“Jiji plays Justin Holland. Music for Guitar”
Justin Holland: Peek-a-boo Waltz – See-Saw Waltz – La Prima Donna Waltz – Romeo and Juliet
Recording: Unknown venue and date – 10’33
Rising Sun Music 0616908742241
Thanks to the efforts of Rising Sun Music, the work of Black American composer-activist Justin Holland (1819-1887) is being rediscovered and taking its place in the chronicles of musical history. Created by pianist Lara Downes, Rising Sun Music offers a series of monthly digital EPs of music by Black composers. The fourth release in the series is the debut recording of four charming waltzes for guitar performed by the South Korean guitar artist, Jiji.
The selections, which have cute titles such as Peek-a-boo Waltz and See-Saw Waltz, have a nostalgic, lilting charm that recalls warm summer evenings on the veranda sipping lemonade. The works remind me of some of the sweeter vignettes by Scott Joplin and light composers of fin de siècle America, whetting my appetite to hear more. Holland is considered the first Black man to make a major contribution to the guitar repertoire, with 300 of his guitar arrangements published before the Civil War.
Jiji’s playing is technically perfect, while her guitar has a homey, somewhat tinny quality to it. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing as it may replicate the sound Holland’s listeners would have heard more than a century ago. A more resonant instrument played with a bit of slyness or swagger, while historically inaccurate, would add emotional depth for 21st century audiences.
We are living in exciting times when long-forgotten musical delights by composers of color as well as women composers are being revived and performed with enthusiasm, gratitude and artistry. In a news release, Lara Downes points out that Holland was not only an important American composer, but also fought for civil rights and social justice with Frederick Douglass. We look forward to hearing more from the Rising Sun Music series which reminds us that diversity has always been at the core of the classical tradition.