“Humanity is divided into two: Masters and Slaves”. So said Aristotle in his fourth-century BC Politics, the starting point for early music maestro Jordi Savall’s latest project to trace the routes, and indeed the musical roots, of what Savall himself calls “the most monstrous of all the man-made institutions created throughout history.”
Savall has tackled some big issues in the past, notably in The Tragedy of the Cathars, and more recent in the memory of Australian audiences in the Helpmann Award-winning The Jerusalem Project, a concert he toured down under in 2014. However, the centuries-old exploitation of Africans by the American and Latin American colonies and their Western ancestors is a massive subject, and Savall rises magnificently to the occasion bringing together 32 musicians from 15 countries and three continents to trace the cross-cultural influences of African music on the nations who engaged in the slave trade between 1444 – the year the Portuguese launched their first major slaving expedition to Guinea – and 1888, the year that slavery was finally abolished in Brazil.
Jordi Savall’s The Routes of Slavery. Photo © Kevin Yatarola
If that all sounds rather grim, it should – the chosen texts recount many of the atrocities committed on Africans by their white masters and the hypocritical words used to justify the barbaric behaviour. In contrast, however, the music, much of it intended to be both sung and danced, is almost entirely uplifting. “These people had lost everything, except for the capacity to sing and dance,” Savall says in the programme note. “This music is what saved them from desperation.”
First among equals in this stylistic and culturally diverse line up of artists – all of whom must be considered at the top of their game – are the Africans, headed by the legendary Malian singer Kassé Mady Diabaté. Musical royalty with 50 years of performance experience under his belt and a fan club that includes Barack Obama, the singer was a compelling presence throughout, robed in sumptuous white and flanked by Mamani Keita, Nana Kouyaté, Tanti Kouyaté, a magnetic trio of colourful, flamboyant singers and dancers. Diabaté helped choose the Malian Griot songs, clearly relishing the cheerful Manden Mandinkadenou and was especially fetching in Simbo, a tall tale of a puffed-up hunter.
Accompanying the singers, and occasionally joining in what felt like joyous jam sessions with the other musicians, were the Moroccan virtuoso Driss el Maloumi on the oud (North African cousin to the lute), Malian Ballaké Sissoko on kora (a 21-string lute-bridge-harp) and Madagascan musician Rajery on the valiha (a tubular zither made from bamboo). Their magical (and lengthy) instrumental, Awal, was a highlight of the second half.
Savall, a benign and constant presence on stage, led proceedings on the treble viol, joined by his regular collaborators Hespèrion XXI (including Pierre Hamon on flutes, Béatrice Delpierre on shawm, Daniel Lassalle on a mighty sackbut, Philippe Pierlot on bass viol, Xavier Puertas on violone, Xavier Díaz-Latorre on baroque guitar, David Mayoral on an array of percussion and the legendary Andrew Lawrence-King playing Spanish Baroque harp). The European vocalists from La Capella Reial de Catalunya comprised tenor Víctor Sordo, baritone Furio Zanasi and countertenor David Sagastume, characterfully entertaining in Fray Filipe da Madre de Deus’s lively five-part ‘Negro’ Antonya, Flaciquia, Gasipà, which concerns itself primarily with the pleasures to be derived from getting drunk on Christmas Eve!
Equally impressive were a host of South American musicians, including the Tembembe Ensamble Continuo, who hail from Mexico and Colombia (and will be travelling to Australia with Savall in February), as well as singers and instrumentalists from Brazil, Argentina, and Venezuela. Particularly disarming were the vibrantly arrayed Brazilian soprano Maria Juliana Linhares and the pink-Mohicaned Venezuelan bass Iván García who shimmered, shook and strutted their way through traditional songs from Latin America.
Completing Savall’s line-up were The Fairfield Four, a resonant and charismatic Grammy Award-winning close harmony gospel quartet best known for their scene stealing appearance in the film O Brother Where Art Thou. Hailing from from the US, they were able to enjoy a decidedly home team reception from what at other times was a slightly muted Jazz at Lincoln Center crowd. Their renditions of slave songs like Another man done gone carried enormous weight and a sense of painful authenticity.
Of course, one of Savall’s key objectives is to illuminate the cross-pollination that went on as black slaves took their music into the churches of South America where it would mingle with the traditional music of the various South American indigenous cultures and even return to the ‘Old World’ to influence European composers. When Mateo Flecha’s relatively sober Spanish ensalada San Sabeya, Gugurumbé exposes its roots by giving way to the boisterous Gugurumbé, a traditional Mexican Jarocho dance, Savall makes his point loud and clear.
Last but far from least, the evening was narrated by John Douglas Thompson, a British-American actor of Jamaican ancestry. His potent spoken instrument gave voice to words across the ages, from ghastly descriptions of the punishments expected to be meted out to slaves in the 1661 Slave Code of Barbados to Thomas Jefferson’s borderline Third Reich theories on the inferiority of the African races and the need to ensure they didn’t muddy the gene pool of white Americans. Coming from the master of Sally Hemmings this was a moment of chilling hypocrisy.
Casting its benison over the whole is a powerful sense of respect, equality and even of reconciliation. Some fine sound engineering ensured that this diverse ensemble generally came over loud and clear, though a few of the vocal contributions from the classically trained Western singers got lost in the mix and the event was tempered by a tendency for the necessary intimacy to get swallowed up in the substantial void of the Rose Theater.
Savall has already recorded the fruits of his labours on two CDs. In the generously illustrated book that accompanies the set, he reminds us that racism hasn’t gone very far. “Historically, slavery came first,” he says, quoting the 20th-century French historian Christian Delacampagne. “Racism was merely the consequence of a civilization’s long habituation to the institution of slavery, whose victims have always been foreigners.” The figures for those currently held in slavery – the victims of what we call human trafficking – is currently estimated in the tens of millions. Memories of Slavery is a terrible reminder of all of that, but also a paean to a musical legacy that can at least offer comfort to 21st-century ears.
Jordi Savall performs with Hespèrion XXI and Tembembe Ensamble Continuo at Perth Concert Hall, as part of Perth Festival, on February 17; at Elizabeth Murdoch Hall, Melbourne Recital Centre, February 21 & 22; at Concert Hall, Sydney Opera House on February 25; and Concert Hall, QPAC on February 26. He also performs with English harpist Andrew Lawrence-King in Government House Ballroom, Perth on February 18