Drawing a Line from Climate to Migration through Revolutionary Performance

An expanded Afro Yaqui Music Collective constructs an ambitious multi-disciplinary performance

By David Bernabo

Rehearsal video stills by David Bernabo.

Protest music is as American as apple pie, meaning we got it from somewhere else, but it became part of our shared culture. We know abolitionist anthems like “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child” and “No More Auction Block for Me,” the anti-lynching “Strange Fruit,” the pro-union “This Land Is Your Land,” and the wave of Black Lives Matter anthems like Beyoncé’s “Formation” and “Freedom” and Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright.” But protest music is a product of a world filled with staggered and complex oppression fueled by uneven power structures. The desire for justice and equality are not unique feelings. From proto-social justice songs about Robin Hood written in 14th century Britain to anti-colonialist songs in India, the Philippines, and South Korea to anti-apartheid music in South Africa, people all over the world have been channeling their rage, agony, courage, and hope into music to share with others.

With Migrant Liberation Movement Suite, Afro Yaqui Music Collective continues this tradition with a interdisciplinary performance made in opposition to one of the greatest threats to human society: climate change.

“[The piece] is responding to this crisis of the climate, the destruction of economies, the destruction of ecology that we feel is driving the mass migration movements in the world,” says co-founder Ben Barson. “We’re trying to make the connection between ecology and migration.”

Co-led by singer Gizelxanath Rodriguez and baritone saxophonist Ben Barson, Afro Yaqui Music Collective is a non-traditional big band, a large ensemble consisting of a partially rotating cast of jazzers, pipa players, MCs and poets, singers; a melding of western and non-western instrumentation, jazz, funk, contemporary composition, and West African, global Indigenous and East Asian musics. The group has a bold mission and a bold sound to back it.

For their upcoming New Hazlett Theater CSA performance, the collective conceptualized what a migrant liberation movement would look like. “How could a group that is thought of as nomadic and, perhaps, stateless really be free?” asks Barson. “We concluded that if the forces that were destroying ecologies and homelands weren’t addressed, there really can’t be freedom — not only for migrants, but for anyone.”

Librettist Ruth Margraff took that inspiration and wove together interviews with contacts in Syria, Mexico, and Northern Africa to create the narrative arc for Migrant Liberation Movement Suite. The collective then paired the message with a sound drawing on the revolutionary jazz operas of the late 70s/early 80s.

“[Dramatist, novelist and poet] Amiri Baraka was really important in this movement,” says Barson. “My mentor [composer and baritone saxophonist] Fred Ho also developed these fusions of jazz — often avant-garde jazz with really sharp political content that was sung or spoken.” (Note: In alignment with saxophonist Archie Shepp, Ho thought the term “jazz” to be a racial slur, originating as a form of debasement. Afro Yaqui Music Collective are attuned to this interpretation, but see the term “jazz” as working on a transnational level. See the footnote below the article for more discussion.)

Writing in his 2000 book Legacy to Liberation, Ho states, “Revolutionary art must…inspire a spirit of defiance, or class and national pride to resist domination and backward ideology. Revolutionary art must energize and humanize; not pacify, confuse and desensitize…Artists can contribute a critique of capitalist society. This is critical realism: to criticize appearances and obscured social relations…Artists play key roles in affecting consciousness and can help to transform the working class from a class-in-itself to a class-for-itself.”

It’s hard to argue that music, by itself, can create change, but revolutionary work isn’t created in a vacuum. It’s created alongside political movements, rallies and walkouts, brutality and arrests, think pieces and essays, birth and deaths. Music is a supplement, a support, a provocateur, a healing force.

With this performance, the collective is attempting something they’ve never done before. They’ve performed in clubs and markets, in Mexico, and at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington D.C., but for the experience at the New Hazlett Theater, the already-large collective is expanding to include extra singers, dancers, and choreographer Peggy Myo-Young Choy.

“The choreography is based on my work over the past two decades in Afro-Asian fusion in dance combined with martial arts — Asian forms of dance as well as Afro-American vernacular and African forms,” says Choy. With martial arts, Choy is working to integrate Taijiquan, Capoeira, and Wushu with various dance languages, all of which are heightened by performing with live music.

“To work with live musicians is really my dream artistic project, because there is a synergy with live music and dance that occurs in the creative process,” says Choy. “There has to be give and take, debate, and conversation. And in the end, the vibrations and energy — as in Asian martial arts and philosophy — that are generated in live performance cannot be substituted, and that creates a connection with the audience that is so unique.”

“This whole process of putting dance and spoken word and setting a whole libretto to music has been a beautiful, beautiful experience,” says Gizelxanath Rodriguez. “The New Hazlett Theater has been super supportive and have allowed us to have a space where we can develop our ideas and produce significant, meaningful work.”

Migrant Liberation Movement Suite promises to be a multilayered merging of east and west cultures, artistic forms, and creative expression, all in the service of discussing climate-related population migration. In addition to compositions by Ben Barson, the collective will perform pieces by Hadi Eldebek and Samuel Okoh-Boateng as part of the suite.

Migrant Liberation Movement Suite premieres on Thursday, October 11 with a second performance on Friday, October 12 at 8PM at the New Hazlett Theater. Buy tickets here or at the door. 6 Allegheny Square E, Pittsburgh, PA 15212.

Ben Barson on the collective’s use of the word “jazz”:

The type of critical lens that Ho viewed racial oppression as a primary shaper of cultural representation is something that the collective is very much attuned to. That being said, jazz is obviously a word whose boundaries have expanded (and contracted) over the past century. For us, the process embedded in jazz is unique and irreducible, and cannot be captured through another amalgamation of terms (e.g African American improvised music — which it is, but arguably so is the entire pantheon of Black Music). That being said, the collective is intentional about challenging the corporatization of jazz that has been a very obvious and unfortunate phenomenon since the 1980s and the rise of neoliberal politics. We are unsure if institucionalización through universities and foundational grants is an democratic and grassroots response to this coup. While we acknowledge the importance of arguing for jazz’s place in American culture, it reflects something much more Transnational, Working class, and ultimately irrefutably revolutionary and radical than such alliances allow today. For this, we say we play jazz, but one focused on a return to the earth, to Afro-Asian-indigenous communities, to women who uphold and sustain a culture, to an ecological society, to the “finding oneself in the Other” which is both the process and revolutionary possibility that jazz presents. Whether we as artists can fully carry that possibility to its conclusion is the question upon which the world hinges.