Just by themselves, the Afro Yaqui Music Collective would violate social distancing and group socializing restrictions during the coronavirus pandemic.
The Pittsburgh-based collective brings together a large, joyful group of musicians and artists (way more than five people) to meld together a host of different genres from around the world, such as on the “Mirror Butterfly” jazz opera, into something new. The collective’s mission is rooted in “liberation music” that celebrates efforts to resist colonization, environmental damage and mass incarceration.
Add in the audience, who are frequently as much participants as observers, and the Afro Yaqui Music Collective is the antithesis of social distancing.
The collective’s founders, Ben Barson and Gizelxanath Rodriguez, had planned to bring that same spirit to their roles as the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Division of the Arts’ Interdisciplinary Artists in Residence this spring. Their class was a group of students from various disciplines, coming together to create a new module for “Mirror Butterfly.”
But after the coronavirus outbreak caused the university to cancel in-person classes, the couple switched gears. Connected digitally with their students, Barson and Rodriguez have been working to finish the class project in a digital space.
Barson and Rodriguez talked to the Cap Times about their adjusted plans, what the experience of teaching at the UW has meant for them, and how COVID-19 fears have inadvertently reinforced one of the key themes of the Afro Yaqui Music Collective, “a reminder of how connected our global biological and economic circuits are.”
So tell me about what your original vision for the course was, and then tell me how that's changed midstream with the new reality.
Barson: We wanted to create a space that was not top down at all but that was very collaborative and student generated. What we would do is we would sort of bring in guests or analysis that connected climate change, environmentally destructive behaviors of corporations and also... the history of colonization. So trying to take a really broad view of the past 500 years.
It's not just a narrative about destitution and people leaving failed states, but also it's about agency. It's about people responding the best they can in difficult circumstances and also understanding what the politics are in those places of the world where the alternative, like ecologically centered kind of relations could be embraced. Especially in Mexico, there's a lot of indigenous communities that have been defending the earth and their land for hundreds of years.
They were tasked with developing an... interdisciplinary musical about the themes that we're talking about. They’d already done that work. They've written the music and music is recorded on iPhones. Now what we're going to do is we're going to record it remotely on everyone's personal computer with Pro Tools and apparently they all have microphones, which is crazy. And we're going to hire and we have visual artists working with us.
What we’re doing is we're creating a digital visual journey, with the music and with the poetry and spoken word and rap, and telling the story about migration, about inequality, about climate change and about commitment to alternatives to the status quo.
With the coronavirus, even though we don't talk about epidemics or pandemics, it is kind of a reminder of how connected our global biological and economic circuits are. We're happy that the students are being so positive and experimental and brave about it, especially given that a lot of them have... been uprooted.
Rodriguez: Everyone is contributing in some way to the narrative of the piece. I am also really, really excited because it's an interdisciplinary course and students from different backgrounds signed up. So we have scientists, we have environmental activists, we have sociologists. It's a very rich group of people that are working together in order to create art that reflects our current times.
Barson: We opened up the course for everyone that wanted to join to be able to do so. And I think that is really important because I often see that people at the universities or any kind of professional environment, they are very isolated, right? From the arts and from each other. But also artists are isolated. I think that has to change, because we get a very limited perspective of the world if we keep behaving like that.
It must be very gratifying for the students to stay creatively engaged with each other and continue to work on this rather than just watching Netflix and waiting for it to be over.
Barson: Yeah, it gives them hope and an incentive to do something that's meaningful. And hopefully it gives them the tools to keep doing this. We might be in the situation for a lot longer than was predicted. So we've got to find a way to make meaning out of this. Because if we don't, we're kind of screwed.
Has this experience made you look at your art in a different way or look at the importance of art in general in a different way?
Barson: This class has sort of been an experiment in the notion of cultural democracy. We can create a space where all this different knowledge and different demographics can contribute something, it does help us, you know, sensitize ourselves to different ways of knowing and hopefully it creates, like the future in the present.
Rodriguez: This is what we've done for years. We try to integrate people from different backgrounds in order to save Mother Earth and save ourselves as well.
You seem uniquely suited to this kind of interdisciplinary approach and having it change form midstream, given how your other work like “Mirror Butterfly” has continued to grow and evolve.
Rodriguez: That’s what we do. It’s exactly like that. We just bring the ingredients and it starts forming into something bigger than ourselves.
Barson: We want to keep reinforcing this idea that the artist has a certain responsibility to the community. And there are so many different communities or communities based on trade and industry, there's communities based on geography, there's communities based on identity. But I guess we're thinking of the community where you're situated, the community of people who are trying to change the world with their voices and their bodies and their practice. So how do we honor those folks who have put in their whole lives to keep the world a place where we want to have kids and have grandkids? That I think inherently makes our art have multiple authors and multiple influences.
Now that there won’t be a final public performance, do you have an idea of what the end result will be?
Barson: We will have like an online viewing party of the final work, probably in mid-June, which will basically be five or six songs with choreography with visual art, and that's animated.
Initially it was going to be in the Mead Witter School of Music’s new performance space and we had this really intense set design. We were going to have cages come down from the ceiling and it was going to be crazy. But now we're going to try to capture that same energy with this kind of multimedia art piece, which we're still really excited about. I think it's going to be strong and fun.
Stay up-to-date on what's happening
Receive the latest in local entertainment news in your inbox weekly!