Program notes on Diaspora
Diaspora- from Greek: a scattering of seeds; a dispersion of a people and culture from their original homeland.
For some time, I have wanted to write a piece based on West African percussion, and this NSO commission afforded me the perfect opportunity. While European classical music developed complex harmonies of tones, West African music cultivated a complex interweaving of contrasting rhythmic patterns. This simultaneous layering of different meters is precisely what creates the vital rhythmic spark inherent in Latin American, reggae, jazz, funk, and other music derived from the African music diaspora. The idea of fusing these polyrhythms, the ubiquitous call and response form, and the haunting pentatonic folk melodies with the rich pallet of the western symphony orchestra has been an idea of mine for a long time.
While I was working, the tragic earthquake in Haiti occurred, and I was overwhelmed by the terrifying images on TV. I watched, haunted by what I saw, and began to more deeply consider the Haitian experience and how their art spoke to their stories. I believe that music embodies the culture, ethos, values and historical experience of the people who make it. I’m perpetually drawn to “folk” music: the music of the people who are, more often than not, the disenfranchised. Often, the voiceless in a society have the greatest story to tell.
I immersed myself in all the Haitian history, literature and poetry I could find, particularly the writings of Edwidge Danticat and Paul Farmer. I learned that Haiti originated as a French slave colony, and that to operate the sugar plantations, hundreds of thousands of slaves were imported from Africa, many of whom were literally worked to death. I discovered field recordings of Haitian folk music chronicled by the ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax in 1935: enchanting worksongs sung in the fields accompanied by layered polyrhythms made by hoes striking the soil, powerful call and response recordings of the pervasive African tradition of democratic participation, intricate and delicate percussion with ghostly overtones, jubilant exaltations of harmonies and rhythm that sound remarkably like bigband jazz. I learned that in Haitian culture, the drum represents the spiritual voice of God and therefore begins and ends every religious ceremony and because of that, the French ordered all the drums burned. The Haitians built new ones out of whatever they had on hand and so their drums took on unique qualities of indigenous trees of the region. I was inspired by the indomitable spirit that enabled the Haitians to throw off the shackles of slavery and become the first Latin American country to gain independence- and greatly saddened reading of the genocide in 1937, when Dominican soldiers massacred as many as 35,000 defenseless Haitians, based on the darkness of their skin. It is said the river ran red with blood for 5 days. Yet, somehow, the strength of the human spirit prevailed.
Though my writing has been influenced by the complex and fascinating patterns that make up Haitian folk music, the Haitian/African story serves as a conduit for a more universal theme. It is about all the world’s peoples whose deep need to express themselves through their music and culture is more important than life itself; who do so against all odds and in spite of violence, tragedy and repression.