The story goes on the road

We titled the presentation "Waking Up Tomorrow: The Significance of Shockoe Bottom" and have presented it along with the 10 historic markers and historic maps of Richmond in two forms so far:
  1. Brown bag lunch talk with Ana Edwards, April 9 at Brown University's Center for the Study of Slavery and Justice, a 2 year old center that emerged from the university's decision to examine it's own origins, founded and funded by civic leaders who were also slave traders, built by enslaved laborers. 
  2. Youth Peace Summit, Richmond Peace Education Center, Saturday, April 25, 2015, 2:00-3:30 pm - a workshop on the history of Richmond and Shockoe Bottom. The participants were all middle school aged students with high energy, curiosity, questions, comments. Ana Edwards and Phil Wilayto were co-presenters. Phil got enthusiastic applause - he's very good with young people - answering questions to explain why the history and the struggle are important issues today. 
2015 Lemon Project Symposium, College of William & Mary, April 11. "Ghosts of Slavery: The Afterlives of Racial Bondage", April 10-11, 2015 | Williamsburg, VA. We did not present, but were able to include discussion of this history and struggle during two sessions. “Make the Ground Talk: An Update on the Search for the Community of Magruder” Brian Palmer & Erin Hollaway Palmer, University of Richmond & Documentary Film Producers who have attended Shockoe Bottom programs, presented on Black and White communities wiped out by Camp Peary during World War II. Brian's family lived in Magruder and the film begins with a photo of his grandfather and other relatives standing on the cemetery that is no longer accessible to family - another representative disappeared Virginia history.

Power of Tones: A jazz composer makes music for the African Burial Ground

Adjustments: the suite's actual title is "UNDERTONES: An Aural Memorial to the African Burial Grounds"
Composer Ashby Anderson stands near the African Burial Grounds in Shockoe Bottom, where his commissioned orchestral work about it was recently performed. photo by Scott Elmquist

Power of Tones: A jazz composer makes music for the African Burial Ground

Story by Peter McElhinney

Amid a wave of musicians building the future of the Richmond music scene, composer Ashby Anderson is looking to the past.

His 22-piece African Arkestra is part of a vanishing art form: a big band performing original, un-adapted work. His latest commission, “Undertones,” draws on Richmond’s darker history. The work was performed this month during an Aural Memorial for the African Burial Grounds on Good Friday, April 3, at the site that inspired it.

Once lying beneath a parking lot, the slave graveyard is now a grassy field at 15th and East Broad streets. There isn’t much to see there yet, but like the Anne Frank house in Amsterdam, a haunting resonance resides in a mixture of the evocative and the everyday.

Anderson’s Muse Creative Workspace is just a few blocks away. A 7,000-square-foot, cinderblock warehouse with concrete floors, natural light through an expansive grid of windows, and a high, wood-beamed ceiling, it is at once industrial and intimate.

The evening before the performance, the band works through the fourth movement of Anderson’s “Undertones.” The players are a mix of veterans from the local jazz scene and young musicians from Anderson’s Richmond Youth Jazz Guild.

“They’re just excellent,” Anderson says. “They are all great musicians from the start. And I called a lot of people I haven’t had a chance to play with before.”

There are a lot of familiar faces: Rick Rieger, leader of the RVA Big Band, which plays Balliceaux every Monday; trombonist Pete Anderson; Kelli Strawbridge from the Mekong Express and the Big Payback; Kevin Simpson from Butterbean; and Mark Ingraham from the D.J. Williams Projekt, Bio Ritmo and Beast Wellington. It’s an impressive group.

“I love playing Ashby’s music,” Ingraham says. “But it’s so hard.”

The composition alternates between tightly composed ensemble sections and freewheeling solos. The scored parts are multilayered, with contrapuntal lines soaring and colliding over a foundation of African rhythms complemented, augmented and deconstructed by Strawbridge’s propulsive drumming. The solos are inventive and heartfelt if perhaps a bit more restrained in rehearsal than they will be in the actual event.

The next night, onstage in a tent at the African Burial Grounds, there’s no holding back. The band is in dashikis, playing to a large, appreciative crowd. While the pieces unfold, narration is provided by poet and contemporary griot Sekso Shabaka. Its pride-raising, Egypt-invoking, Afrocentric text becomes specific to time and place when it calls for the departed icons of racial injustice — from John Brown of Harper’s Ferry to Ferguson, Missouri’s Michael Brown — to rise up and continue the advance.

Among the names Shabaka calls out is 1800 slave rebellion leader Gabriel, who most likely was hanged at the Richmond gallows on the burial ground site.

“This place is important,” Anderson says. “It has a certain energy. There is a lot of music in it.”

“Undertones” continues a musical journey that the composer has followed for more than a decade. In 2004’s “Historic Richmond Jazz Suite,” he touched on the city’s slavery legacy with its Devils Half Acre section, while including a celebration of Second Street, “the Harlem of the South,” and the buried train sealed inside Church Hill.

The music comes from a deep sense of place.

“It has a certain character. There is a lot that is not yet marked off,” Anderson says. “You have the freedom to walk around and find things for yourself.”

He’s talking about the Richmond Slave Trail, but he could just as well be talking about his musical explorations of Richmond’s neglected history.

The next performance of “Undertones” is set for Saturday, June 20, for the Elegba Folklore Society at Ancarrow’s Landing.


About the April 3 tour

"Waking Up Tomorrow" Tour was the pragmatic, historical context that the Sacred Ground Project sought to offer participants in our Shockoe Bottom tours on the 3rd and 4th of April, 2015, part of the Self Determination/The Future is Now programming, Richmond's Journey from the End of Slavery and Civil War to Today - the last of the Future of Richmond's Past 5 years of observances of the Sesquicentennial of the Civil War and Emancipation.

What was life like in Shockoe Valley district of the city of Richmond from the 1830s to the 1860s, and in the days leading up to the city's liberation from war-time Confederate rule, antebellum economic and social norms, the end of the Civil War and slavery. Our tour consisted of the temporary placement of 10 historic markers created to illustrate both the scale and normalcy of life in Richmond as a "slavery society." Later, a display of reproductions of maps of historic Richmond helped visitors understand where they were standing - on that day, April 3rd, in 1737, 1835, 1859, 1865, and 2015. Each tour concluded with a reading from April 12, 1865 "letter home" by USCT Chaplain Garland H. White, written after his time in Richmond, including riding in with the liberating colored troops to liberate Richmond from the confederacy

Smaller versions of the same markers and
Length: 0.5 mile / 0.8 kilometer
Duration: 1 h 15 min - 1 h 45 min (depending upon discussion)
April 3: 60 (4:00 pm)
April 4: 30 each (12:30 and 2:30 pm)
Total: 120 participants