Leòn is but one of the exceptional female artists of African descent sharing their essence in the NBAF's "Sister Fire" theme this year, along with poet Sonia Sanchez, author Barbara Chase-Riboud, jazz diva Nancy Wilson, actress Diahann Carroll, and visual artists Faith Ringgold and Carrie Mae Weems.
Born in Havana, Cuba, Tania Leòn moved to New York City in 1967, becoming a founding member and the first musical director of the Dance Theatre of Harlem only two years later. She has been a professor of music at Brooklyn College since 1985, and is in demand internationally both as a composer and conductor.
Established in 1986 by the Fulton County Commission, the National Black Arts Festival has brought international acclaim and attention to Atlanta as a nexus for showcasing the artistic creativity of people of African descent. This year, NBAF invited Leòn to bring her new Son Sonora Ensemble to the festival, in great part because of her proactively pan-cultural philosophy.
"I'm a very anti-label person," says Leòn. "They are very limiting. Even the word 'minority,' for me, is very limiting.
"Music doesn't have any kind of boundaries in terms of whatever sonic works a composer may create. That might manifest in many, many ways that do not necessarily have to be pigeonholed in the many labels [that we often] attach to sound and culture. Each composer creates his or her own culture within their sound, and it doesn't matter where they come from, where they were born, or what they look like. That is part of the premise of [our] programming, the players and their relationships to the composers.
"Of course I am going to be exposing a lot of voices of Americans of African descent. There are pieces written also by composers of the Americas that don't necessarily have dark skin pigmentation. They are written by composers. I don't call them black, or white, or pink anything. [It] is contemporary music, coming from all kinds of walks of life."
Although a label-free philosophy and blurring of ethnic boundaries may at first seem at odds with an event that squarely defines itself as a "black" arts festival, Leòn insists that is not necessarily so.
"I understand very well the reasons why certain names have been brought to fore, to correct things that we have not really given attention to, based on the history of our nation or our globe," say Leòn. "But it transcends that already. The fact is this is what [the festival] wanted to approach. They wanted to exhibit, perhaps, the fact that not all the players are of African descent. All are not even of the United States, because there are players that are from the rest of the continent, namely Latin America."
Indeed, NBAF's own mission statement says: "NBAF recognizes and promotes art and culture as vehicles for bringing diverse communities together for dialogue and learning."
After 12 years of living in the U.S., Leòn went back to Havana to visit her family. While there, Leòn rediscovered a part of her own musical heritage when she went with her father to hear a group of Afro-Cuban Batá drummers play in a local neighborhood.
"[You] grow up in a place surrounded by all of the different elements that the place can offer. And then you displace yourself to another place. All of a sudden, that primary impact starts coming back into your memory, like a secondary impact, because it is something you already have absorbed. You didn't know it was inside of you, and so you didn't pay that much attention to it. My going back [to Havana] was incredible. It was like pushing a button in a tape recorder that I didn't know was there. It was touching base with something that I knew so well and had tried to forget. I didn't know how much these sounds had to do with my emotional persona."
The experience had a profound affect on her composing. "My music all of a sudden went into a total explosion of [rhythms] and polyphonic aspects, because it was something that I knew very well and was not utilizing."
Still, due to her years of living in the U.S., Cubans spot immediately Leòn's not from Havana. "My Spanish is not the same. I don't have the latest terminology, new words, new idiomatic expressions, or new gestures. [I'm] carrying gestures with me that are a New Yorker's gestures. In other words, I have been transformed. People here call me Cuban, and when I go there they ask me where I am from!"
Such transformations, personal and societal, Leòn notes, are the norm as people and cultures migrate across the globe, influencing each other. "That is the history of culture everywhere. It changes over time, the same way that I have changed." Even so, Leòn says, of music of the Americas, "You'll find many [things] that are similar ... because we are all made out of the same essence."
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ahh. i see what u did there. clever as always.