Hello BIBA fans! Today there are three major causes for celebration! Firstly, it is officially Father’s Day, and we want to salute all the fathers and father figures today, as well as acknowledge those who have lost their fathers and/or father figures and are grieving and celebrating in a different way. We see you.
Secondly, it is Juneteenth! There are plenty of resources to read about Juneteenth – a holiday that Black people have been celebrating for a while, and has recently been named a Federal Holiday (for better or for worse). We urge Black people everywhere, especially in the US, to consider that Juneteenth is a more real Black Independence Day. Celebrate in your own way!
Thirdly and lastly, we here at Castle of our Skins celebrate our new Shirley Graham Du Bois Creative-in-Residence: Angel C. Dye! Currently pursuing doctoral studies at Rutgers University, Angel holds degrees from Howard University and the University of Kentucky. Her two chapbooks – Rhyme Or Reason and urban is the new n@&!% (…and other names we answer to) have garnered critical acclaim for their depth and insight. With the aim of bringing together diverse women’s voices to inspire and uplift other budding, blossoming women, Angel recently compiled and edited an anthology titled Love Letters to Our Daughters: A Collection of Womanly Affirmations. Please follow Angel on Instagram or Twitter using the handle @blkgrlpoet, and read her full bio HERE. To read one of her beautiful poems, please click HERE.
Please join us in celebrating fathers, Black freedom, and Angel C. Dye!
by Anthony R. Green
Before today's Castle of our Skins collaboration concert in Oxford, UK, I got a chance to visit Dr. Samantha Ege in Oxford. It was my second time in this quaint, charming town, with such a rich history. Dr. Ege showed me parts of Oxford I had not before seen, and coming across the posters with the Castle of our Skins logo and Dr. Ege's beautiful picture on them filled me with so much joy! Dr. Ege's work as a musicologist and piano performer speaks volumes in this interview, and I hope you learn from her mind and soul as much as I did on that beautiful, British spring day!
AG : Thank you so much for everything! I would love for you to discuss this project, your role in it, and anything else!
DSE : A Castle of our Skins collaboration has been in the works for a couple of years now, and it wasn’t really until I got this post as the Lord Crewe Junior Research Fellow in Music at the University of Oxford that I felt that the stars had fully aligned to realize this project. There’s an entity here called the Oxford Research Center for the Humanities, and they immediately reached out to me in 2020 when I started this position to let me know what was available to me not just as a musicologist but also as a performer – someone who brings history to life through performance. It was immediately clear to me that we needed to do something with Castle of our Skins. So, this residency really brings together our two worlds: with me as a musicologist and pianist amplifying composers of African descent and Castle of our Skins as an educational series and chamber group. And how, obviously being based in different geographies, we have different approaches but we also have a lot in common. So the stars aligned to be able to bring Castle of our Skins to Oxford, and to really show this place what it is that we do!
AG : Awesome! And Castle of our Skins is eternally grateful for this collaboration! Earlier in the lovely tour you gave me around Oxford, you mentioned that the spaces where the performances and events are happening have been occupied earlier by people (and now spirits) who may not have been amenable to Blackness. I would love for you to comment more about bringing Blackness to these spaces and what this means not only to you professionally but also in your role at Oxford in your wonderful fellowship.
DSE : We recently had this discussion about how it has been so propagandized for “classical music” to be understood as a “European” art form. Even in non-European places, like the US or North America, it has still been absorbed into ideas about what constitutes whiteness. It just further propagandizes a means to exclude Black people from accessing a history that, as we’ve discussed, is as much ours as it is anyone else’s. Especially in a place like Oxford which has so much to do with that history of exclusion – there is a more recent history of trying to remedy that, but music has a way of initiating conversations and changing mindsets in a way that words and other kinds of actions aren’t always able to achieve. So for us – as people who play this repertoire not as a gimmick, not to tick a diversity box, but because we believe in this music and we believe in ourselves as well and our ability to do this – it means a lot to have then found the support to be able to bring this to fruition, and to play a kind of music where people have this idea that that’s not what Black people do – we’re not only playing it, but we’re playing it in one of the most important centers for performance in this city.
AG : Excellent. AMEN! And excellent! This program has a representation of Black composers from across cultures, diasporas, geographies. A South African composers, a US American Black woman composer – Undine Smith Moore, a US American Black male composer – Frederick Tillis … and this amalgamation of not only different realizations of Blackness but also different representations of cultures, geographies, languages, mindsets, time periods as well – for me, it implies that this project is also an amalgamation of snapshots from history, geography, and from philosophy as well. Your research has centered Florence Price and also European women. I would love for you to talk about the way your research is in dialogue with the composers represented on this program.
DSE : Interestingly Price is on this program and I’m not playing her music! (Laughs!) And that has made me expand my horizons both as a musician and a historian. Learning about South African culture through Dr. Bongani Ndodana-Breen’s music has been really eye-opening for me in that when he describes the different movements in his dissertation (which I’ve spent a lot of time with now) and he describes experiences of oppression and forced migration, and then I’m playing the musical sound words that evoke those experiences, I feel as though I’m gaining a learning experience that you can’t attain from simply reading a book. So I feel a lot of growth as a musician, also because there are a lot of indigenous ideas in Bongani’s music with which I’m not familiar. So again I’m really being pushed to think about Blackness in more expansive ways as well. With Undine Smith Moore: I feel like I can relate to her piece a lot – her piece is called Soweto – because what she’s doing is not absorbing South African musical languages but she is finding a sense of connection and solidarity through her experiences as a Black woman being able to convey rage towards apartheid South Africa. I feel that, when I see injustices in the US towards Black Americans, I feel that sense of, yes while that’s not my experience, there is a sense of solidarity and anger and rage that I feel. So when she experiences that and puts that into music, I think that’s such a powerful thing. It shows, as well, that, to have that sense of commentary or solidarity, you don’t have to appropriate. If you don’t know the language, you don’t have to pretend that you do. You can find other ways of connection and access. My background is Nigerian and Jamaican. That’s not reflected in this program, but I feel such a connection to these composers and I feel that through my performances I’m able to express a solidarity and a connection.
AG : That’s such a beautiful observation, and I haven’t come across this concept as clearly as you’ve just articulated it – this concept of not only learning culture through music practice, but also, along with learning culture, learning empathy. Over the past 5 years, empathy has been quite a focus in my practice. It has helped me define who I want to be as a social justice artist, but it also has molded or clarified paths for me to avoid appropriation, as you’ve mentioned, and really to find commonality through a cultural understanding and with a cultural practice that you’re not belittling or simplifying. With that, I want to take it back to the second question: in bringing this music to Oxford, to these very specific spaces, as well as the empathy you’re experience by playing Undine Smith Moore and observing how your cultural background is in conversation with the music on this program, what would you like the audience to empathize with during this performance and after?
DSE : Well, there’s a strong sense of narrative in all of the music on the program, and that narrative stems from a sense of cultural memory. The thing is, all of these histories belong to everyone. And I don’t mean that in a sort of “hold hands” kind of way, what I mean is that the history within Bongani’s work and within Undine Smith Moore’s work is a history of South Africa [that’s being presented through music] in a place where there’s a statue of Cecil Rhodes. His legacy is everywhere here. So this is not just a Black history, this is a history of this place, Oxford, as well. We have these institutions that are very much entwined with and built off the cultural creatives behind these works that we’re listening to. For example, The Spiritual Suite : each movement is based on a spiritual, on a song of the enslaved. Now look at the opulence around us in this place and there’s a direct tie. That’s what I mean when I say this history belongs to all of us. It’s not meant to make everyone feel good, you know, but that’s the truth of it, and I hope that people experience that connection and that sense of empathy as well, realizing this through music. Music has a way of explaining and articulating things in different ways, so often times difficult conversations are met with defensiveness. Perhaps through music we can find another way to experience these discomforts and have these conversations.
AG : Amazing. Thank you so much!!
DSE : Thank you!
by Anthony R. Green
This season, Castle of our Skins launched a new initiative for collegiate music students belonging to Black Student Unions (BSU) in the Boston area. The COOS BSU Intercollegiate Fellowship gives its participants a chance to speak candidly in a safe space about issues concerning their respective post-secondary experiences, gain access to professionals who can advise and provide invaluable career tidbits and reality pills, form a community that transcends Boston's seemingly separate institutions, and more. This season's fellowship will culminate in an upcoming concert titled What is Black Creativity?, which is curated (with guidance) by the 8-member cohort of the inaugural fellowship.
While Black Student Unions did not exist when Ashleigh and I were attending New England Conservatory (nor while I was a student at Boston University before meeting Ashleigh), they have been thriving since their relatively recent inception. BSUs that focus on music-related issues have enacted positive, important change amongst Boston institutions, including more open discussions and policy changes relating to curriculum, mental health, representation, and more. However it really was not until the development of the BSU Intercollegiate Fellowship that members from various BSUs across Boston worked together on a massive project. I had the pleasure of speaking to the cohort in the fall of 2021, and I immediately recognized the need for such a fellowship, along with feeling the incredible energy and urgency from the students. Castle of our Skins is excited about continuing this fellowship in the future and building upon what was started, experienced, and learned.
This upcoming concert promises to be a creative exploration not to be missed. This concert will take place Saturday, 12 February 2022, at 8PM. The venue is the Calderwood Pavilion (at the Boston Center for the Arts): 527 Tremont Street Boston, MA 02116. The event is free but a reservation is required! Make your reservation today, and bring a friend ... or two ... or three ... or four or more!! And keep an eye out for the next fellowship to start during out tenth season!
by Anthony R. Green
February 2022 is coming up, and this month in this particular year marks the 121st birthday of Langston Hughes (born 1 February 1901) and the 19th anniversary of an incredible CD celebrating his poetry with spoken word and music. This CD is called Rhapsody in Hughes 101, and it was released in February 2003. You can purchase this album via Apple Music, and it is available on Spotify and other streaming platforms! Who created this celebratory album? None other than a true heroine of our times: Val Gray Ward, who, in August this year, will celebrate her 90th birthday! Age has not slowed her down; Val Gray Ward is still creating, teaching, and inspiring the many generations of Black artists she has come to witness and mother, having recently given virtual performances for students at Wellesley College and also lecturing at the Black Arts Movement School Modality at the Art Institute of Chicago.
The legendary Val Gray Ward was born in Mound Bayou, Mississippi - an all-Black town founded in 1887 by former enslaved Black Americans. Throughout her life, she has achieved incredible accomplishments. She founded the Kuumba Theater Company in Chicago, which - among many other things - placed a strong focus on community. In this vein, Kuumba sponsored book parties, poetry readings, exhibits, writing workshops, and also broadcasted films. One unique aspect about their theater practice is that they developed a ritual theater style that induced audience reactions and interactions, another element that strengthened community. Through Kuumba, Val Gray Ward worked with James Baldwin when they staged his profound, semi-autobiographical play The Amen Corner. Kuumba toured with this play, with Val Gray Ward in one of the leading roles, and their tour also included a performance in Lincoln Center's Black Festival USA in 1979.
Outside of Kuumba, Val Gray Ward has received acclaim for her solo show titled My Soul is a Witness. In a 2015 interview, she states: "[This show] is my dramatic interpretation of the works of various black writers, such as Gwendolyn Brooks, Richard Wright, Langston Hughes, Nikki Giovanni and Sonia Sanchez. I also perform a segment from The Life of Harriet Tubman which Francis [Ward, my husband] wrote for me many years ago." Her "multiple hats" style of working has resulted in her being the recipient of over 200 awards, including 21 Emmys for her "docutainment" film Precious Memories: Strolling 47th Street. She is known as "The Voice of the Black Writer" and her work has been significantly instrumental to the Black Arts Movement (BAM). Moreover, her lifelong friendships are near and dear to her, and she cherishes the friendships she has (and has had) with Gwendolyn Brooks, James Baldwin, and Nikki Giovanni (with whom she shared an hours long phone conversation recently!). It is impossible to even scratch the surface when it comes to paying tribute to such a phenomenal woman, but it is our strong desire here at Castle of our Skins for you all to read more about her, listen to her interviews, watch and share any related content online, and be enriched and enthusiastic about sharing her legacy! You can start with the following:
An appearance on Windy City Live with a short article: CLICK HERE!
A fantastic interview archived in the Library of Congress: CLICK HERE!
An article about her work with James Baldwin: CLICK HERE!
Note: this blog post would not be possible without the help of Dr. Liseli Fitzpatrick, and we thank you for your contribution and generous sharing of such a legend!
by Anthony R. Green
Yesterday, I had the pleasure of hosting the incredible L'Merchie Frazier in a talk titled: Rhapsodies: a song for the beloved. This talk was built upon the following description:
Utilizing Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s poignant thoughts on Black music as a foundation, L'Merchie Frazier will discuss quilting, Black music, Black genius, and more. Through incorporating observations on the relationships between pain, beauty, and passion, Frazier will unearth and articulate the creative moments that often serve as intersections between art, creativity, and life.
This blog is a bit of a recap of 4 elements that were evoked during L'Merchie's incredible talk:
1) Dr. MLK Jr.'s essay on Black music;
2) Billy Strayhorn and his iconic work arranging and conducting King fit da Battle of Alabama;
3) Zilpah White and her relationship with Walden Woods;
and 4) The example of African agency at Ibo Landing.
L'Merchie, towards the early part of her talk, quoted Dr. King's essay on jazz that was featured in the 1964 Berlin Jazz Festival. The bold line from this essay is "This is Triumphant Music." King, in the essay, goes on to talk about various forms of Black music and its role in the lives of Black people as well as people around the world. L'Merchie applies these words to all Black music, irrespective of genre, and linked Dr. King's words to the various roles and purposes that unfold from all Black arts as well. These rhapsodic links set the foundation for the rest of her talk.
Fluidly flowing to Billy Strayhorn, L'Merchie mentioned his work as an arranger and conductor for King Fit da Battle of Alabama, a performance that significantly moved Dr. King. While many are familiar with Duke Ellington and Dr. King, L'Merchie shared her observations that Billy Strayhorn is lesser known, but a powerhouse musician. Strayhorn wanted to be a classical composer, but in the mid 1930s, he knew this endeavor would be difficult, and switched to Jazz. Often uncredited or undervalued, Strayhorn is responsible for such hits with and without Ellington as Lush Life, Chelsea Bridge, and Take the 'A' Train. Listen to a performance of King Fit da Battle of Alabama at Boston's own Jordan Hall below (performed by the Boston Children's Chorus):
Later in the talk, when discussing how Black textile artists during the times of slavery spun cloth from scratch, and were given scraps which they transformed into the fine art that is quilts, L'Merchie brought forward Zilpah White, a formerly enslaved woman who resided as a lonesome hermit in Walden Woods (and was criticized for it) before Thoreau did the same thing (and was praised for it). Thoreau misspells her name in his recollections (writing Zilpha rather than Zilpah). According to many sources, she brought her spinning talents from the south to Walden, and would spin so long that it worsened her eye sight. You can read more about her HERE and HERE.
And lastly, in discussing Black agency and the Black relationship to water, L'Merchie mentioned Ibo Landing. I remember learning about this recently (on Instagram) and immediately thinking about the beloved spiritual Oh, Freedom! In 1803, a ship containing West Africans who were stolen from Africa survived the middle passage journey and landed in Savannah. From this group of stolen Africans, 75 Nigerians were purchased for $100 each to work on St. Simons Island, about a 1.5 hour drive south of Savannah. During the trip from Savannah to St. Simons Island, the enslaved Nigerians captured and drown their purchaser. Upon arrival, the Nigerians refused to be captured and enslaved, so they marched into the water at Ibo Landing and drowned themselves. This powerful piece of history was linked with Phillis Wheatley, who - as a child in West Africa - most likely spoke Wolof, and also survived the dreadful middle passage journey over the waters of the Atlantic Ocean. The Black relationship with water includes the ancestral memories of these trips, and L'Merchie's creative practice, as she states, is deeply involved in memory.
I wish I could highlight all of the beautiful elements of L'Merchie's deeply moving talk. These are only a couple of incredible moments from the lecture. Be sure to check out L'Merchie's beautiful artwork on her website HERE, and stay tuned for the video version of Sound & Appliqué in the near future!
by Anthony R. Green
Do you remember the first time you saw a quilt made by someone you knew or someone close to you or related to you? In this ever-quickening world, are the chances of coming across such things diminishing? Do your chances depend on your geography or the geographical relationships of the people who are close to you and/or within your access? Do your chances depend on the interests and the hobbies of the people who are close to you and/or within your access? Has the internet helped with exposure to quilting traditions? So many questions!
When I was growing up in Providence, Rhode Island, I remember one of the church members (who was the wife of a minister and the mother of one of my church friends) headed a quilting project with a group of young girls (I believe they were called AB Girls - American Baptist Girls). She was explaining the process of creating the squares. I remember thinking to myself: wow - the math that is going into this is something I could not imagine! It got me really curious, but with music, homework, and other interests and responsibilities, I never took a journey into the world of quilting as a maker.
Now that Castle of our Skins is preparing to present (a slightly altered version of) Sound & Appliqué, it has been such a wonderful journey reading and watching video clips and documentaries about quilting, especially how rich the tradition of quilting is within Black US American traditional textile practices. Believe it or not, this project was conceived in 2018, and THIS BLOG about finding inspiration for new compositions based on quilts from December 2018 is proof! Not only does that particular blog post contain a wealth of information, but there are also quite a bit of informative links to follow as well. For those who'd like to maybe have some inspiration to start quilting, perhaps the video below might provide some good information.
Sound & Appliqué will be presented live in Vermont, with a digital talk given by the incredible L'Merchie Frazier, who (on top of many other talents) is an incredible quilter! This project will also be recorded for a digital release later this season. Stay tuned for the details, and enjoy your quilting journey!
by Anthony R. Green
Happy 2022, everyone! As my interest in Black composers of "classical music" increases, I find myself constantly scouring the internet, looking for organizations who promote such composers in myriad ways. In recent searches, I stumbled upon two really wonderful projects who are supporting Black and marginalized voices in major ways. This quick BIBA is to give a shout-out to them!
The first is the New Music Initiative for Black Voices. According to their website, they are a is a US "nationwide invitational that aims to celebrate and empower Black composers and their music". Black composers across the US apply to have a relatively new string quartet (composed in 2010 or after) workshopped, read, and recorded by professional string players. As of now, the website implies that this initiative took place in 2021, and there is currently a new cohort for 2022. The website also has the profiles of the string players, their board members (some really fantastic people), and - of course - selected composers (one of which was featured in Castle of our Skins's #BCMC 2.0!!). I hope this initiative continues, and perhaps even changes instrumentations from time to time (string trio, sax quartet, wind quintet, chamber voices, mixed sextet, etc ...). Keep up the good work!
The second is the Rising Tide Music Press. This publishing company focuses on publishing "print works by BBIA (Black, Brown, Indigenous, and Asian) musicians in their 10 years of professional-level work as composers and arrangers". Consequently, many young Black composers are featured and supported by this incredible project, and their scores are easily available to purchase (as this is a publishing company!). A great feature of their website is the attention they give to their featured composers. Each composer has their own individual page, and most composers have links to audio or video of the pieces that are available to purchase. In this way, one can hear quite a bit of the incredible music that this company supports, and one can also see watermarked score samples (if interested). Wonderful organization!!!!!
If you know any other organizations doing similar work, drop a line!
by Anthony R. Green
Kwanzaa season is almost over; today's saba (principle) is Kuumba - creativity. Castle of our Skins is thoroughly indebted to creativity, especially Black creativity. Not only do we feature the creativity of Black artists across vast genres and practices, but we also must be creative ourselves in how we present the incredible art and information we come across. What you have seen from COOS is nothing compared to how much we actually want to share - and this is SUCH a good thing! This gives so much for our audiences to find and share on their own, on top of giving COOS quite a bit of fuel for seasons to come.
Left: COOS founders with musicians Emerson Sudbury, Kennedy Taylor Dixon, and Corie Rose Soumah;
Right: COOS founders with musician Terence Blanchard at The Met, New York
Tomorrow, January first - the first day of the year, is the last day of Kwanzaa. This day's saba is imani - faith. Castle of our Skins has already filled its 9th season with SO MANY NEW THINGS!! 20 world premieres, a new #BCMC, a first ever #BPMC, a new Shirley Graham Du Bois creative-in-residence (and our first significant partnership with a literary artist), 5 new educational partners, 10 new collaborations, and so much more coming in the rest of the season! And next year, Castle of our Skins will celebrate its 10th season, a celebration and a transitional year as Castle of our Skins focuses on becoming a Black arts institution. Tomorrow will be the first day of a new journey for Castle of our Skins - a journey which we cannot truly take without imani.
Joyous Kwanzaa and Happy 2022 to all of you!
by Anthony R. Green
Last week, Castle of our Skins had the honor of hosting the lovely South African composer Dr. Bongani Ndodana-Breen. For this residency at the Longy School of Music of Bard College, Dr. Ndodana-Breen oversaw rehearsals, gave masterclasses, a lecture for the composers, an informal talk for students of the Longy Black Student Union and for students at Project STEP, and was featured in a portrait concert. The portrait concert featured 6 pieces: Two Nguni Dances for piano trio, Intlanzi Yase Mzantsi for piano quintet (world premiere), Apologia at Umzimvubu for string quartet, Khanyisa - an elegy for violin and piano, Impepho for string quartet, and Safika: Three Tales of African Migration for piano quintet.
Dr. Bongani Ndodana-Breen answers a question
from Ashleigh Gordon at a Longy BSU event
After so long without live chamber music, this concert packed power, a breadth of emotions, and - to paraphrase Dr. Ndodana-Breen - a free trip to Africa through music! Each piece reflected some or multiple aspects of African music practice and praxis, from complex interlocking rhythms and vibrant call-and-response, to a fluidity and omnipresence of structure and a sense of timed timelessness. My personal favorites were the lushness of the Khanyisa and the visceral power of Safika. That said, each work contains worlds of color, texture, and vibrancy that everyone should explore! The performance of each piece was expertly handled by COOS musicians: Gabriella Díaz and Mina Lavcheva (violin), Ashleigh Gordon (viola), Francesa McNeeley (cello), and Sarah Bob (piano). For these talented musicians to figure out such complicated rhythms and perform without a conductor, still maintaining a high sense of musicality and ensemble - this was a feat truly to be witnessed.
Missed the concert and want to witness it? No fear! You can still catch the concert's livestream by CLICKING HERE! Enjoy!!!
Castle of our Skins is heading into the last leg of our Miniature Festival! For this festival, we featured young students performing pieces from the first iteration of the Black Composer Miniature Challenge (#BCMC 1.0). After those miniatures were presented on our social media, we transitioned into featuring 43 poets for our first ever Black Poetry Miniature Challenge (#BPMC 1.0), curated by our very own Shirley Graham Du Bois Creative-In-Residence Marlanda Dekine - Sapient Soul! What a celebration of diversity, intelligence, depth, introspection, and what an exploration of emotions that was - with such a joyful closing by our very own Marlanda!
Nora Edouarzin performed Pholoso by Mokale Koapeng
Starting tomorrow, 19 new works will receive their digital world premiere. These pieces, for any combination of flute(s) and harp, were rehearsed and performed by Orlanda Cela and Charles Overton. Our lovely video recording team created wonderful audio and visual experiences so that everyone can enjoy these miniatures! Check out COOS social media for these videos! They will be revealed daily until December 24th, providing you all with gifts to which you can return whenever you'd like! Happy Holiday Season and enjoy these treasures from Castle of our Skins!
Writings, musings, photos, links, and videos about Black Artistry of ALL varieties!
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