4 Musicians Chart 100 Years in the Life of a Runaway Slave

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[Many thanks to Michael O’Neal for bringing this item to our attention.] How could we have missed news of this amazing production? Zachary Woolfe reports on four musical interpretations of Biografía de un cimarrón [translated as both Autobiography of a Runaway Slave and Biography of a Runaway Slave]—a testimonial narrative by Esteban Montejo, written and published in 1966 by Cuban ethnographer Miguel Barnet. Here are excerpts from The New York Times:

Esteban Montejo was over 100 before the world knew his story.

Born a slave in Cuba in 1860, he escaped and lived for years in the jungle until slavery was abolished on the island in 1886. He fought in Cuba’s war for independence from Spain and lived through Castro’s communist revolution.

His interviews with an ethnographer were adapted into a riveting account of his life, published in 1966. The German composer Hans Werner Henze read the book, visited Cuba, met Montejo — who lived until 1973 — and, with the writer Hans Magnus Enzensberger, swiftly created “El Cimarrón,” which will be performed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art on Friday and Saturday.

A 75-minute “recital for four musicians” — baritone, guitarist, flutist and percussionist (who presides over dozens of instruments) — it tells Montejo’s story through music that’s vivid, seductive and otherworldly, sometimes forceful, sometimes delicate, the vocal line floating between musical pitches and speech.

The soprano Julia Bullock is presenting the piece as part of her season-long Met residency, which has ranged through slave song arrangements, an evening revisiting Josephine BakerLangston Hughes settings and the contemporary Nativity oratorio “El Niño.” As she mulled the season, she asked friends about projects they might want to present. Two of them, the director Zack Winokur and the bass-baritone Davóne Tines, had long been wanting to work on “El Cimarrón”; dealing with slavery and the black experience, and originating in oral testimony, the piece fit right in.

[. . .] What happens in “El Cimarrón”?

ZACK WINOKUR It’s all told through his words. Hearing the story out of his mouth is the most thrilling thing. The music serves to amplify it — like the best of opera, it uses every theatrical resource available to just tell the story.

DAVÓNE TINES We see what the foundation of this person was, the heft and thickness of his life experience. We experience his genesis and a bit of his growth. All of that is very closely narrated. But we’ve also been talking about the prism of memory, and later in life his mental faculties disperse or go to a different place.

WINOKUR He talks about slavery with a very dynamic and forceful musical language. Then he escapes into the woods and there are these extended beautiful sections when he’s just figuring out how to navigate, roping piglets, making fires, listening to the trees, eating honey and finding herbs and different flowers and just sort of sleeping and listening to the birds.

JULIA BULLOCK The real sense of freedom he felt for the first time.

TINES And you feel that musically, as well. You go from the stringent, forceful music of slavery to this really open, impressionistic music of the forest. [. . .]

For full article, see https://www.nytimes.com/2019/05/09/arts/music/julia-bullock-henze-cimarron.html?

[Photo above by Vincent Tullo for The New York Times: The bass-baritone Davóne Tines rehearsing Hans Werner Henze’s “El Cimarrón” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Directed by Zack Winokur, it’s the finale of the soprano Julia Bullock’s season-long Met residency.]

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