Arts & Events

Jordi Savall Traces The Musical Routes of Slavery

Reviewed by James Roy MacBean
Friday November 09, 2018 - 12:32:00 PM

Bringing together musicians from Africa, Latin America, North America, and Europe, Jordi Savall brought to Zellerbach Hall on Saturday, November 3 a stirring program recalling the injutices of more than 2,000 years of slavery. Actor Aldo Billingslea served as narrator, reading short excerpts from an eclectic array of texts dealing with slavery. Billingslea was often introduced and/or accompanied by softly played notes on the kora, a West African stringed instrument played here by Ballaké Sissoko from Mali. The very first text read by Billingslea was by none other than Aristotle, who wrote in his 4th century BCE Politics that “Humanity is divided into two: masters and slaves.” This serves as a reminder that Europeans began by enslaving one another, as they did in Ancient Greece, even as the first democracies were formed.  

Next came a text describing the discovery and conquest of the African land of Guinea in 1444 by Portuguese slave-traders. Thus began the European exploitation of Africans as slaves. Musically, this infamous moment was evoked by Malian griot Mohammed Diaby who walked from the rear of Zellerbach Hall singing an improvised set of lamentations, his high, clear voice ringing out powerfully in a cry of pain and sorrow. Following this we traced the Portuguese and Spanish spread of colonies in the New World, as musicians from Colombia, Brazil, and Mexico performed songs and dances of slaves brought over from Africa. These Latin American musicians were members of Tembembe Ensemble Continuo, a group specializing in exploring connections between the Hispanic Baroque period in music and the traditional music of Latin America. Soprano Maria Juliana Linhares was a vivacious performer of Brazilian songs, while Ada Coronel sang and danced the music of Mexico. Mixed in among these Latin American songs was a West African griot song eloquently performed by Mohammed Diaby and Ballaké Sissoko, who were accompanied by a chorus of three Malian female dancers and singers comprised of Mamani Keita, Nana Kouyaté, and Tanti Kouyaté. 

Instrumental music was performed by Jordi Savall and Hesperion XXI, and choruses were performed by La Capella Real de Catalunya. Aldo Billingslea read texts describing the cruel and inhuman tortures meted out as punishments to recalcitrant or rebellious slaves. Some of the first signs of resistance were evident in the slave song “Follow the drinking gourd,” powerfully sung by Neema Bickersteth. Indeed, several slave songs performed by Neema Bickersteth, including “I’m packing up” and Amazing grace,” revealed the slave roots of Negro Spirituals and Gospel music. These songs, eloquently sung by Neema Bickersteth, were among the many highlights of this program. Other highlights were provided by Mohammed Diaby in various Malian griot songs. A particularly eloquent text read by Aldo Billingslea was one by Abraham Lincoln, who spoke out forcefully against the cruel and inhuman treatment of slaves in a letter to a slave-owning friend.  

If there was one perspective that was missing in this inspiring program, it is one that was brought home to me when I visited a slave-trading fortress-castle on the coast at Elmina in Ghana. There the Ghanaian guide made a point of telling us that we white Europeans were by no means the only people who enslaved Africans. Africans had a long history, he said ruefully, of enslaving one another, capturing enemy tribesmen, women, and children in warring raids and enslaving them. I also happen to know from my years spent in East Africa that Arab slave-traders rounded up slaves even into the 20th century and shipped them off to Zanzibar or Arabia itself. In spite of these omissions, Jordi Savall’s Routes of Slavery was an uplifting event combining historical texts and music from four continents. Jordi Savall, who organized this event and contributed an eloquent essay on remembering slavery for the program notes, is to be commended for his commitment to reminding us of man’s inhumanity to man while also reminding us of music’s ability to express our human feelings of pain, sorrow, and resistance to oppression.