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Castle of Our Skins & Samantha Ege: Homage – Chamber Music from the African Continent & Diaspora



Castle of Our Skins & Samantha Ege
Musicologist & Pianist, Dr. Samantha Ege (centre) and Castle of Our Skins

Not long ago – despite the advent of the Renaissance of African American composers of music in the classical realm – the only two ‘new’ composers being talked about, and whose music was being listened to were Samuel Coleridge-Taylor [1875-1912] and Florence Beatrice Price [1887-1953]. But that has just been eclipsed by this recording Homage – Chamber Music from the African Continent & Diaspora by Castle of our Skins, which booklet notes describe as a “Boston-based concert and educational series dedicated to celebrating Black artistry through music” together with Samantha Ege.

One of two founders, violist Ashleigh Gordon [the other is composer Anthony Green] appears on this recording together with the rest of the chamber group and the highly respected musicologist and virtuoso pianist Samantha Ege. Remarkably the work of Samuel Coleridge-Taylor happens to be one of the items on this recording, by composers from the African continent and Diaspora of whom you may not have heard before, though not because they did not exist. On the contrary, they did, and the that they are represented by here goes back many years. Furthermore, the sheer refinement of this music suggests that it comes from a place of uncommon sophistication, on par with – if not greater than – the work of many of these composers’ contemporaries of white, or European heritage.

Castle of Our Skins & Samantha Ege: Homage – Chamber Music from the African Continent & Diaspora
Castle of Our Skins & Samantha Ege: Homage – Chamber Music from the African Continent & Diaspora

These are works that are daringly revelatory and come alive in performances of breathtaking beauty and incomparable power. Two of the works – Safika and Sweto – spring from echoes of Mother Africa. The former work is by the South African composer from the Xhosa ethnic group, Bongani Ndodana-Breen [1975- ] and Sweto is, in fact a magnificent impression of the South African township by the 20th century American composer Undine Smith Moore [1904-1989], a woman who shows a deep empathy for apartheid-era South African townships having grown up in the segregationist laws of Jim Crow USA.

Ndodana-Breen came to his country’s attention post-independence. His work is swirls from the grief-stricken depths of apartheid and soars with fizzing élan into the era of independence of what Nelson Mandela referred to as the Rainbow-Country. The composer has ideas that penetrate beyond the surface of the canvas of that [Rainbow-Country], deep into the gleam of his Xhosa heritage. But far from being a parochial affectation, Ndodana-Breen’s is a work of intense lyricism that holds aloft the humanity of the long-suffering South African who moves from disposition to the glow of freedom in a groundswell of lightness, brio and high-spirits.

Musicologist & Pianist, Dr. Samantha Ege
Musicologist & Pianist, Dr. Samantha Ege

Homage is by the 20th century American composer Zenobia Powell Perry [1908-2004], a student of one of the leading composers of the Harlem Renaissance, William L. Dawson [1899-1990] and is a tribute to Dawson. It is sensitive and understated. Her prevailing lyricism is especially appealing in the heartfelt references to I Been Buked and I Been Scorned, which booklet notes refer to as Dawson’s favourite Spiritual. Ege’s pianism is superb throughout. Her subtleties of touch and rhythm yield unusual and persuasive insights into Powell Perry’s work. The ebullience of the performance is irresistible. The pianist has a superb capacity for holding a bluesy cantabile line aloft effortlessly, allowing the melody to take flight.

Smith Moore’s composition Sweto explodes with primeval energy. The performance of this piece is meant to drive one to the edge of one’s seat with its almost clandestine disquiet. The violins opt for exaggerated articulation, which makes for a performance full of gravitas. The work portrays a memorable picture of gut-wrenching life; a full cry amid darkness and despair. But eventually – by Movement III – the work moves from rage to a sense of cathartic hopefulness.

Perhaps the work with the most deeply mystical roots in African dance rhythms is Coleridge-Taylor’s Moorish Dance op 55. It is a highly romantic work. The performance is high-spirited, in keeping with the mesmeric intensity in both the sublime slower sections of the work and high-spirited in the work’s dénouement. The musicians daring, imaginative and technically superb performance of this work simply demands to be heard.

The Spiritual is one of the most enduring Black American song forms which Frederic C. Tillis [1930-2020] reimagines with deep reverence and a new sense of freedom. With pen in hand, the composer gives four celebrated works new life in Spiritual Fantasy, suggesting that even a sainted form is open to limitless interpretative possibilities. The musicians certainly bring a lined-in feel to this performance. Their approach is persuasive, not overly dramatized, with a sainted hall of mirrored harmonics at its centre.

This production is a tremendous achievement, start to finish.

Deo gratis…

Music – 1: Bongani Ndodana-BreenSafika [Movements I, II and III]; 2: Zenobia Powell PerryHomage;  3: Undine Smooth Moore – Sweto [Movements I, II and III]; 4: Samuel Coleridge-Taylor – Moorish Dance, op 55; 5: Frederic C. Tillis – Spiritual Fantasy [I – Nobody Knows the Trouble I See, II – Wade in the Water, III – Crucifixion – He Never Said a Mumblin’ Word, IV – I’m A-Rollin’]

Musicians – Dr Samantha Ege: pf; Castle of our Skins – Gabriela Diaz: vn; Matthew Vera: vn; Ashleigh Gordon: va; Francesca McNeeley: vc

Released – 2023
Label – Lorelt [LNT147]
Runtime – 1:01:51

YouTube Concert – Homage: Chamber Music from the African Continent & Diaspora

Based in Milton, Ontario, Canada, Raul is a poet, musician and an accomplished critic whose profound analysis is reinforced by his deep understanding of music, technically as well as historically.

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