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The Routes of Slavery

Jordi Savall and Company Return to Berkeley

Written by:
Michael McDonagh
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Politics is everywhere these days. Make one “false” step and you’re tarred and feathered without getting even a nanosecond to defend yourself. Jordi Savall and company stepped into this corrosive environment like a breath of fresh air with their The Routes of Slavery : Memories of Slavery 1444 — ( 1865 USA ) 1888. And it was more than thrilling to hear the great Catalan musician — on treble viol — live when I’ve been listening to his work, which I first encountered on the now defunct KUSF-FM’s “Early Music Program”, for many years. But the big takeaway from this massive two hour concert was hearing texts from many languages, both European and African, as pure sound because our first and foremost experience of words and music is as sound. We may not know what the words mean but we feel what they mean as sound so it’s always sound first and meaning second. And the forms in which the music arrived were varied — often strophic — and had the indestructible structure of a pop song where communication is always the goal. Chants from Iberian sacred music happily co-existed and shadowed African music and vice versa.The meanings went back and forth across the stage. Operatic splendor and heartfelt intimacy co-existed. Savall has observed that ” art and music help us to understand our history” and the music here was both physical and yes transcendent because the horrors of what humans did and continue to do to each other in the name of empire and commerce are still with us.Eternal even. And thank God for the musicality of the African American narrator Aldo Billingslea’s voice which made his recitation of the greatest horrors of slavery bearable.

A show as complex as this makes discernment difficult.The spectacle of about thirty musicians, singers, and dancers from widely different traditions makes it even harder, so one could do nothing but submit to the beauty of the sounds, which were frequently stunning. There was the sometimes harrowing subject matter of African slaves being tortured, and outrageous, from our now “evolved” point of view statements from many authors like the French philosopher Montequieu — 1748 — or Louis XIV’s “The Black Code ” — 1685 — spoken sometimes over a pattern for malimba ( marimba ), and harp so that the music functioned like a film score by providing an envelope for the words. Other sections were danced. Each part contrasted in ways both emotive, and/or atmospheric, like an opera without staging, though there were some very evocative lighting cues. But the story nevertheless was all in the musical sounds and the mysterious meaning(s), of the words, especially the non-European ones which shared equal footing with those from the continent. Each ensemble had a distinct but coherent color. Hesperion XXI and La Capella Reial de Catalunya were likely playing at a concert pitch lower than our now standard 440 HZ — A — which made them sound both deeper and paradoxically “sharper ” than our usual pitch. “Squeezed” but more emotive. The vocal contributions were equally effective and affecting, and the frequent syncopations kept everything moving decidedly forward. The Africans here — from Mali — included Mohammed Diaby, Ballake Sissoko, Mamani Keita, Nana Kouyate, and Tanti Kouyate — were beautifully costumed and each had very striking stage presences. Temembe Ensamble Continuo’s seven musicians from Colombia, Mexico, Brazil, and Guadeloupe, played a huge variety of “exotic” instruments which added drama, transparency, and depth as did the two European ensembles. Everyone made a joyful noise, from the African kora, a kind of lute/harp played here by Sissoko, to Andrew Lawrence-King, on the huge Spanish Baroque harp, with its very distinct timbre, to countertenor David Sagastume, though perhaps the most amazing of all was Daniel Lassalle on the Medieval — Renaissance trombone, the sackbut — who punched out his notes on the last number which helped bring the attentive house to its feet. This was an extraordinary program which brought your writer to tears which doesn’t happen all that often, but happened here big time.

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