Last year, well before COVID-19 brought about the spectre of respiratory infection and violent asphyxiation on the streets, New York’s Metropolitan Opera staged a new production of Porgy and Bess, Gershwin’s 1935 musical vision of ‘Negro’ life in Catfish Row. Almost 30 years had gone by since the Met last presented the work, a significant chunk of time in our perceptions of race and gender. On the occasion of this new production, the company went out of its way to publicly address its own chequered history and the opera’s complex resonances in today’s world. Written by the sons of successful Russian émigrés, on a libretto by the white Southern couple DuBose and Dorothy Heyward, the setting was a white man’s idea of black society: Porgy as a cripple, Crown as a murderer, and Sportin’ Life as a fun lovin’, dope peddlin’ entertainer. And that’s just for the men.

Eric Owens as Porgy and Angel Blue as Bess

The opera’s opening night in 1935 was a glitzy affair with Hollywood royalty like Katherine Hepburn and Joan Crawford in the audience. Porgy and Bess entered history as one of those great imperfect operas, grabbing its characters with such irresistible musical sweep that the entire theatrical social construct was just as vigorously swept under the carpet. The work put America on the operatic map and became the first black opera. At a time when black minstrels were still prevalent and white actors commonly blackened up to play or sing black characters, Gershwin ensured that the work would forever be a vehicle for black singers – a requirement that in the current age of ‘colourblind’ casting appears equally un-easy for entirely different reasons. The all-white 2018 Hungarian State Opera’s production proved that Gershwin’s good intentions can also be twisted to score different political points. The Caucasian cast was asked to sign a declaration stating that “African-American origins and spirit form an inseparable part of their identity”. The performances went ahead in open and publicly stated breach of the (withdrawn) licensing agreement. The fact remains that countless African American singers owe their career to Porgy and Bess because white audiences continue to greet Gershwin’s grand opus with thunderous applause.

Jessye Norman

These days we arguably know a little too much of the great African American singers that have enriched our lives, seduced us (Prince, small in stature, or Jessye Norman, larger than life), confounded us (Michael Jackson), provoked us (Little Richard), moved us (the likes of Marian Anderson) or make us laugh and cry all at once (Aretha, please come back!). The list goes on. Yet it is the vision of strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees, that “strange and bitter crop” that became the most enduring musical memory of black oppression in the 20th century. Written by the Jewish-American Abel Meeropol as a protest against lynchings in the 1930s, the song’s abject mix of emotional power and physical powerlessness was enshrined by Billie Holiday, a woman courting death at every turn.

Rather than Gershwin’s Summertime, it is Strange Fruit that still defines the black voice in US and rightly stands at the cradle of the civil rights movement. Kanye West’s sampling of the same song sung by Nina Simone reveals centuries of slavery, oppression and abuse through the contemporary bling of West’s mercilessly autotuned vocalisations, all pain and perfect posture blended into one bitter-sweet anthem to the black side of America today: Blood on the Leaves.

Born in St Louis, Missouri, Josephine Baker (née McDonald) made her name in jazz-crazed Paris of the 1920’s as a silent dancer. Dressed in a skimpy skirt of fake bananas, her gleaming black skin caught the post-war thirst for exoticism and eroticism as well as the imagination of powerful men.  Hemingway called her “the most sensational woman anyone ever saw” and in Picasso’s view she had “legs from paradise”. Over time, and within a whiter-than-white Europe, Baker found her voice, however, and with it a remarkable level of influence –paving the way for the eventual breakthrough of generations of singers from the ‘dark continent’.

Josephine Baker

Stemming from the newly liberated African colonies, they needed the recording studios of Paris, London or New York in order to be heard. The black African voices that sprung onto the scene were proud, bright and unfailingly positive.  From the old griot bards of Guinea to the gentle Cape Verde nostalgia of Cesária Évora to the volcanic energy of Angélique Kidjo, ancient tribal roots were channelled into just about anything the world had to offer. Indeed, ‘world music’ became the conscious marketing label that brought African voices into our living rooms and onto the sound track of global tourism. Towering figures like Youssou N’Dour, whose tenor voice, according to The New York Times, was “a supple weapon deployed with prophetic authority” and above all Miriam Makeba (“Mama Africa”) added considerable political heft to the global show business they became part of. Post-colonial politics may have been chaotic or corrupt and the music market place full of disfunction and inequality, but their voices rang loud and proud. Apartheid in South Africa was dismantled. A continent plundered and beaten into submission ever since the slave trade began had now found a voice. And its voice was brimming with joy.

In comparison, the story of Australia’s black voice is a sad saga. Given the history, the disproportionate numbers (3.3 percent of the population identifies as Aboriginal) and the systemic dislocation, disregard and neglect of First Nations culture, it is remarkable that any voice emerged at all. And yet, it did. By the time Paul Robeson visited Australia in 1960 and directed his deep black bass voice to the white workers on the Sydney Opera House site, Australia had already heard the voice of Harold Blair (all too briefly alas) and Jimmy Little (a burgeoning career that were to span no less than six decades). Blair’s was a beautiful classically trained tenor voice that burnt out before it could blossom through a typical lack of good guidance. In contrast, Little’s voice as a self-made country and western artist proved remarkably resilient. With or without the Jimmy Little Trio or Black Arm Band, Little became a big presence in the Australian entertainment industry. In 1958 the recording of his father’s Give the Coloured Boy a Chance became the first ever song referring to Indigenous matters in what was still officially White Australia. When in 1970 Bob Randall wrote My Brown Skinned Baby – They Take Him Away about his mum whom he never met, the story of the Stolen Generations found its voice – well before the term became commonly accepted. Its chorus, a lamenting falsetto wail, is one of the saddest moments in Australian song writing. Sad because Australia took a long time recognising its sorry past. And sad because the song never reached a global audience like Strange Fruit did.

Deborah CheethamDeborah Cheetham. Photo © Jorge de Araujo

Stage and screen eventually created increased opportunities for Indigenous actors and singers. We are now witnessing two distinct generations of singers who happily straddle theatre and music as well as popular culture and art music. From Deborah Cheetham (Limelight‘s 2019 Australian Artist of the Year), to Jessica Mauboy, from Archie Roach to Ursula Yovich, and even Glenn Skuthorpe who found Indigenous connections in Canada, voices emerged with a sound that is authentic, true and speaking to all, white and black. Skuthorpe should not be confused with Peter Sculthorpe, the Australian composer who liberally borrowed Aboriginal melodies for his compositions. Skuthorpe is an original. His Redfern Girl may touch upon the urban Indigenous experience but in his voice, as for so many of the Australian First Nations artists, we can hear the sunburnt sand of the desert, the lines and threads of ancient connections to this land running through a broad patchwork of peoples and families. Now that language is being actively reclaimed, and now that even hard won reconciliation and long awaited constitutional acknowledgment may be on the horizon, the scene is set for a cultural awakening that carries the imprint and imprimatur of Australia’s First Nations people. Its prophet was Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu, a blind Yolngu songman of the deep north who once was part of the early exploits of Yothu Yindi, Australia’s first Aboriginal rock band. Gurrumul’s songs and his voice, a keening, quietly stirring other-worldly sound, are the true utterance of a seer. His silence always was most powerful and his legacy can only grow over time.

Maroochy Barambah

By 1987 a Royal Commission was instigated over black deaths in custody. Against this background, a one-act opera was written in 1988/89 by the siblings Andrew and Julianne Schultz. Entitled Black River, its subject matter concerned the death of a young Aboriginal man in custody and its central character was a grieving mother seeking answers. Like Porgy and Bess in 1935, it was a ‘whitefella’ project for white audiences in 1989. Amongst certain circles, it was considered foolhardy or impossible to mount such a work. Yet Maroochy Barambah, of Turrbul/Dippil ancestry, sang the pivotal role with enormous power and authenticity. Born on Cherbourg Aboriginal Reserve in Queensland and taken from her family at the age of 12, she proved – against all the odds of social, economic and educational disadvantage – that First Nations artists can not only partake but lead. Black River was never meant to be Australia’s answer to Porgy and Bess – perhaps Bran Nue Dae is – but at least it gave voice to the plight of Australia’s First Nations people and the entrenched injustices.

Thirty years after Black River’s first performances and 434 black deaths in custody, three words – “I can’t breathe” – resonate around the globe. The reality of a black man asphyxiated in the hands of white men has not gone away. That is the uncomfortable truth we cannot hide from.

Roland Peelman AM is Artistic Director of the Canberra International Music Festival. He has received numerous accolades for his commitment to the creative arts in Australia as a conductor, pianist and mentor, including his 25-year directorship of The Song Company.

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