From the mind of a composer
AFRICA Imagine the sounds of percussive instruments being heard from a distance while standing in the middle of a lush verdant green forest. Drums and a tambourine play a 12/8 African rhythm:
Boom tah-kah-tah-kah, Boom tah-kah-tah-kah Boom tah-kah-tah-kah, Boom Boom Boom The distant rhythm repeats itself over and over again, but it is quiet at the top of the mountain.
Listen. The low hum of Strings can now be heard, like a sound from the earth in rotation. The sounds grow louder as Woodwinds mimic birds singing. The melodies are the same ones heard when windows are opened in springtime.
The beautiful scenery of Africa is seamless and endless. But, there are more chapters in this history book.
THE SHIP Imagine the ship being filled with men, women, and children from different villages and tribes, now captured and chained together. They are on a ship where urinating, defecating, eating, and drinking all take place in the same small space. Brass and double reeds capture the sound of regurgitation. Stringed instruments sound like a swarm of bees approaching. They grow louder and louder as the journey continues. Woodwinds, use Morse Code ..-. .-. .. to play, “FREE,” as they beg for help. The crying, angry outbursts, and pleas for help, in many different languages, go unheard. The chaotic tension crescendos to a deafening triple fortissimo as a triangle and gong bring the captives out of this dark-colored trance. Soon, these enslaved Africans will be sold. The ship reaches America and lands in a place called Virginia.
AFRICANS IN AMERICA It is 1619, the beginning of the European Baroque musical style. The enslaved Africans hear a string quartet playing a minuet in this new place called America. Entertainment at the plantation was a grand event. But, there was nothing grand about the enslaved Africans working in the hot fields.
NEW MUSIC IN AMERICA The musical journey continues. Years, decades, and centuries have gone by. Work songs, spirituals, blues, jazz, rhythm and blues, hip hop, rap, and other music genres have been created by the descendants of the Africans who
were chained together on the ships that brought them to America. Out of the chaos came new music styles and genres. We continue to listen, the contrabass is heard playing a blues and jazz melodic line, representing the call. The woodwinds and brass answer with a gospel response.
LIFT EVERY VOICE AND SING It was February 12, 1900 when 500 elementary school children gathered to celebrate President Lincoln’s birthday. They recited words written by James Weldon Johnson.
Five years later, his brother J. Rosamond Johnson set his brother’s words to music. It was sung at the NAACP convention in 1919, 300 years after the Africans were enslaved in America.
It was August 2019, 400 years after the enslavement, when this same song, written by two African American brothers and arranged by an African American Composer, was performed by an orchestra composed of 125 classically trained musicians of African descent at the Gateways Music Festival, Eastman School of Music, in Rochester, NY.
The words are as relevant to African Americans today as they were in 1900. The descendants of the Africans brought to America should indeed continue to, “Lift Every Voice and Sing.“
What did you hear and feel as you listened? What stories have you heard about slave ships and the enslavement of African Americans? What impact do you think it has today on lifestyles of African Americans?