned your words and wrote a song to put my story down. But then you came and took my song and claimed it for your own,” she sings. She tells us that in 1955 the first instruction manual for the banjo was written by a white man. “Lullaby” is about young Black women holding white children how Black women were commonly employed as caretakers of white children. Giddens goes into “Lullaby” seamlessly from tuning the banjo, the audience hardly aware that the song has begun. She used to be self-conscious about tuning, Giddens admits, but she got over it when she observed that orchestras always tune on stage.

Rhiannon Giddens -- Photo by Stephanie Berger

Rhiannon Giddens — Photo by Stephanie Berger

The centerpiece of the evening, Songs in Flight, is as much a literary experience as it is a musical one. “Quiet as it’s kept” is the iconic opening to Toni Morrison’s novel The Bluest Eye, which is, in her words, an illustration of an interior pain of racism, the racism subject to “the master narrative.” It’s a narrative in which history, science, literature music have been so colonized that racism becomes internalized as self-loathing. “This is not lynchings and murders and drownings,” Morrison says. “This is interior pain.”

Songs in Flight digs deep and rummages around in that interior pain using the “Freedom on the Move” database, a compilation of “thousands of stories of resistance,” says Dr. Edward Baptist, the lead historian of the archive. The database contains the many advertisements placed by slave masters for runaway slaves using their European names and bodily features. The resulting song cycle magnifies the resistance that former slaves embodied and collectively fortified.

Shawn Okpebholo--Photo by Greg Halvorsen Schreck

Shawn Okpebholo–Photo by Greg Halvorsen Schreck

The transition out of Giddens’ last song displays one of the advertisements from the database. Entitled “At the Purchaser’s Auction,” it’s for the sale of a young woman with a 9-month-old baby who could or could not be purchased in addition to its mother. Giddens makes a note of how even a slave’s progeny their own children didn’t belong to them. “You can take my body, you can take my bones, you can take my blood, but not my soul,” Giddens sings with guttural reaches as other performers join her on stage.

After Howard Watkins sits down at the piano, soprano Karen Slack, countertenor Reginald Mobley, and baritone Will Liverman join Giddens on stage for Songs in Flight. Slack begins singing solo: “Oh freedom over me. And before I be a slave, I’ll be buried in my grave and grow old to my Lord, and be free.” Watkins joins her in this African-American freedom song associated with the Civil Rights Movement.

Liverman enters with spoken text over sparse low-register piano clusters that grow with tinkles in the highest range, the silences slowly filling in with more rhythmic subdivisions and blooming from what initially sounded like decay. Liverman introduces an advertisement placed in the Charleston Mercury for a runaway slave named Phebe, a Black woman of 26 years. Tsitsi Ella Jaji, the text curator for Songs in Flight, says Phebe is the first woman she “met” in the Freedom on the Move database. Along with Jaji’s text curated from the archive, the song cycle features original words by poets Crystal Simone Smith and Tyehimba Jess.

Rhiannon Giddens, Karen Slack, and Reginald Mobley in Shawn Okpebholo's "Songs in Flight" -- Photo by Stephanie Berger

Rhiannon Giddens, Karen Slack, and Reginald Mobley in Shawn Okpebholo’s “Songs in Flight” — Photo by Stephanie Berger

Songs in Flight has clear connections to the ‘Flying Africans’ story a tale handed down, generation after generation, about Africans flying away from their captivity. “If you surrender to the air, you can ride it,” is the last sentence of Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon, and Songs in Flight sets to music what those runaway slaves did. Aaron flies away over a piano filled with lush, open-interval colors. Jack flies away over repeated low-register tones. Mariah Frances flies away over the disorienting sound of atonal clusters bouncing off each other. Ahmaud flies away over Giddens’ somber but incredibly light voice accompanied by bare, fairytale sparkles in the piano. Peter flies away over the vocal trio holding microtonal intervals, truly the shining moment of the entire song cycle. These are European names given by slave masters, but we should say them anyway.

Resistance is the theme of Songs in Flight, but it isn’t so much focused on slavery itself as it is on the interior drive to be free. Okpebholo’s use of the Western European art song tradition and American folk, gospel, and jazz music that seems disconnected but is very much linked is intentional, and this combination of styles also played out in the audience’s experience of the work. The program requested that the audience hold their applause until the end of the work, but people ultimately clapped when the sensation to clap came; the audience did not bind itself to any Western European concert tradition. The music from the African diaspora performed in Songs in Flight thankfully failed to achieve a performance atmosphere common in classical music concert halls. The expected silence between songs was not quiet; it was not kept.


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