• John Michael Cooper


African Dance, on a Text by Langston Hughes, Gets Its Posthumous Premiere This Weekend

On Sunday, November 14, 2021, Greg Watkins and the Chorale of the Coalition for African Americans in the Performing Arts (CAAPA Chorale) will give the posthumous premiere of a remarkable composition by Margaret Bonds (1913-72): the African Dance (1953) (TICKETS). The piece, which Bonds referred to as “our ‘African Dance’” in a letter to Hughes dated 18 May 1954, is based on a poem that Hughes wrote in 1923 while working as a deckhand on the S.S. Malone – a six-month stint that took him to West Africa and Europe. After his return to the U.S. he would publish this poem in the last section (“Our Land”) of his iconic collection The Weary Blues (1926).

Have you ever seen Aaron Douglas's painting The Negro in an African Setting (1934)? If you have, then you've also, in a manner of speaking, "seen" Langston Hughes's Danse africaine -- indeed, it's hard to imagine that Hughes's poem didn't play some role in the painting's inspiration:

Here’s the poem:

Along with the volume's eponymous poem and “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” (which had already been published in 1921), Danse africaine became one of the greatest hits of The Weary Blues.

It’s easy to see why. This section of the volume is deeply pan-Africanist, giving eloquent poetic voice to the concept that African diasporic people are, in the end, one people whose ancestry is a call to pride and unfettered, natural joy. It also (like the volume’s title poem) translates African and pan-African music into verbal language (or is it the other way around?) and uses music’s role as a universal language to show how the African drums’ “low beating” stirs “a night-veiled girl” into “a circle of light.” Nowhere is there any reference to the learned artifices of Euro-American music or poetry. Instead, it is the immediacy of expression of this music (and the poetry that it channels) that lends it its immense and propulsive natural power.

As usual, Margaret Bonds grasped the meaning of Hughes’s poem and, as it were, composed that meaning rather than merely setting the words to music. Scored for two vocal parts (soprano and baritone) with piano, it begins softly, with a syncopated, dissonant ostinato in the piano; the upper voice enters with the quiet phrase “the low beating of the tom-tom,” which is then taken up in dissonant harmony by the lower voice:

This is repeated three times before the two voices complete the sentence: “. . . stirs your blood.” Then, musically depicting this heightened animation of the spirit, the accompaniment figure changes – still dissonant, rhythmic, and syncopated, but whirling roughly twice as fast, as the voices’ excitement heightens at the mention of “the night-veiled girl” whirling “into a circle of light”:

This section builds to a frenzy and the pent-up rhythmic energy climaxes in an ecstatic and virtuosic outburst for the piano solo.

The poem’s last two lines repeat the first four in compressed form, and Bonds mirrors this by bringing back the original figuration in the piano and one of the voices, but embellishes the original line with an animated, ornamental line in the other voice – pushing toward a final sustained note on “stirs your blood,” with that phrase ending on the highest note in the entire song and thus serving as a kind of climax.

Fittingly, aside from the instrumentation this duet has none of the trappings of Euro-American art music – it captures the natural, unstudied style of Hughes’s poem, and of the poem’s subject perfectly.

It's a remarkable piece – one that this weekend will finally get to break its decades-long silence. I asked Greg Watkins, director of The CAAPA Chorale, if he’d share a few of his thoughts on the piece and the experience of bringing it to life after all these decades – and he did. Here’s what he said:

Just two more things:

(1) This important performance of African Dance will be given as part of a concert titled The Souls of Black Folk: Rediscovering Classical Music. That concert is one of a series of three, all offered by the PostClassical Ensemble. That’s an excellent ensemble whose Music Director is Angel Gil-Ordóñez and Executive Director is music historian Joseph Horowitz – and the series as a whole is offered in tandem with Joe’s important, and provocative, new book: Dvořák ’s Prophecy and the Vexed Fate of Black Classical Music.

2. You’ll want to check out the rest of the program, too. It’s hosted by Jenn White and includes music by Harry T. Burleigh and Florence Price as well as other pieces by Bonds and – an exceedingly rare treat, this! – student readings of excerpts from unpublished correspondence between Margaret Bonds and Langston Hughes. Featured performers include (in addition to Greg Watson and the CAAPA Chorale) Elizabeth G. Hill, piano; Melissa Constantin, soprano; and members of the PostClassical Ensemble – these giving the posthumous public premiere of Florence B. Price’s Suite for Brasses and Piano (1949) – a fascinating specimen of Price’s late style, just published by G. Schirmer a few months ago.

Area folk interested in attending can get tickets here. The concert won’t be streamed or posted online afterwards, but WAMU 1A is planning a fifty-minute broadcast about Joe’s book at 10:00 a.m. ET on Nov. 25, and this will include excerpts from the concert.

Bonds’s African Dance will be published in my edition, and with the permission of Margaret Bonds’s heirs, by Hildegard Publishing Company as part of their Margaret Bonds Signature Series in 2022.

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