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Delight Rising from the Ashes of Terror

New York
Rose Theater, Lincoln Center
11/15/2017 -  
“The Routes of Slavery (1444–1888)”
Music from Mali, Mexico, Brazil, Colombia, America, Peru, Madagascar, etc.

John Douglas Thompson (Narrator), The Fairfield Four (U.S.), Kassé Mady Diabaté, Ballaké Sissoko, Mamani Keita, Nana Kouyaté, Tanti Kouyaté (Mali), Rajery (Madagascar), Driss el Maloumi (Morocco), Maria Juliana Linhares, Adriano Santo (Brazil), Adriana Fernández (Argentina), Iván García (Venezuela), Ada Coronel, Enrique Barona, Ulises Martínez (Mexico), Leopoldo Novoa (Colombia)
Hespèrion XXI, La Capella Reial de Catalunya, Jordi Savall (Program concept, final musical and text selection, viol, Director)
Sergi Grau, Manuel Forcano, Jordi Savall (Historical and literary research)

J. Savall, K. M. Diabaté, Ensemble (© Claire Xavier)

Just when you thought Jordi Savall had exhausted centuries, continents, religious, peoples, and music, he presented, for the final night of White Lights Festival, a typically ecumenical, gorgeously costumed, new discovery.

This, with the sponsorship of UNESCO was supposedly the music of slavery. And in his colorful ensemble, he uncovered the most surprising music to show us. Even if–and I hate to say it–this most meticulous musician stylized and re-arranged his selections, so they bore little relationship to the original. Or so I thought until reading the program notes later.

The full house at Rose Theater last night were so entranced by the music that this writer must seem the utmost curmudgeon, yet truths must be told. Virtually all of the solo music–notably the extraordinary Mali kora playing by Ballaké Sissoko and the voice and valiha from Madagascar’s Rajery–that a whole program of their music would be welcome.

Ditto for the vocal trio of Mamani, Tanti and Nana Kouyaté, who would make The Supremes seem tone-deaf. In fact, all of the singers were brash, loud, pure, and utterly terrific in their offerings.

Yet something was wrong here. As always, Mr. Savall had produced a magnificent show. But this was meant to be more than mere music or mere exploration. Mr. Savall had written that “music must touch people in a spiritual way, in a beautiful way, to make them more conscious that we are all on the same planet.” And that he did. But he was also set to give us historical perspective. And that part was unsure.

Reading the documentary evidence was the distinguished actor John Douglas Thompson. Amidst the dancing and strumming and unlikely orchestration, he sat stolidly, then rose between each work to read a document of the times: And the research by Sergi Grau, Manuel Forcano and Mr. Savall was consummate. Manuscripts about Negro slavery from 15th Century Portugal, the first slaves in the American colonies, the punishment of slaves in Barbados (a grisly piece this was) and Montesquieu–usually the most humane of writers–all the way up to the 13th Amendment to the United States Constitution and Martin Luther King.

Dr. King, in fact, was the only non-European writer quoted. In the past 30 years, many many testaments of slaves themselves have been found. Not the usual Frederick Douglas Booker T. Washington deadening screeds, but personal pages which still makes for hair-raising reading.

Mr. Thompson gave excellent recitations of the documents he had, though the music rarely had much relationship to the words. Even more limiting, those documents, ancient and official, really did take away from the wondrous musical epics presented here.

The choices of music, though, were sometimes astonishing. I originally had scorned the “Peruvian” selection, complete with chorus, trombone and full orchestra. Yet, as Mr. Savall emphasised in the program notes–and should have been noted in the program itself–this was an authentic Spanish religious piece from one of the Codexes, supposedly influenced by Peruvian song, known as villancios de Indios.

Nor was their much connection between a selection from Uncle Tom’s Cabin and the most extraordinary work, a long jazzy yet authentic kora chaconne by Ballake Sissoko, Rajery and Driss el Maloumi, the latter from slave-free Morocco.

Whatever Mr. Savall’s aims here, this was basically a show, an ensemble show, with sambas and hymns, American gospel, Renaissance motets, and African songs. When the show stopped and Mr. Thompson intoned the terrible words from documents past, we could still look at the beauteous lavish aggregate on stage.

Yes, it was indeed staged, it was indeed a show, but why damn the players for what they played? They obviously enjoyed it, the audience loved it, and when Mr. Savall clapped along with everybody else during a Gospel song, one could well agree that the villains of the world, even to this day, can be temporarily forgotten for this music of pure delight.

Harry Rolnick



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