Tag Archives: opera

A Protest Music Interview: Afro Yaqui Music Collective

The Shouts project is about the connection between music and activism and how the two can be considered a unified entity. Music in itself can be a form of activism and lately pure activism has become a viral piece of music.

I myself am an investigative journalist and I have seen how dangerous it can be if a journalist speaks the truth. Which is strange because that is one of a journalist’s main responsibilities. To be a watchdog. To hold the powerful to account. To let the rest of us know if power is being abused.

Some musicians and artists take these journalistic values to heart and even erase the lines between artist and activist. The people that make up the Afro Yaqui Music Collective belong to that group. I had the pleasure of interviewing a core of the group recently and I am thrilled that this is Shout’s end of the year protest music interview.

I spoke with Ben, Gizelxanath and Nejma from the collective about their music and their activism. Ben Barson is a jazz musician, activist and a protege of the legendary Fred Ho, Gizelxanath Rodriguez is a singer, cellist, urban farmer and activist, and Nejma Nefertiti is a fierce emcee, producer and activist.

The trio explained to me their motivations behind their latest collaboration – the global, large scale, jazz and hiphop fusioned opera piece that is Mirror Butterfly as well as their take on their role as artists and activists.

“We got to see how revolutionary music breaks fascism apart.” – Gizelxanath Rodriguez

Halldór: As a music collective you recently released Mirror Butterfly: The Migrant Liberation Movement Suite (August 2019). This work’s liner notes call it “a jazz opera that spans four continents and five centuries”. What was the motivation behind creating such a large scale piece of music?

Ben: The Zapatistas, based among Mayan peoples in Chiapas Mexico have, a parable about colonization and resistance. This story was shared with Gizelxanath and I in Oventic, which is an autonomous Zapatista “caracoles:” communally-run societies with schools, shops and hospitals whose labor and resources are shared collectively.

The parable describes a sword that arrives into a world. It attacks a tree, because it’s the tallest entity around. The tree transforms into rocks, which stay hidden underground, building, but the sword attacks these, too, and damages itself but still splits the stone. These stones turn into water, which the sword foolishly attacks, only to be rusted and dissolved. The story is a metaphor for the evolution of Mayan resistance over five centuries and the current “water” moment are the massive grassroots decentralized, autonomous, matriarchal, democratic project that the Zapatistas and other new social movements represent.

We live in the breaking point of the global climate, when every year, month, day counts to overturn this carbon capitalist system, and we feel that movements like the Zapatistas, the national indigenous congress in Mexico, the Kurdish freedom movement, and the legacy of the Black Panther Party are all essential to human survival and true self-determination for oppressed people. With librettist Ruth Margraff, we developed this jazz opera with this Zapatista parable as its backbone. That’s what this jazz opera tries to capture: the battle of these Afro-Indigenous elements against the sword, a world-historic battle which is taking on quite intense resonance right now. Peggy Myo-Young Choy also helped us develop Mirror Butterfly, both in terms of political themes and creating choreography for the staged version of the work.

Nejma: Carrying on the legacy of the Maya parable while bringing to the forefront 3 warrior women – Mama C, formerly a Black Panther in Kansas City, now living in Tanzania, Reyna Lourdes Anguamea of the Yaqui nation in Sonora, Mexico; and Azize Aslan, who is part of the Kurdish diaspora.

Photo by Michael Swenson

Halldór: This libretto piece is based on three interviews with women from different parts of the world. Can you tell us about those interviews and how they came to be?

Ben: These women have served as our mentors, collaborators, friends, accomplices, etc. We’ve met them through different movements, solidarity work, and travels. Gizelxanath and Nejma met Mama C at the founding of the First Ecosocialist International in Veroes, Venezuela, in 2017, for example.

Halldór: You have spoken about being artivists before, written essays about it and now scheduled to teach a class on the subject. The Shouts project focuses on both music and activism and how the two are intertwined. Many critics claim the two should be separated and other critics say the same for activism and journalism. Why is your bond to activism so strong and do you feel there is a lack of awareness or social consciousness among artists today? Should the connection between the two disciplines be a choice in your opinion or is it a responsibility?

Nejma: As artists, it’s always our responsibility to reflect the times and fight for the oppressed. Not all artists are “conscious” and that’s fine. Not all artists are going speak for the voices not heard or demand justice. As for me, it’s my purpose and I walk in it. That’s my decision.

Our music equals our politics, which prefigures a new society and creates solidarity among self-determining communities and villages (pueblos) all over the world. This is how we’re gaining our freedom.

It’s an artist’s responsibility to inspire people, create awareness, create revolution, teach the youth, carry on the torch, and continue to pass it on. It’s our obligation to use our platform. We’ve been given this gift and it’s important we share it. The world needs it.

Ben: Eco is the opposite of ego. Ego is when you focus only on yourself and the amazingness of your self-expression. What is truly amazing is when you can express and dialogue with communities in struggle, the ecologies of the community. Expressing this is an ever-evolving tradition, found in jeliya, the griot’s ancient art.

In terms of activism, music and activism have always been deeply intertwined especially the music of the African diaspora. One of the first jazz musicians, an African-Creole-American named Daniel Desdunes, sat on a segregated train car in New Orleans in 1892 to protest Jim Crow. He was arrested. Buddy Bolden, another early jazz musician, theme song was about an African American who served in the Civil War and later attacked the police in New Orleans protesting segregation and racism named Robert Charles. Sidney Bechet, one of the first clarinetists, claimed his grandfather was the maroon revolutionary Bras-Coupé who led slave uprisings in Louisiana. The family of Lorenzo Tio, which included three of New Orleans’s most important clarinetists, started an agricultural commune in Mexico in the 1850s, before moving back to New Orleans. So there is this intense, undeniable synergy between activism, rebellion, alternative forms of living, and the musicians. And that’s just early jazz. When we move to hip-hop, reggae, free jazz, pretty much any music from the African diaspora, you find this revolutionary spirit where social needs and music are totally connected. It is Eurocentric and even racist to say that art and politics don’t mix.

Halldór: You had a strong bond with jazz legend and activist Fred Ho. What other musicians or artists have had an impact on your music and activism or inspired your creative process? Do you follow any contemporary protest musicians or socially conscious artists that you want to give a shout out to?

Nejma: From Nina Simone, to The RZA, to Rakim, to contemporary groups like La Hijas del Rap in Mexico, to Mama C in Tanzania, who is also an incredible singer and artist, to Maure Om in Venezuela, who is an emcee, multimedia artist, and supporter of the Bolivarian Revolution. (Don’t believe the imperialist hype about Venezuela), to Afrobeat/Hip Hop artist Napoleon Da Legend, to Caridad De La Luz (La Bruja), poet, activist, emcee, and theater artist. We are raising money right now to help Maure Om participate in a hip hop festival, the Tupac Amaru festival, in Lima, Peru.

From legendary Arabic singer, songwriter, and film actress Umm Kulthum of Egypt, to the Mama of Funk, Nona Hendryx, to The Last Poets, and beyond. I love the way they all, in their own way, carved their own path and brought and are still bringing the true spirit of authenticity. These artists take risks and sacrifice time and energy to give you their most vulnerable selves.

Ben: Music is protest but it is also transformation, as in building a new society. We have to reimagine everything. What is family. What is land. What is water, what is the self? How do we communicate these questions and imaginations in art? I love flutist Nicole Mitchell’s tribute to maroon societies in maroon cloud. She says: “Imagination, especially black imagination, is a really vital and undervalued resource. It’s very clear that we can’t continue in the same direction that we’ve gone, but we need to return to the source of where imagination and creativity come from, because if we don’t have another vision then we can’t implement it, and we can’t make a different future.” So vision is important, and to have vision, we have to be daring, create art that is impossible. Why?

Nejma: Because artists continually think ahead while the world is left behind. Sometimes people need time to catch up, but time is running out. There is no other time than now. We see beyond this reality.

Ben: Radical innovations of the past, which emerge like a volcano and almost bring the system down, get co-opted. Martin Luther King now has a holiday in the United States, but the state as an institution continues to be anti-black. Hip-hop expressed Black Power, the legacy of the panther and the Black Arts movement, a rejection of neoliberalism and police violence. It was about unity and solidarity and, artistically, completely revolutionized the relationship between lyric, music, and poetry. But since then, a neocolonial bourgeoisie has been produced within, which Jay Z’s partnership with the NFL represents, who will not sign Colin Kaepernick. We have to create new impossible forms of music and organizing. Fred Ho and Sun Ra both said, in different ways, “Everything possible has been tried and failed. Now we have to do the impossible.” What was impossible will become the possible of tomorrow, and then the artists of tomorrow will have to create a new impossible. That is why we compose and work out grooves in odd time signatures and connect radical musical movements from across the world.

Nejma: Hip hop has always been a voice of the streets, where the struggle comes alive, where it is given sonic form and soul. We tell those struggles in stories, through lyrics. We use music to re-appropriate what’s been appropriated, to remind ourselves and our communities of our languages, our culture, our foods, and our bond with nature. Through Hip hop we remember our origins and our journeys; we remember where we’re from and we manifest where we’re going. Words are magic. Hip hop is magic.

Gizelxanath standing in a public art piece at the University of Sulaimani.

Halldór: Part of your name relates to the Yaqui people in Northern Mexico and their culture, which has a rich heritage of song and dance interwoven in its tradition. Where does your connection to Yaqui come from and why is it such an integral part of the collective? What do the other musicians bring into the group besides their musical talent?

Gizelxanath: My grandfather was Yaqui and brought my father to the city where I was born, Mexicali, when he was a year old. I grew up disconnected from the Yaqui language and culture until I realized the importance for me to be able to reconnect with my indigenous roots. Five years of studying and connecting and learning about the CNI (National Indigenous Congress, an anticapitalist pan-indigenous organization in Mexico) allowed me an opportunity to meet water protectors from the Yaqui Nation. It’s been a very interesting and revitalizing process which has sparked my inspiration to write in Yoeme (the language of the Yaqui people) alongside women and men who are at the fore front confronting environmental disasters in the Yaqui nation. We do not appropriate their dances nor their music. Our music is a vessel for not only Yaqui people but also indigenous people of the world that want to share with us their stories in their native languages to create something new.

Ben: The Yaquis have been on the frontline of Indigenous resistance for hundreds of years. They are one of the few Indigenous nations in the Americas that had never been colonized by the Spanish [they were colonized by the Mexican state after the independence]. Now the state wants to make an example of them by destroying their peaceful, lawful resistance the “Independence Aqueduct” project, which the state is continuing to build even though Mexico’s own supreme court has ruled in favor of the Yaqui people who protested and blocked highways to stop this form of water-theft and desertification of Sonora. 100% of the album sales of Mirror Butterfly go to support Yaqui resistance through the construction of a radio station, Námakasia Radio, which will broadcast the resistant messages of the Yaqui organizers and also offer classes to the youth.

Halldór: You write in your essay, Artivism and Decolonization, that activists make up part of the collective and participate in its work. Can you explain that further?

Ben: We prioritize strengthening movements for liberation. We are not some kind of “outside” force, trying to “help.” We are part of those movements. Sometimes that means playing at activist-organized events, oftentimes donating our creative labor and building long-term solidarity. But we go beyond that. We go to meetings, go to convergences, participates in demonstrations or help organize solidarity. Last year we were invited to participate at the First Mesopotamian Water Forum in Kurdish Iraq, where we met with water activists from Iraq, Turkey, Syria, Iran, Lebanon, and all over the world.

Nejma: Because not only are we spreading a message, we are practicing communal economics, maroon exchange. There are revolutionary musicians that we continue to work with and build with from all around the world. It’s one of the ways to create a liberated network, share ideas, and build strategy. The more we connect, the more self-sufficient we become, the stronger we are.

Halldór: You recently performed at an anti-fracking event in Pittsburgh where Trump attended another nearby event. How did that go? How is it to partake in smaller events or even street protests with your large ensemble?

Gizelxanath: As you noted, this was not only an anti-trump rally. It was an event of water defenders, first-nation led, to protest the fracking companies which were meeting in Pittsburgh. Trump later decided to come, but the core message was that we all must be responsible to protect water because without clean water all life on earth will collapse.

Nejma: The greatest part about it was that a lot of First Nation brothers and sisters were there, which is extremely crucial to our success as liberated people. It’s our priority to connect with Original people and to connect them to each other. We also got to connect with the local community, especially the young people. It was important, for me personally, to see what not to do as well, and consistently confirms that I belong neither to the right or left, but identify with and practice a different kind of politics altogether.

Gizelxanath: We got to see how revolutionary music breaks fascism apart.

Nejma: Yes! When Ben began to play the baritone saxophone, the arguments from the left and right sides of the street ceased to exist. That sound is revolutionary. Of course it depends how you play and what your spirit is like. No matter what people identified with, everyone was paying attention. They were all paying attention. Whether they respected the music or not, they had to pay attention. And that’s power. Power to be used righteously. That’s how we show and prove. We were called, so we showed up. We showed the right that we are in opposition to white supremacy, capitalism, rape, racism, and patriarchy! We have to show up. We inspired the youth, the elders, and those in between which creates an intergenerational experience never to be forgotten.

Ben: We had youth musicians playing with us, such as percussionist and hip-hop artist Desmond Rucker who is a senior in high school at CAPA. A big part of our practice is working with youth musicians. But we also featured in the ensemble the Springfield Mass’s 2019 Poet Laurate, playwright-community activist-educator, Magdalena Gomez, who performed a new version of her piece “Jazz Ready.” Our ensemble spanned generations. Being intergenerational is key because there is so much to learn from the movements of past decades, especially before the techno-colonization of phones. Yet mobilizing the next generation, including its wisdom and common sense for how to respond to climate change, racism, patriarchy, inequality, is also key. The Afro Yaqui Music Collective’s goals and composition reflects this. And organizing musicians is and artists and building spaces to work together is more important, I think, than reaching some mythical notion of the “people who need to hear our message.” People are going to hear our work locally and globally through concrete relationships and showing up to events, workshops, youth-run spaces, not by diluting our message. We are a guerilla ensemble that can break down, reform, reconceptualize and restructure based on the context. We are like water.

Gizelxanath: We want to flow like water.

Nejma: It takes many shapes and forms but is always true to its nature. It serves and it nurtures. It builds and destroys.

Ben: For instance, when we performed in Iraq at the Mesopotamian forum, we met a great clarinetist, Viktor Jara (named after the Chilean revolutionary musician) who we worked really well with and built a long relationship. So our music built a new community in sound. We also presented on the founding of the Ecosocialist International and so created a space for a shared sound and ideology.

Nejma Nefertiti and Peggy Myo-Young Choy in a scene where the Stoneflower gains balanace and clarity from her interaction with the “snail” energy of the Zapatistas. Photo taken by Photo taken by Renee Rosensteel and provided courtesy of the New Hazlett Theater.

Halldór: Protest musicians tend to encounter a problem in regards to getting their message across because many perform only at specific events. How do you reach those that mostly need to hear you message?

Nejma: Nobody is doing what we are doing. It’s very unique and wild. We receive different opportunities, and we take them if they make sense. Every platform is an opportunity and every invite is an opportunity not to be wasted or slept on.

Ben: We are not careerists, but we do perform at the highest level of performance arts spaces in the United States because of the quality of our work. For instance, we’ve performed at the Kennedy Center, Lincoln Center, the ASCAP Jazz Awards, and tons of universities. We have also performed at the US-Mexican border protesting border militarization and immigrant detention. We exist in multiple spaces simultaneously.

Gizelxanath: We exist in the arts world but also at the community level, at the ground level.

Nejma: When we were meeting with and founding the First Ecosocialist International, we performed in the Afro-Maroon Venezuelan community of Veroes, which is very different than performing at The Red Rooster in Harlem or The Kelly Strayhorn Theatre here in Pittsburgh, but each has its own special opportunity to engage and evolve, and that touches more people than we could have imagined.

Gizelxanath: What is important to understand is that we don’t confine ourselves to a theater.

Nejma: We walk our path by using our music for a purpose and we honor the freedom we have to do this. Not everybody has freedom. Until everyone does, we’re not gonna stop. If that means we fight till we die, then so be it. Reminds me of one of my favorite quotes, “The struggle continues, and victory is certain.” ~ Amilcar Cabral (“a luta continua e a Vitoria é certa”) And like the fierce Magdalena Gomez says, “Don’t waste the power of the pulpit.”

Halldór: What is on the horizon for the collective or for you as individual artists?

Nejma: Until everyone has freedom, until everyone has clean water, until everyone understands we have to take care of the land and return it to those who cultivate it, until kids stop being put in cages, until we overthrow white patriarchal rulers, until then, we’re going to continue using our craft to speak out against injustices and inspire the youth to fight against it, so they know they are not alone, and that we embrace our responsibility to them and each other. That’s what those did before us. They didn’t fight for nothing.

Ben: We continue to collaborate with community activists and revolutionary artists across the world to remind us of those who have passed us the torch to light a brighter future. Right now we are working with Magdalena Gómez on the music for a new piece about the Afro-Puerto Rican intellectual Arturo Schomburg titled: “Erased: a poetic imaging on the Life of Arturo Alfonso Schomburg.” Schomburg was a pan-Africanist historian and activist who was erased from history despite collecting over 30,000 manuscripts of Black history, including slave narratives, and founding the first center for Black research which is called the Schomburg Center. The piece will have a performance at the Puerto Rican Travelling Theater (PRITT) sometime in the spring of 2020.

Gizelxanath: Additionally, we are creating a new module of the Mirror Butterfly in Madison, Wisconsin, in dialogue with the indigenous and migrant communities in Wisconsin.

Halldór: Thank you for participating and for the work you do. Do you have anything else you’d like to shout from the rooftops?

Ben: Thank you for existing. We need platforms like these, we need to create synergy between revolutionary writers, musicians, gardeners, scientists, everyone.

Nejma: We need to call forth all the experts in their respective fields to use their skills in solidarity. We all need to bring our gifts, talents, and resistance to the table.

Gizelxanath: To use their skills to advance the movement.