Tubman's story of bravery set to music

Composer Nkeiru Okoye's opera pays tribute to former slave who helped others escape

Music

February 03, 2008|By Harold Fisher | Harold Fisher,Special to The Sun

If history made a sound, it would be a musical one. It's easy to imagine the crash of cymbals and rumble from a pedestal timpani drum as musical elements of wars.

There is also perhaps no better shoo-in for the disco era of the 1970s than the "chica-wah-wah" of a strummed electric guitar.

But how might you connect music to America's history of bondage, brutality and beastly treatment of African slaves? What if you could take a person from that era and paint them with music that is symbolic of their legacy?

Classical music composer Nkeiru Okoye answers those questions with an operatic tribute to the woman history often calls Moses in Harriet Tubman: When I Crossed That Line to Freedom (Songs of Harriet Tubman).

"It's teaching you about Harriet Tubman. It teaches you about the Underground Railroad," she says. "It's a weighty piece. As I'm writing it, I'm aware of the weight of that, and sometimes that's intimidating."

The 35-year-old from Millville, N.Y., takes her painstaking, historical research of Tubman and translates it into musical intimacy. She even refers to Tubman as "Harriet" as if she knows the woman who during the mid-1800s freed herself and then helped other slaves to freedom.

"She's not quite a dear friend. I don't sit down and talk with her. ... In some ways, she is ... a muse. She's no longer Harriet Tubman. She really is Harriet," Okoye says.

Yet, even after all the work and live performances, including one at Coppin State University last year, Okoye says the Tubman piece, which includes four arias, is a challenging work she tweaks and performs.

"I'm writing, not just about Tubman, but about music that happened at that time," she says. "There are a lot of people who have done pieces on Harriet Tubman and they do a whole bunch of spirituals; to me it's just like cheating.

"We all know that we as African-Americans know about gospel and we know about jazz," she says, "but that's not the music they were doing at that time."

As a result, this two-hour musical presentation examines the slave culture on a 19th-century American plantation.

In "My Name is Araminta," Okoye describes the life of Araminta "Minty" Ross, Tubman's slave name before she married freeman John Tubman and took the name Harriet. It includes her early years as a slave in Bucktown in Dorchester County. There is also the chronicling of an injury that nearly killed her.

At some point during her early teenage years, she was hit in the head with an iron weight. Tubman struggled with the effects of the injury for the rest of her life.

Late in the presentation, there is a haunting choral selection titled "Stole Me from My Mama's Arms." In it, Tubman, played by soprano and Columbia native Kishna Davis, describes to abolitionists how her sister was sold.

"It's beautiful, but she's got grit! For Tubman, you don't want a voice that's flowery and pretty because this is a woman who has gone through some stuff," Okoye says. "It's got that beauty, but this is a woman who's seen some stuff so you need that weighty kind of talent."

The other arrangements include "I Heard About Kind Masters," "Rumor Says We're Next" and "Brown-Skinned Gal." Okoye's lyrics and melodies attempt to separate Tubman's fact from legend and myth.

"I was just enchanted by the story of this woman. ... We think of her Underground Railroad years, but there were years before that [that] people just don't think about. She escaped, she kept coming down, and I wondered why did she keep coming down to [Maryland]," she says. "What she did was so important to who she was and who she represents now.

"It's so important, [that] I didn't want me to get in the way," she says, "so I really studied her and I wanted to give her a voice."

unisun@baltsun.com

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