A report by Katie Jane Fernelius for Indy Week.
In the seventeenth century, a ship of enslaved people from modern-day Nigeria were shipwrecked on the Caribbean island of St. Vincent. Knowing they were fated to work at plantations or mines if they were discovered, they hid among the Arawak, indigenes of the region. The communities began to intertwine; legend has it that the Arawak taught the West Africans how to fish and the West Africans taught the Arawak how to dance.
Over the next four hundred years, through multiple encounters with colonial powers—some peaceful, some violent—this new group of people moved across the coast of Central America, always evading the threat of slavery. Through these migrations, they developed a language melding Arawakan, Spanish, French, English, and broader Caribbean influences. Now this language and culture, called Garifuna, can be found in Honduras, Belize, Guatemala, and Nicaragua.
The history of the Garifuna people is just one of the stories of the intercontinental transactions of people and cultures across the Atlantic Ocean. Duke Performances celebrates that history with a festival that begins Monday. Over the course of the weeklong festival, six artists representing Mali, Venezuela, Honduras, Haiti, and the Dominican Republic will perform in Durham.
“We know that there is a cultural passage that exists that opened up very tragically,” says Duke Performances executive director Aaron Greenwald, referring to the transatlantic slave trade that trafficked an estimated fifteen million enslaved Africans to Europe and the Americas. “But then we know that there’s a constant generation of musical exchange across these communities and it doesn’t move in one direction, it’s dynamic. There’s a back-and-forth.”
Over the years, Duke Performances has incurred a track record of hosting international performers from Africa, the Caribbean, and South America, but the festival is an occasion to bring these different performers and their musical communities into a common conversation. Greenwald consulted Laurent Dubois, a scholar of the Atlantic world, and Jonathan Henderson, a musician and PhD student in ethnomusicology, among other enthusiasts and experts to create a festival he plans to make an annual event. (In fact, while I was visiting his office, he received an email confirmation from an artist for next year’s festival and pumped his fist.)
“One theme that I think music of the Black Atlantic has is that its performance serves as much a social function as it does a concert function,” Greenwald says. “The music is woven into the fabric of people’s daily lives. There is some intentionality about participation.”
The festival begins with performances by Joan Soriano, from the Dominican Republic, and Emeline Michel, from Haiti. Both artists are from the divided island of La Hispaniola, but despite growing up about three hundred miles apart—roughly the same distance between Durham and Baltimore—their sounds could not be more different.
Soriano is a bachata singer from the countryside, known for his steel-string guitar work. Michel has been called the “Queen of Hatian Song,” working across genres in her popular multi-decade career. Soriano sings in Spanish, Michel in Creole and, occasionally, French and English.
On Wednesday night comes Venezuelan group Betsayda Machado Y La Parranda El Clavo, Malian group Trio da Kali on Thursday, and Honduran Garifuna artist Aurelio on Friday. Each of these artists comes out of a long tradition of refuge and resistance within their countries.
Machado and her band grew up in a jungled region in Venezuela where escaped Africans settled hundreds of years ago. As Afro-Venezuelans who come from a community of landworkers and a history of slave rebellions, their songs often have a political bent.
In Mali, religious extremists have seized parts of the country and outlawed music, but groups like Trio da Kali continue to play. Its members, all children of canonical West African musicians, are practically musical royalty in Mali. They represent the current generation of the griots—a traveling group of musical storytellers who performed oral histories carried down across generations. Today, Trio da Kali continues to sing those histories as well as make new ones, such as their Bambara version of Mahalia Jackson’s “God Shall Wipe All Tears Away.”
Aurelio Martinez, the Honduran musician better known as simply Aurelio, will play Garifuna music on Friday evening. The week concludes with global icon Diego El Cigala, a Spanish artist who made his name in flamenco, then expanded into tango and salsa. In 2014, he fled Spain to become a citizen of Dominican Republic. His latest album was recorded in Spain, Puerto Rico, Colombia, Cuba, New York City, and Miami, taking up the salsa canon across continents.
“Diego El Cigala really speaks to these routes of travel that music has taken,” Henderson notes.
The Black Atlantic festival is not defined by a unidirectional flow of influence, but by a continuous exchange.
“I don’t think it’s all running through Africa, then going to Latin America and the Caribbean,” Greenwald says. “It’s all going back and forth, wrapping around.”
Duke Performances has also partnered with the Forum for Scholars and Publics to host a series of conversations on the Black Atlantic during the festival. They commence with a keynote conversation between Ned Sublette and Michael Veal, moderated by Dubois. Dubois and Sublette will also moderate a conversation between Soriano and Michel on La Hispaniola at Motorco Tuesday evening*. The festivities throughout the week include bachata lessons, a demonstration by Batsayada at Cocoa Cinnamon, and a parrande (a traveling street performance similar to caroling).
Given its many pieces and dynamics, the connections that form the foundation of Black Atlantic are difficult to define in any rigid way. Though this group of artists has a broad shared heritage as part of the African diaspora, their musical output spans several styles.
“While I think it may be impossible to find a single common thread that connects all these bands, I also deeply believe that there is some shared ineffable spark that lays at the heart of it all,” Henderson says. “These musical cultures all share a story of resilience and profound genius in the face of unimaginably difficult circumstances. But perhaps they are connected not just by a shared history but also by their future-looking visions for freedom and musical invention.”
The Black Atlantic festival doesn’t seem to be trying to answer this question; instead, it seems to be trying to ask it in inventive ways.
“We don’t have any Cuban artists, we don’t have any Brazilian artists, we don’t have any southern African artists, we don’t have any American artists performing this year,” Greenwald says. “But this can be drawn in numerous different ways, and we hope that different kinds of resonances and answers will come out of this festival each year.”