Review: Daniel Roumain’s “Anacaona, The Golden Flower Songs” hits sour historical notes

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This review by Mark Gresham appeared in artsatl.com. Follow the link below for the original report.

On Friday, Emory University’s Schwartz Center for Performing Arts hosted a concert of music by Daniel Bernard Roumain, a violinist, conductor and composer of Haitian American cultural lineage. Roumain is classically trained but incorporates elements of funk, rock, hip-hop and other contemporary genres into his compositions.

His violin playing most prominently features technical and stylistic gestures that are quite at home on his instruments, but are more familiar to the general public from the world of electric guitar.

The opening body of his compositions in this intermission-less concert included tributes to Roumain’s parents (“Simone,” “JMDL”), a funky dance piece (“La, La, La, La La”), and the concert’s absolute low point, “Hip-Hop Study and Etude in G minor.”

The highlights of this section were vocal music, such as  “On the Edge of Night” with texts by Yona Harvey, winningly sung by Pittsburgh-born vocalist Anqwenique Wingfield, and “Merci Bon Diei,” a traditional Haitian song made popular in the United States by Harry Belafonte in the 1950s, sung in this concert by the eminent Haitian vocalist Emeline Michel.

The promoted centerpiece and culmination of the concert was a work specially commissioned by Arts at Emory: “Anacaona, The Golden Flower Songs,” for which Roumain wrote the music — the vocal elements were co-composed with Michel — in the context of a narrative libretto by Haitian author Edwidge Danticat. The name Anacaona in the language of the Taíno peoples means “golden flower.”

Before advancing to issues of the libretto, it is worth noting first there was a historical Anacaona, who was one of only two female Taíno chieftains in the last decade of the 15th century, when the expeditions of Christopher Columbus arrived at the island of Ayiti, now known as Hispaniola, from which the French name Haïti was derived.

Anacaona was part of a family of chiefs. Her brother Bohechío was chief of Xaragua on the island’s southwest side. Her husband Caonabo was chief of the adjacent Maguana territory. The Taíno peoples had long before migrated to the Caribbean from South America, as had their primary indigenous rivals, the Caribs.

Anacaona and her brother were observed to be equals in the negotiations with Columbus when he visited Xaragua in 1496. What at first seemed peaceable went bad quickly, as the Taíno peoples came to realize too late they were being conquered — killed or enslaved by the European invaders. Anacaona was executed by hanging, in 1503, at age 29, for refusal to become the concubine of a conquistador.

The Danticat libretto, however, is stylized in the manner of folk-mythology, and a highly syncretic one at that. Nominally touching on history, such as the ominous arrival of Columbus’ ships, it instead curiously conflates the story of Anacaona into a parallel of the biblical Genesis creation story, positing her as “the first woman” in place of Eve. In place of Adam, “the first man” is Odùduwà, legendarily the founder of the Yoruba people, an ethnic group originating in what is now Nigeria and Benin in West Africa.

Odùduwà, who lived over a century before Anacaona, was posthumously deified in Yoruban religion, and here serves as Anacaona’s spirit guide. That such disjunctive elements appear in this story is not entirely a surprise, as Haitian Vodou is itself syncretic. Practiced almost exclusively in Haiti and the Haitian diaspora, it has incorporated into itself religious elements from the Yoruba and other West African peoples, from Taíno religious beliefs, from Roman Catholicism and other seemingly conflicting influences.

By contrast, the synopsis of the story printed in the program booklet, does not itself include the syncretic elements of the narrative’s creation myth, in part outlined above. It also, in a broad-brushed manner, deviated in detail from historical record, in the manner a Hollywood script would change a historical account to create a more “directed” story line.

In the end, the synopsis assesses Anacaona’s hanging as “starting a genocide that would wipe out her people.” It is absolutely true that the conquistadors killed many, many Taíno either by gunshot or in more cruel and barbaric ways, such as cutting off their hands and allowing them to bleed to death. What actually wiped out the Taíno people, however, would only come some 20 years later in the form of a smallpox epidemic.

The summary concludes the story’s end as being the beginning of another, “a new world continually washed in endless streams of blood.” And that is the nut of the work’s sociopolitical message. One need not analyze further.

Obviously, what was intended to be essentially a musical critique of this work has weighed heavily upon issues of history, mythology and sociopolitics instead, but with good reason. Happily, Michel’s vocals were well rendered and passionate. Unfortunately, the overall impact of Roumain’s music for “Anacaona, The Golden Flower Songs” is not all that remarkable and hinges almost entirely upon the sociopolitical themes in which it is enwrapped, rather than upon the music itself.

That is a shame, in as much as it is such extramusical things to which the art all too often finds itself indentured.

For the original report go to http://www.artsatl.com/2015/03/review-daniel-roumains-anacaona-golden-flower-songs/#sthash.H6VfQbBG.dpuf

One thought on “Review: Daniel Roumain’s “Anacaona, The Golden Flower Songs” hits sour historical notes

  1. “I do not want to be explained. I want to be understood.” These are words that were once shared with me during a trip to the Caribbean last year. It struck a chord with me then and still does now.

    * * *

    I imagine that if I had a chance or privilege to interview acclaimed Haitian American violinist Daniel Bernard Roumain, these words too would transpire in our conversations. Because to explain is to give an account for one’s motives or conduct in order to excuse or justify oneself. But to understand is to come to realize or perceive the intended meaning of words, languages or individuals. Understanding is the real art of dialogue. It’s easy to explain, but seldom do explanations evoke admiration. But understanding is enthralling and can hold someone’s attention. That’s the challenge.

    After reading Mark Gresham’s critique of Daniel Roumain’s world premiere piece commissioned by Emory University, featuring Haitian vocalist Emeline Michel, Haitian literary artist Edwidge Danitcat,and Anqwenique Wingfield, “Review: Daniel Roumain’s ‘Anacaona, The Golden Flower Songs’ hits sour historical notes,” I wondered whether Gresham was trying to explain Daniel or understand him.

    Let’s be clear, Daniel’s work did not hit sour historical notes. Don’t take my word for it; just ask the other guests in attendance who gave Daniel Roumain a standing ovation. An audience member demanded an encore. Correction: The attendee heckled Daniel. Yes, on a couple of occasions, the guest interrupted Daniel with aggressive comments for an encore. He obliged. After the performance, Daniel led a lively Q & A session that not only engaged the audience, but also invited candid and thoughtful reflections from them. I suspect the talk-back would have continued, but Daniel wanted the patrons to enjoy the reception that followed his three-hour uninterrupted performance. He unwillingly but respectfully had to bring the discussions to a close to move the evening along into the reception hour. So Anacaona, The Golden Flower Songs, hit sour notes for whom? For Gresham? If so, that’s not enough to declare any notes were sour, especially from an art critic who I suspect does not wish to understand but only wants to explain.

    Is the adversarial tension that exists with critics, in particular art critics, and the work they judge or critique so dicey that there must be an overwhelming commitment to explain the merits of literary, artistic or musical works, as opposed to committing to understanding them?

    It was refreshing to see Haitian history —my history—au courant with Anacaona, unapologetically eclipsing the trite history of the arrival of Columbus’ ships, which is not where Haitian history begins. Plus, that story is overused, unimaginative and consequently lacking the originality or freshness of the timeless questions of origin in Haiti.

    Despite Gresham’s beliefs, Anacaona, The Golden Flower Songs is remarkable. It’s remarkable because Daniel honors tradition and history while simultaneously exploring new ways of making music. It’s remarkable because his talent is unclassifiable, inventive and diverse. It’s remarkable because he honors the voices, stories and memories of the Caribbean. It’s remarkable because he creates a reflection of Haitian history not an interpretation of it. It’s remarkable because he creates dangerously. And Daniel does it well, transforming the audience experience except for well you guessed it Mark Gresham.

    But if you don’t get it, you just don’t get it.

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