A one word summary of this concert? Unforgettable.
On May 21 I had the pleasure of watching Gizelxanath and Ben Barson’s project with the Afro-Yaqui Music Collective at the Pittsburgh Winery. To simply call the event a “concert” would be a misnomer- instead it was a musical journey, blending funk, jazz, hip-hop, rap, African music, Yaqui and Tzotzil-Tzeltal indigenous music from northern Mexico with powerful political messages.
Underlying the entire performance was a huge ensemble which fused traditional Eastern and Western instruments, such as the Chinese Huqin with Pre-Colombian Indigenous flutes and an impressive horn section. The band, spearheaded by Barson, created a thick, energetic pulse that Gizelxanath’s soprano glided over with ease.
The event also showcased a plethora of local artists, poets and rappers from the area. Guests, such as Dan Barson, Mario Quinn, Sister Dana, and Xun Jimenez a local Tzotzil (a Mayan language) speaking rapper, seamlessly mixed a variety of languages with the pulsating music to create a unique listening experience. In addition to the aforementioned rap choir, Barson and Gizelxanath's ensemble included PJ Roduta on drums and Chinese percussion, Ben Rossman on double bass, John Bagnato on guitar, Langston Kelley on saxophones, Emily Cook on bass clarinet, Iyanna Buffaloe on trombone, Mimi Jong on Erhu, Victor Beltran on pre-Columbian flutes, Gabriel Colombo and Lucas Godhino on Brazillian percussion. Together they are the Afro-Yaqui Music Collective.
The central theme of the night was one of liberation and community. Songs spoke about the destruction of ancient cultures, the need to understand one’s roots, and the power of music in building communities.
Both Gizelxanath and Barson talked about their own experiences with music, liberation, and community with me prior to the show.
Gizelxanath, a classically trained soprano, discussed the journey of rediscovering her Yaqui roots. The powerful singer, well-versed in six languages, described the disillusion and disconnects she felt with her roots while studying classical music.
“When I moved to New York I basically sang everything and anything... I did a lot of different genres, but I realized I never did my own indigenous music. Recently, I’ve been lucky to connect with indigenous people and collaborate to make music together”, says Gizelxanath.
Barson, a baritone saxophone maestro in his own right, discussed his own journey of creating communities through music. Barson currently plays with local group The ChopShop, and studied with saxophone player Fred Ho for several years, playing across the globe. Outside music, Barson worked for the Community Empowerment Association, is a board member of Landslide Community Farm, and part of an international network known as Ecosocialist Horizons. He also sees music as having a deep global sociological connection.
“Music allows people to think of themselves past the status quo, beyond the right now”, says Barson.
Barson stressed the importance of fusing genres like jazz, hip-hop with Yaqui and Tzotzil-Tzeltal indigenous music, and the need to continuously push music forward.
“For me, jazz and hip-hop were meant to merge… you’re seeing a whole new generation of artists like Kendrick Lamar and Kamasi Washington doing that now. For us lyrics are just as important, and can express an emboldening message. But we are focused on incorporating indigenous language into our music”.
Both artists emphasized the power music has in uniting people across cultures.
“For me, music is a way we can reverse some of the aspects of cultural displacement”, says Barson.
“We need to create awareness of what’s going on globally and people need to wake up. It takes a lot of effort, but it needs to be done”, says Gizelxanath.
For this husband and wife duo, it’s clear that they are united by their passion of bringing together people for a larger cause through their music.
“We want people to be aware of what’s going on, and the dangerous effects industrial capitalism is having on indigenous people, animals, and the environment” says Gizelxanath.
This show was truly unforgettable. Make sure to check out Barson and Gizelxanath if you have a chance. I promise it will be a new cultural experience unlike any you’ve seen or heard.
Check out a clip of the performance here:
Make sure to follow Ben Barson and his projects at BenBarsonMusic.com.