On a day when visitors thronged to the Museum of Fine Arts for its Memorial Day open day, an unusual bit of musical theater took place on the lawn outside the Huntington Avenue entrance.
Performance artists Juan Nascimento and Daniela Lovera, both born in Venezuela, staged a strange meeting of musicians in a performance piece organized to coincide with two exhibitions: “Samba Spirit: Modern Afro Brazilian Art” and “Permission to be Global/Practicas Globales: Latin American Art From the Ella Fontanels-Cisneros Foundation.”
The performance began with an extended set by the accomplished 55-piece US Coast Guard Band, which played, among other pieces, the national anthem, “America the Beautiful,” and “Ready for the Call” — all good fare for Memorial Day, and executed with both precision and aplomb. The band had come to Boston from the US Coast Guard Academy in New London, Conn., expressly for this performance.
The stage was then taken by Foundation Movement, a local hip-hop band comprising Eroc Arroyo-Montano, Jonathan Gramling, Optimus Browne, and Erik Andrade. Gramling began the set with a stirring a cappella version of Sam Cooke’s 1964 anthem, “A Change Is Gonna Come.” The quartet then moved through rap and instrumental versions — all arranged by Juan Nascimento and Jheison Cardona — of Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are a Changin’ ” (1964); several songs by the Venezuelan activist, poet, and musician Ali Primera; Linton Kwesi Johnson’s 1978 song “All Wi Doin’ Is Defendin’ ”; and Gil Scott-Heron’s 1971 “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised.”
And when their brief but powerful set wound up, the Brazilian drum troupe Bloco AfroBrazil, led by Marcus Santos (with the exceptionally talented Graziela Oliveira drumming up front alongside him) sauntered stylishly into the space between stage and audience.
Together, all these musicians impressed the good-size crowd spread out on the lawn and standing at the edges. Primed by the quality of what had come before, the lawn-loungers needed little encouragement from Santos and his drummers to get to their feet. Within a minute, Santos had them leaping in the air and embracing neighbors “like we do in my hometown in Brazil.”
What could have been a dissonant clash of musical styles and cultures ended up looking like a model case of civility and respect, an overflow of harmonized energy.
Was there more to it, though, than a good time had by all? Was it somehow “art” in some deeper sense? One feels obliged to ask only because that was how it was presented.
The role of Nascimento and Lovera, who recorded the proceedings, seems hardly to have extended beyond concert organizers and amateur documentarians. Their piece proposes, according to the MFA, “a utopian junction of civic and military voices.”
Give or take a healthy dollop of utopianism, it achieved this outcome admirably. And of course it’s easy to see how a political charge, an animating friction, might emerge from a performance combining a state-sponsored military band with popular protest music in the artists’ native Venezuela, a country in the midst of a severe political crisis, and where Nascimento and Lovera have staged similar performances.
But on the sedate Huntington Avenue lawn of the MFA, with a cha-cha dance workshop taking place inside in the Shapiro Family Courtyard, and the “Boston Loves Impressionism” show bursting at the seams, it was hard for the artists’ conception to get much traction.
Did anyone care? Did it bother us in the slightest?
About as much as the warm breeze tickling our skin. As Foundation Movement, quoting Dylan, urged us to “admit that the waters around” us had grown, and insisted, quoting Scott-Heron, that “the Revolution will not be televised” (a lyric with special poignancy in Venezuela, where the state seeks to crush dissent in part by controlling the media), I and half the crowd had our cellphones out as we stepped in time to a very catchy bass groove, and wondered if we would post the images to Facebook or Twitter immediately, or later that evening. . .
There’s a lyric for every occasion of course. And once in a while, the credit has to go to Carly Rae Jepsen: “I’d trade my soul for a wish, Pennies and dimes for a kiss, I wasn’t looking for this. . .”Sebastian Smee can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.