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HomeNewsLocal newsMusicians From St. Thomas and Puerto Rico Celebrate Composers of African Descent

Musicians From St. Thomas and Puerto Rico Celebrate Composers of African Descent

Musicians from St. Thomas and Puerto Rico before at El Conservatorio. (Photo courtesy Conch Shell Media, LLC)

On Thursday, Feb. 29, Virgin Islander musician Gylchris Sprauve led a cast of brilliant musicians from St. Thomas and Puerto Rico in a recital celebrating composers of African descent at the prestigious Conservatory of Music of Puerto Rico. This was the second such recital, the first one taking place in February of 2019 before the COVID-19 pandemic demanded a lengthy pause.

Soprano Majestik Estrada-Petersen (Photo courtesy Conch Shell Media, LLC)

Steel pannist Le’Roi Simmonds, soprano Majestik Estrada-Petersen, and baritone Qian Harrigan-Thomas were accompanied by maestro Sprauve on the piano as they presented African-American spirituals. Violinists Adriana Sanchez and Mitchell Soto, violist Andrés Martínez, cellist Emilia Guerra, and double bassist Nazarene Núñez performed string ensemble chamber music from the 18th to 20th centuries, and trumpeter Carlos Guzmán performed a rarely-known solo from the 19th-Century Afro-Brazilian composer and abolitionist Henrique Alves de Mesquita.

Baritone Qian Harrigan-Thomas (Photo by Nadja Harrigan)

Where Do Classical Music and Black History Meet?

Classical music, when it was being written, wasn’t referred to as classical music. In fact, it was the popular music of its day. During the horrific era of chattel slavery, one of the ways to escape slavery was by becoming a court or church musician. As the African people have never lacked for musical talent, many figured out how to work the system to their advantage, securing for themselves a better condition by putting their musical genius to work.

The Afro-British composer Ignatius Sancho (1729-1780) was born on a slave ship headed to Grenada. He was later given to two unmarried sisters in Great Britain to be raised, and after showing great musical talent as a child, he embarked upon a life in music, became the first person of color to vote in Great Britain, rallied against slavery, and left behind dozens of compositions, two of which were perfomed on the Black history recital in Puerto Rico last month.

The string quartet played a work by Guadeloupe’s finest, Joseph Bologne, Le Chevalier de Saint-Georges (1745-1799). His amazing life story was made known to modern audiences through the recent Disney film “Chevalier.” His mother, Nanon, was an enslaved teen from Senegal who was seduced by her master, Georges Bologne. The elder Bologne’s decision to take care of his son’s upbringing and provide for his education in France set the stage for the many marvels that would be the life of Joseph Bologne, the Chevalier. Referred to by many as “The Black Mozart,” the truth is that Mozart stole musical ideas from Bologne, and Mozart’s violin compositions never achieved the same degree of complexity as the Chevalier’s!

Gylchris Sprauve (Photo courtesy Conch Shell Media, LLC)

A particularly special piece presented at the recital was “Acuarelas Colombianas” by Afro-Colombian composer Adolfo Mejía. Due to maestro Sprauve’s recently established connections with the highly-respected musicologist Hernan Alberto Salazar Cabar, a native of Cartagena, Colombia. He was able to secure scores for varying instrumental and vocal ensembles by Colombia’s most famous composer, who also happened to be of African descent.

Academic Music in the Caribbean Region

As a result of the long cultural and ethnic relationship with Spain, Cuba, the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico have kept the tradition of academic music running alongside the popular music idiom for generations. This firm commitment to the discipline of academic music has resulted in a long line of talented, legendary musicians over the past 150 years or more.

The recorded history of academic music in the Virgin Islands began with Alton A. Adams, the first Black Navy Bandmaster of the USA. Other composers include Cyril Creque (1899-1959), Andrès Wheatley (1916-2009), Bill LaMotta(1919-1980), and Raymond LaMotta (1926-2013).

Musicians perform pieces from composers of African descent. (Photo courtesy Conch Shell Media, LLC)

The Virgin Islands have also produced singers in the academic tradition who have enjoyed long internationally-acclaimed careers, Reri Grist (b. 1932 of Virgin Islander parents in New York) and the Crucian bass-baritone Arthur Woodley (1949 – 2020). Soon after the color barrier was broken at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City, the young Lawrence O. Benjamin was a chorus member, singing in performances with legendary artists like Leontyne Price, Shirley Verrett, Grace Bumbry and others.

Recognizing that the people of the Virgin Islands are not at all a monolith but rather a collective of people of varying interests, tastes and talents, maestro Sprauve has been involved in several initiatives to keep the tradition of academic music alive in the Virgin Islands, most notably as artistic director of the VI-PR Friendship Chamber Orchestra. This recital is one of a few activities he has been working on to bring helpful exposure to Virgin Islands musical talent in genres outside of popular music. A firm believer that music brings people of all walks together, he leads his students by example, encouraging them to gain fluency in other languages besides English, because “music is just the ice-breaker; you need to be able to speak to your colleagues, and make of them good friends.”

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