Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 12 / 22 March 2018

The spirit of resistance


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Classical music has its slaves. I refer to opera characters, though fans may identify. That Aida merely heads a cast of thousands is a reflection of the historical bonds of slavery – and the way slaves snag something deep in the sympathy of audiences, as far as it goes. When, in 1768, Niccolo Jommelli wrote "La schiava liberata" ("The Slave Girl Set Free," which in performance, the late Alan Curtis demonstrated, would make a mark today), slavery was institutional in Europe.

Slavery spans all of human history. Although it's sometimes more concealed today, there's no reason to assume that it's not now at its historical peak. The 2016 Global Slavery Index identified 45.8 million slaves in the world last year. If you eat frozen shrimp, slaves have touched them. Where I live in Asia, by simply turning down the wrong lane I saw male sex-show performers kept in cages, screaming and reaching out through the bars like hungry Hansels. Guards drove me off the property.

The global effort that yielded the 2016 Index gave occasion for one of the more remarkable projects in Jordi Savall's career, "Les Routes de L'Esclavage" ("The Routes of Slavery"). It yielded a 2015 concert memorialized live on both CD and DVD in one of the latest sets by Savall's ensemble Hesperion XXI (Alia Vox).

Savall, who can lead (and play, mostly on viols) the standard early-music repertoire with the best of them, has not sought celebrity. He has augmented his singular and often exemplary recordings of works as basic to the enterprise as Monteverdi's "L'Orfeo" with enterprising investigations into what is often very early music from the pan-Mediterranean regions, which preceded and influenced European "early music."

He and Alia Vox have presented them in beautifully produced book-and-CD sets that are, to a one, treasures. This new one is his most overtly political venture. To be clear, this is not the music made by the African slaves in North America. Expect no elevating "spirituals." Casting its light elsewhere, the music in this set explores the slave trade triangulated between Africa, Europe and North America from 1440-1880.

Savall is clear in his goal: "To present the essential facts surrounding that terrible history, thanks to the extraordinary vitality and profound emotion of this music, preserved in the ancient traditions of the descendants of the slaves." Lest you see this as sublimation, the music is augmented by a book-sized series of texts that, like the music, explicate a history we think we know from illuminating vantage points, including the Christian-Muslim nexus.

If it got the traction it warrants, this set could be another "Graceland." Paul Simon's bittersweet revelry in the music driving the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa took off not just because the music was politically topical in the 80s, but as much because it exuded the vitality of resistance. The same spirit animates the music of "Les Routes de L'Esclavage."

In the concert, a narrative drawn from historical texts – as telling in its expression of white superiority as it is unflinching about the agonies of the slaves – is narrated, in French, by Bakary Sangare, who animates it. The musical program, so skillfully assembled it seems to unfold on its own, presents music from countries as disparate – but, here, as connected –as Portugal and Brazil, Spain and Mexico, Mali and the islands of the Caribbean. Savall brings many collaborators into his own ensemble.

Its unflagging vitality – Savall's word fits best – leaves the listener spellbound. There's music of sorrow and lament, but perhaps more with the leavening energy of consolation and, paramount here, resistance grounded in the fierce spirit of the African captives in their masters' cultures. "Roots" music, particularly from Mali – contrasted with the "routes" music – is handled with supreme sensitivity, and is easily the most emotionally moving material.

Unless, that is, you're willing to include defiance and jubilation in the field of apposite emotions. The dominant strain in the concert program is one of high exhilaration, expressed in vocal as well as instrumental music.

Even a hardened racist hearing this music ignorant of its words might find it irresistible; more receptive listeners will be carried away by it. The stage is crowded with musicians, none of whom seems to be playing the same instrument – including a strummed animal jawbone with its teeth intact, to speak of "original instruments" – but all of a single mind.

These musicians clearly have done their woodshedding at home, because for us they're not parading their astounding virtuosity but their complete investment in music they inhabit. What could be called a "continuo" group is the amazing 3MA trio, playing instruments that are the even more expressive cousins of the lute, the sitar, and the sarod, all of whom, before the concert is finished, also sing like men possessed.

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