Castle of our Skins, Boston’s prolific producer of concerts and other cultural programming that celebrates Black excellence in classical music and beyond, welcomed its inaugural creative-in-residence last month. As a composer and scholar of historic Black composers, Tanyaradzwa Tawengwa feels “bliss” to step into a position officially titled the Shirley Graham Du Bois Creative-in-Residence — named for the world-traveling composer-activist Shirley Graham Du Bois (who happened to marry W.E.B. Du Bois).
Tawengwa studied voice, piano, and cello throughout childhood in Harare, Zimbabwe. During college in the US, she picked up mbira (a family of “thumb pianos” with plucked tines, essential to traditional Shona ceremonial music in southern Africa) and began to archive the songs of her grandmothers on trips home. She majored in music at Princeton, where her 2014 senior recital blended original compositions with the “chimurenga” anthems of Zimbabwe’s War of Liberation, first-person narratives of the war taken verbatim from interviews with family members, and projections of archival footage. Since then, she has co-created an off-Broadway musical, provided mbira arrangements for Danai Gurira’s “Familiar” at Yale Repertory Theatre, and formed the Mushandirapamwe Singers with fellow Black opera students at the University of Kentucky, where she continues her graduate studies. A June Facebook post recounting her experience in Glimmerglass’s Young Artist Program ignited a fury of online discussion about racism in the opera world.
Tawengwa spoke by phone from Philadelphia, where she is currently sheltering with family.
Q. What were your earliest musical memories?
A. Sometimes I sit and imagine what I would have been hearing in my mother’s womb that I can’t recall — probably my mom singing. I come from a very musically inclined family, where music just appears spontaneously without rehearsal or practice, and everybody holds that creativity in their bodies. On my mother’s side of the family, my great-grandfather was an evangelist, and my great-grandmother would translate his sermons into 11 languages. My grandmother and her siblings were the choir, singing all the hymns. When I was very young, I followed my mother to church choir, and by the time I was 10, I was conducting it. My father’s side of the family didn’t convert to Christianity. It’s rooted in our Chivanhu practice — what people would describe as traditional African spiritual practice — that comes with its own music, its own canon, that I draw on in almost all of my work.
Q. What is your compositional process?
A. It changes. Depending on the ensemble that I’m working with, usually the process begins with a little education, for people to understand where my composer voice is coming from, and to understand the respect that drawing from these ancestral traditions requires, that it’s not frivolous. That’s an important conversation, because I enjoy sharing this music, but it has to be done with the right heart.
Sometimes the music just arrives. Sometimes before I even think about music, I’m reading. [For a recent commission by the Grace Chorale of Brooklyn commemorating the “Red Summer” of 1919, when white supremacist violence convulsed through the US] I actually traveled to Arkansas, and to Tulsa, Okla., where Black Wall Street was burned down.
Q. That must have been very emotional.
A. The soil remembers. For my spiritual belief system and our cosmology, earth is so important to us, as practicers of Chivanhu, because that’s where ancestors reside. We call ourselves vana vevhu, the children of the soil. It was very eerie to walk into a neighborhood that 100 years prior had undergone such a violent experience, and is now one of the most gentrified neighborhoods you’d ever visit — beer and wine, yoga, board-game cafes, a very hip arts district. It’s eerie, and it kind of speaks to the ways in which this country has a tough time looking at and reckoning with itself.
Q. Are you also working on a doctoral degree at University of Kentucky?
A. My dissertation is creating a critical edition of an opera by Edward Boatner. He’s known as an arranger of spirituals, but he has an opera called “Trouble in Mind: A Slave Opera.” My vocal coach used to play piano for Boatner in the ’70s in New York. In one of our classes, my coach came with the score Boatner gave him and I literally felt chills. Boatner intentionally didn’t write [a full orchestral] score because he said slaves didn’t have an orchestra. So it is really driven vocally, with sparse string instrumentation and some unfinished arrangements that I would like to flesh out as I get to know his style more. I’ve always had a love for — searched voraciously for — Black creators of opera, so I could make sense to myself.
Q. What can we look forward to from your collaboration with Castle of our Skins this year? Will we get to hear your Mushandirapamwe Singers?
A. Yes, if it is safe to do so, we’ll be there! Ensemble singing is really in my DNA. Voices coming together is just one of the most beautiful experiences, but it’s also a metaphor for humanity. I feel that my role as a composer and a creator is to create space for a deeper exploration of humanity. There’s music for birth, there’s music for death, there’s music for celebration, loss, grief, healing. I’ve personally lost a dear friend to the coronavirus. He was 30 years old, by himself. So I’m thinking about the loneliness of this moment, and ways in which music and creativity bridge the isolation. I hope that people come with open and hungry souls to this season.
Interview was edited for length and clarity. CJ Ru is on Twitter at @cjruse.