Music from Sh*thole Countries

Unsurprisingly, the President of the United States has said another racist thing — granted, in white supremacist language slightly less veiled than some of his previous, if equally horrifying, gaffes — and perhaps we can agree that the only sh*thole country in this equation is the U.S. But, to be honest, I might not have decided to write about the “sh*thole countries” comment — this vile and dangerous rhetoric, now so painfully normalized that I actually rolled my eyes when I first saw the headlines — if I hadn’t spent the past two weeks obsessing over Ladilikan, the debut collaborative album from the Kronos Quartet and Trio Da Kali.

It was — as so many great albums are — an unexpected discovery, brought about by an algorithmic rabbit hole: one YouTube video recommended another, and what started out as Salome score study found me, hours later, perusing the never-ending treasure trove of live performances uploaded by Seattle’s public radio station, KEXP.

Trio Da Kali comprises vocalist Hawa Diabaté, lutenist Mamadou Kouyaté on ngoni, and balafonist Lassana Diabaté. The trio are Malian Mandé griot — musicians, storytellers, praise singers and oral historians. During their performance, KEXP host Darek Mazzone asked, “What is the role of the griot?”

“If something isn’t going right, it’s our responsibility to step in for the greater good,” Lassana Diabaté replied.

Mazzone nodded. “We could use that here.”


Classical music is — in case you weren’t aware — overwhelmingly white. Audiences, composers, performers — the whole system promotes and protects white participants.

The counterpoint skeptics are itching to point out: of course classical music is white; it’s from Europe, which is also white.

Besides the obvious fallacy that Europe is or ever was without communities of color, there’s another danger at hand in this misguided belief: in accepting classical music as a white art form, we abandon any possibility of changing that. “Complacency breeds complicity,” journalist Zack Ferriday writes in an article for VAN Magazine. He explains:

Between outright nationalism and the slightly less visible institutional racial bias, classical music has been — wittingly and unwittingly — instrumental in the propagation of racist narratives over its hundreds of years. Even for The Guardian, the “biggest issue of all” surrounding Herbert von Karajan was how he produced his performances; his membership of the Nazi party tucked neatly away between parentheses.

Ferriday describes how the neo-Nazi web forum Stormfront hosts a discussion thread hundreds of pages long, its members celebrating classical music’s whiteness, denouncing atonality as a Jewish invention, and issuing bizarre and hateful declarations like, “listening to the classics FORCES you to be white.”

“The idea that classical music provides some kind of sanctuary for somebody with [Holocaust denier Vincent Reynouard’s] views (and the views shared by the Stormfront membership) should be completely unacceptable,” Ferriday writes, “and, moreover, should be something actively fought against.”

Continue reading “Music from Sh*thole Countries”

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Dissent

On August 3, the Kennedy Center announced the recipients of the 2017 Kennedy Center Honors.  The KC Honors are one of the most prestigious artistic prizes in the world, with past recipients ranging from Martha Graham and Tennessee Williams, to Johnny Carson and Georg Solti, to Martha Argerich and the Eagles.  Since the award’s inception, the Honors have recognized the lives and work of artists across cultures and disciplines; the only criterion holds that recipients must have made “lifetime contributions to American culture through the performing arts — whether in music, dance, theater, opera, motion pictures, or television,” according to the Kennedy Center’s 2017 press release.  Recipients are honored each year in a reception at the White House, followed by a televised gala during which they are seated alongside the President and First Lady.

To claim that the Kennedy Center Honors have ever been anything but political would be naive.  Art is political in its mere existence, be it free from censorship, in defiance of censorship, or in collusion with it.  That’s not exactly a revelation.  But the Kennedy Center’s very existence is political, given its role as the United States’ national performing arts center, a federally funded “living memorial” to JFK.  That art and culture could — in fact, should — contribute to an American nationalism was one of President Kennedy’s recurring talking points.  In a 1963 speech at Amherst College, he said:

I look forward to an America which will reward achievement in the arts as we reward achievement in business or statecraft.  I look forward to an America which will steadily raise the standards of artistic accomplishment and which will steadily enlarge cultural opportunities for all of our citizens.  And I look forward to an America which commands respect throughout the world not only for its strength but for its civilization as well.

It is significant, then, that when the Honors are awarded in the Kennedy Center Opera House on December 3 of this year, the man seated in the President’s chair — the man who will welcome the Honorees into the White House, and sit beside them in the Opera House balcony — will be a man who has repeatedly criticized and silenced artists; threatened to slash federal arts funding; and systematically demeaned, harassed, and in some cases literally endangered people who are women, queer, immigrants, religious minorities, people with disabilities, and people of color — all of whom consume art or create it, and all of whom have without question contributed to American culture as much as any Kennedy Center Honoree.

It is significant, as well, that this year’s Honorees are Carmen de Lavallade, Gloria Estefan, LL Cool J, Norman Lear, and Lionel Richie.  That’s four people of color — including one refugee, Estefan, whose family fled from the Cuban Revolution, and who has advocated for refugees’ rights — plus outspoken Trump critic Lear, a Jewish war veteran who spent his career in television amplifying and normalizing the stories of communities of color.  De Lavallade, a legendary dancer and choreographer, was one of the first African-American dancers to take the stage at the Metropolitan Opera.  LL Cool J is the first rapper to receive the award, amplifying a marginalized art form built on Black narratives; he’s also been vocal about causes affecting marginalized communities that have largely been ignored or dismissed by the Trump administration.  And Lionel Richie, while a celebrity friend of the President, once advised then–President-Elect Trump to “do everything the opposite of what you said you’re gonna do.”

Continue reading “Dissent”

Regarding integrity (Part 2)

(Read Part 1)

The second article that got me in trouble was a review of Opera McGill’s production of Alcina this past Fall.  The review, “Orientalism is no magic,” takes issue with the production’s use of yellowface — makeup, costumes, and set design appropriated from Asian cultures by white directors and designers, worn by white singers, and performed for the entertainment of a predominantly white audience.

Unlike the Don Giovanni interview, this article was 100% written by me, and I stand by it 100%.  The review was a joint project meant to accompany “An open letter to Opera McGill” by Sarah Shin-Wong, a recording engineer who worked behind the scenes on the production, and whose perspective as a student of colour sheds vital light on why, exactly, the Alcina production was so infuriating:

Yellowface is when a non-Asian person wears makeup and/or costumes to look what they think is “Asian.”  Thus, the entire 2016 principal cast of Alcina was performing yellowface.

It is offensive because essentially it is wearing ethnicities as a costume.  It homogenizes, exotifies, and objectifies various Asian cultures and puts them under the umbrella of “Orientalism.”  It dehumanizes Asian people and makes Asian cultures a superficial trend or aesthetic.  In addition, it propagates inaccurate stereotypes and derogatory caricatures.  It can be likened to blackface.

Continue reading “Regarding integrity (Part 2)”

Regarding integrity (Part 1)

To Whom It May Concern:

This is an open letter to anyone who has ever dismissed sexism in opera as an inherent product of the times.  This is an open letter to anyone who’s ever stumbled upon criticism of racist practices in classical music, and done nothing but shrug, dismissing those criticisms as the ill-informed ramblings of a starry-eyed Social Justice Warrior.

This is an open letter to anyone who thinks that classical music shouldn’t be held to the same standards of critique, dialogue, and evolution as literally every other art form — who thinks that #OscarsSoWhite might apply in Hollywood, but certainly not in the concert hall.

This is an open letter to anyone who claims that calling Don Giovanni a rapist is a step too far.  This is an open letter to anyone who thinks it doesn’t even matter what we call him, because in the end, it’s only an opera, and can’t we leave politics out of it?

No — no we can’t.  Because opera is never only opera, and politics and art are inexorably linked.  And if you happen to feel otherwise — well, this letter is for you.

Continue reading “Regarding integrity (Part 1)”

Classical Music Round-Up: January through March 2016

It was announced that Gianandrea Noseda will take over the helm of the National Symphony Orchestra next season, while Jaap van Zweden will join the New York Philharmonic at the podium.  Two more white men in charge of major American orchestras?  No big surprise there, but Marin Alsop might have something to say.  Meanwhile, in Britain, Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla will be the City of Birmingham Symphony’s new leading lady, at only 29 years old.  *applause*  And another young conductor on the rise: 25-year-old Jordan de Souza will be heading up Komische Oper Berlin.

We lost some notable names in recent months: business mogul turned self-taught conductor Gilbert Kaplan; pioneering composer Pierre Boulez; Pulitzer-winning composers Leslie Bassett and Steven Stucky; Dallas Symphony leader Louis Lane; conducting pedagogue Otto-Werner Mueller; and — just today — maestro Nikolas Harnoncourt.

Now some feel-good stories: a Berlin horn player reflects on collaborating with Simon Rattle before the conductor relocates to London; Tafelmusik’s rendition of Beethoven 9 left one Toronto critic with nothing to criticize; bassist Jane Little just became the longest-serving orchestral musician ever, after 71 years with the Atlanta Symphony; and Ennio Morricone just won his first Oscar after working on the scores for over 500 films.

Mahan Esfahani’s harpsichord recital was interrupted by Baroque-head “rioters,” while scholars have discovered that the taxi horns in Gershwin’s An American in Paris might be pitched in the wrong key, and the Yale School of Music launched its first ever MOOC on Coursera.

As 2016 got off to an alarming start (Donald Trump, anyone?), diverse voices shone — from a powerful performance in a Harlem crypt in solidarity with Black Lives Matter; to violinist Rosemary Johnson and the UK’s Paramusical Ensemble making music through disability; to Julia Wolfe’s big-deal commission — a piece about American women in the workforce — for the New York Philharmonic’s 2018-19 season; to composer Georg Friedrich Haas’ open sexuality.

In U.S. politics, WQXR explored classical music on the campaign trail, while Bernie is, apparently, a gifted maestro.  And in the classical crime beat, an opera singer’s “screams” alerted Amsterdam police, a former St. Paul cellist was caught in a massive drug bust, and a rare French horn stolen six years ago was reunited with its owner.

In Iran, the women of the Tehran Symphony face oppression.  In Germany, an emergency refugee camp is filled with the music of a children’s choir.

Gustavo Dudamel led the Youth Orchestra L.A. at Superbowl halftime.  Grammy-winning violist Kim Kashkashian shares the woes of her name.  The Telegraph had a really interesting conversation with Renée Fleming, Anne Midgette profiled musicians who take time off from performing, and drama continues to unfold in the Buffalo Philharmonic oboe section.

A new Mozart opera was discovered and performed, while for the rest of the opera world, it’s same-old, same-old.

And finally, to end this round-up with a smile: watch a Bach duet played by a 90-year-old husband and wife.