JEAN BERNARD CERIN: Beyond the box office

JEAN BERNARD CERIN: Beyond the box office

by Jean Bernard Cerin

Two years ago, I stood sweating anxiously in front of a packed audience at the Detroit Institute of Art while my half-Indian duo partner explained the intricate plot of the Bollywood film our next song came from. In the second row on the left, a group of six or so Indian patrons nodded enthusiastically and chimed in here and there as she explained the tangled love story. This was our first outing with the piece and while I had done my homework, I did not have the training in Hindi that I do in other languages. Her speech ended; we took a breath and my anxiety was carried away by the pulsing rhythms of the tabla drums and the soothing harmonies of the piano. I share this memory here to start a conversation about an element of programming that I struggle with, and I suspect many others do as well. That night, I was anxious to get the language right. But on a deeper level, I wanted to give a performance in which a native Indian might feel reflected with dignity.

Diversity seems to be all the rage today. The pressure is high on presenters to include traditionally marginalized voices in their programming, in the hope of welcoming new audiences to the fold. This makes for an exciting time to be a classical musician of color, or a feminist musician, or queer musician. However, as the classical music industry recognizes the inherent value in telling diverse stories on its stages, we also need to have more frequent and nuanced conversations about what makes these programs successful and how they might be culturally insensitive. With the exception of one graduate seminar on the history of the Star Spangled Banner, such conversations were at the most tangential, if they ever arose in my studies at two elite American graduate music programs and several elite summer music festivals. However, I believe that artistic integrity is taught. If we are not cultivating artists who have the intellectual framework to evaluate their choices, then we have set them up to fail.

While I was programming my third dissertation recital years ago, I had a difficult decision to make about Xavier Montsalvatge’s Cinco Canciones Negras (Five Black Songs). The program was entitled Krik, Krak: Stories of Africa and the New World. I decided early on that I wanted to include the entire set because I loved the music. After all, they are a good example of frequently-programmed black narratives in the classical cannon, and I thought it was interesting that so few men perform the songs despite the overwhelmingly male perspective of the poetry. Further, accessibility was a concern of my dissertation, so I liked that they are palatable to a wide range of audiences. When I finally sat down to translate all the songs, however, I was shocked by how racially and politically charged they are. Prior to that point, I was more familiar with some of them than others, and to be honest had mostly heard them at cocktail parties and gala events where there were no printed translations. I was appalled. How could a piece like the fifth song, “Canto Negro,” be performed so regularly without context? As a black man from the Caribbean I had a visceral reaction to the song’s caricature. I asked my colleagues and professors what their experience of the music was. No one was bothered by it. When I looked up recordings of the song cycle I noticed that few prominent black artists had recorded the whole set. Why wasn’t there a Jessye Norman recording of these songs? Finally, I went online to see what research had been done on the subject. 

A little history will clarify my horror. "Canto Negro" is a setting of a poem by Nicolas Guillen. Guillen was a prominent mulatto Cuban poet who engaged extensively and often sarcastically with the black Cuban struggle in his poetry. Guillen was an admirer of Langston Hughes and is associated with the larger Négritude intellectual movement that happened among black intellectuals around the world in the mid-twentieth century. Great. No problem then, right? Except that Guillen’s poem of the same name, “Canto Negro,” is among other things, a commentary on white minstrelsy—a self-aware depiction of this crude iteration of performative blackness among white people. In it, a black drunk man dances while sputtering gibberish African sounding words. Alice Henderson explains in her dissertation Identity in Cinco Canciones Negras (1945) how the man in "Canto Negro" evokes Sambo, a common trope in Cuban literature similar to the American Jim Crow. Taken in the context of the song cycle’s narrative, “Canto Negro” is also the logical abyss in the downward spiral of white exploitation of black bodies and language in Cuba. Now think about the last time you heard “Canto Negro.” Did you get that? If we do not make the intended irony clear, then the song (no matter how fun or beautiful) is a coon song perpetuating a long history of negative stereotypes about black people. In my recital, I framed the song with political essays by other Négritude writers and poetry by Langston Hughes. But without explaining the history of the piece, Guillen’s intended irony was not clear. That is why I no longer perform "Canto Negro."

As a Haitian in the American classical music field, the long-held harmful narratives and stereotypes about my own culture in western mindsets sometimes come to light in programs I am hired to present. These experiences inform my mission to curate and champion more programs that feature ethnic diversity without reducing those ethnicities to caricatures. Part of that mission means creating spaces for minority voices to tell their own stories and learning from that process. It also means challenging my colleagues to be more thorough in their research. When there is friction, perhaps choose a different story. It may also be an opportunity to have a public discussion about a complicated cultural artifact. I was intrigued last season when Opera Philadelphia allowed concerned members of the local Asian community to attend staging rehearsals of Turandot and post their reactions to the production on the company’s website. We often confront the violent and dehumanizing history of imperialism in art. We can program in a way that strengthens the cognitive dissonance that clouds our collective conscience, or we can frame our programming in a way that shines light on our complicated history and makes space for healing. 

In my work as a professor at a small liberal arts university, I am heartened to see how the larger liberal arts context makes it inevitable for the students in my vocal studio and music history classes to confront race theory, feminist theory and ideas of cultural appropriation. This sort of education gives us tools to go deeper into our analysis of how art exists within a larger cultural paradigm and why this art will then have different meanings to different groups of people. It is time that elite music education adds this critical gaze to the center of its mission. These conversations should play a role in our music literature and diction courses, not just our musicology courses. Where pertinent, they need to be part of the discussion as students prepare capstone projects like degree recitals. Only then will we see a professional arena with colleagues equipped to have the inevitably uncomfortable and challenging conversations that artistic programming entails—conversations we can no longer eschew, because the rest of the world is confronting social injustice head on and will hold us accountable for the stories we choose to tell. But this sort of education is not for the sake of appeasing critics. Understanding is a gateway to empathy, which only deepens our artistic and human experiences. As classical music fights to remain culturally relevant in a changing aesthetic landscape, I hope we can embrace diverse programming not just to sell tickets, but to facilitate humanizing intercultural dialogue in our communities.

After our concert at the Detroit Institute of Art, our new Indian friends, who it turned out were just visiting the USA, congratulated me for my valiant attempt at certain vowels and consonants in Hindi and thanked us for our arrangement of the beloved tune. A few minutes later, an Indian American security guard accosted us warmly. “I had to leave my post when I heard the beginning of Tu je dekha to ye ja na sanaam. I couldn’t believe you guys were singing that!” 

Praised for his “burnished tones and focused phrasing,” baritone Jean Bernard Cerin has charmed audiences throughout the United States, France, Austria, and his native Haiti. Jean Bernard appears regularly on the recital platform pushing the boundaries of the traditional classical program format with his Duo 1717 partner, pianist Veena K. Kulkarni. Later this spring, Duo 1717 will be performing song recitals for children  as part of this year's Casement Fund Recital Series at The Old Stone House in Brooklyn, NY.  

MINNITA DANIEL COX: The Paul Laurence Dunbar Music Archive

MINNITA DANIEL COX: The Paul Laurence Dunbar Music Archive