Composer's Notes

About the new nong, IN THESE TIMES (SING LA LA)

African American and Latin cultures are heavily infused throughout the fabric of American society, and Afro-Latin rhythms undergird much of the popular music of today. In this song, the melody and harmony parts are set on the foundation of a vocal Afro-Latin rhythm groove. The song, is written in three sections all atop that groove. Each section has a different purpose and each should have a different musical energy and texture reflecting the lyric

Section A – is a short statement of what our country’s current social-political-economic landscape looks like to me. Musically, this section should have the sound of crisp, bright Latin horns. 

Section B – is a prayer or a wish that this song be infused with the power to heal, forgive, and redeem. Each line should have a legato feel. The word song, in each statement, should be full of compassion, and each statement should become more intense than the one before. 

Section C – is a chant in which the singers hopefully become increasingly more empowered and intentional, not only to sing this song themselves, but to empower others (in this case, the audience) to join the choir in singing La La  and creating a ever expanding communal voice.   I believe that it is through the communal voice that we can begin to create and implement positive, harmonious strategies for change impacting the individual, the family, friends, the community, the country and the world. 



Is Wanting Memories really about the loss of a loved one?

WANTING MEMORIES was part of a suite of songs commissioned for a dance theater piece called CROSSINGS.  Other songs included were NO MIRRORS IN MY NANA'S HOUSE  and WHEN I DIE which have been recorded by Sweet Honey and LOST IN BLUE and THE OVERTURE which have not been recorded.  

I did dedicate the WANTING to my father when we recorded it but it was written while both my parents were still alive.  

What was special though was that I am an only child and when my father died and then my mother, and I prepared to sell the house I grew up in, I found bags of photos, letters and other memorabilia - the kind of things especially an only child hopes for ...

You can see a good deal of these photos and samples of the letters on my website:

So in a sense, the song was  an unconscious wish or prayer that actually came true.

Fortune's Bones

I am an African American woman (b. 1946). I have lived, studied and practiced African American culture, and have been involved in music to greater and lesser degrees, all of my life. I am also a scientist. My doctoral dissertation was an anatomical study, which involved the dissection of human specimens. I brought all of this to my first reading of FORTUNE'S BONES: THE MANUMISSION REQUIEM. The poem gripped me and caused every aspect of my genetic, historic, cultural, spiritual, scientific and scholarly being to converge, and I knew that opportunity to set this exquisite text, which details Fortune's haunting story, would be the gift of a lifetime.  Dr. Nelson's poem sang itself to me.
The Requiem begins with a clattering of traditional African bells meant to waken Fortune's spirit after more than 200 years. A bell or bells will be heard throughout the Requiem. The clattering is followed by a rhythmic bell choir, set in 4/4, leading into the actual Funeral March which is set in 3 (6/8) rather than 4.

In the Funeral March, which has no words, I have combined a persistent and seemingly upbeat traditional rhythm (played by the winds rather than traditional drums), with a more ʻcharacteristic' funeral dirge played by the brass. I have combined the elements of (up-beat) rhythm and dirge for several reasons. In a New Orleans style funeral march you would hear the dirge on the way to the cemetery and the upbeat march returning from the cemetery. Here, as is the
nature of SANKOFA, there is a sense of coming and going at the same time; looking backward even as we are moving forward. Life, with all of its complexities, has gone on since 1798 when Fortune died and life continues with its hustle and bustle, even as we memorialize him today.
Poet, Marilyn Nelson, defined the register of each solo voice in the cantata. Dinah is identified as a contralto, and Fortune, a baritone. She also determined which sections would be instrumental, sung as a solo, or soloist with choir. This provided wonderful guidance for me as composer and I appreciated and concurred with each determination.
Dinah's Lament begins with the contralto voice and solo strings. The orchestral accompaniment grows reflecting Dinah's emotional shifts as she recounts her story.

As the Doctor recounts his experience with Fortune in On Abrigador Hill, he sings the refrain “I am humbled by ignorance”. That line inspired the choir's response which uses the chorus of the Spiritual ʻHumble, Humble”. The choir will, with a sense of irony and compassion respond “Humble, humble. Humble yourself. The bell done rung.” This entire section is set, musically, in a rhythm that may give the feeling of a macabre dance.

Kyrie of the Bones provides us with five reflections on Fortune, set in time between 1800 and 1960, each with its own musical context. All of the reflections are incredulous, and to each the choir will respond with an a cappella settings of the words “Lord Have Mercy. Gentle Jesus, have mercy. Have mercy Lord.”

In Not My Bones, Fortune speaks for himself, accompanied only by a cappella choir and percussion instruments paying what in African American culture is referred to as a ʻshout rhythm'.
Finally, in Sanctus, the full orchestra, choir, and soloists will be heard. The audience is encouraged to participate by singing the words “Call me home Lord.

Call me home” as the Sanctus is reaching its conclusion.

God's Blessings on Fortune…da bell done rung.

~ Ysaye M. Barnwell