The lyrics of the old spiritual “Down By the Riverside” offer a vision of pacifism as disarmament—a turn from matters martial to spiritual. But for the San Francisco International Arts Festival (SFIAF), the riverside is a place to organize resistance.
Running May 25–June 4 at the Fort Mason Center for Arts & Culture, this year’s SFIAF celebrates the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s epochal speech “Beyond Vietnam—A Time to Break Silence” at Manhattan’s Riverside Church. In denouncing U.S. foreign policy, King insisted that violence perpetrated abroad was as wounding as injustice at home, a stance that was controversial even within the civil rights movement.
The centerpiece of SFIAF, which has positioned itself firmly in the cultural frontline against the Trump administration, is Down by the Riverside: Requiem for a King, a moving, multi-movement jazz suite drummer Anthony Brown scored for his Asian American Orchestra and the gospel vocal ensemble Voices of a Dream, with an original text written and performed by activist and scholar Angela Davis. Commissioned by InterMusic SF (known until recently as SF Friends of Chamber Music), Riverside’s world premiere takes place May 26 at Cowell Theater.
In addition to the composition's namesake spiritual and “Wade In the Water,” Brown drew from Afro-Cuban rhythms and various classical Asian forms for the new work. “It is a jazz-based piece, but I draw on a lot of grooves with really strong bass lines,” Brown says. “When I was listening to Martin Luther King’s speeches, I was also listening to Sly Stone at the same time.”
Like most of Brown’s work in recent decades, Riverside features East-meets-West instrumentation, with jazz horns and rhythm section seamlessly integrated with classical Asian instruments, spotlighting guest collaborator and traditional Vietnamese master Vân-Ánh Võ on a zither-like instrument called the dan tranh.
“This was a convergence of so many different efforts and ideas,” Brown says, noting that, as the son of an African-American veteran and Japanese mother, he embodies the orchestra’s cultural co-mingling. “My father was a decorated combat veteran of two wars who spent 35 years in the Army. The only time I ever saw him cry was when he got the news of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination.”
Brown has often explored politically charged subjects in his music. Saturday’s evening-length concert also features Go For Broke! with poet Janice Mirikitani, Brown's 2017 salute to Nisei veterans. Brown composed it for the 75th anniversary of the Feb. 1942 Executive Order 9066, which forced more than 120,000 people of Japanese ancestry into internment camps. But it was the Grammy Award-nominated Asian American Orchestra’s 2017 SFJAZZ Center performance that connected him with Angela Davis. She caught Brown’s reimagining of Max Roach’s We Insist! Freedom Now Suite and hung out afterwards, and Brown mentioned the Riverside commission.
“She said count me in,” he recalls. (KQED Arts reached out to Davis, who wasn't available for an interview.)
Davis makes an ideal collaborator for Brown, not just as an activist and icon of the left, but as a scholar deeply engaged with African-American music. She’s written incisively about the role that music has played in black communities' resilience, connecting the “laughing to keep from crying” aesthetic that runs from antebellum work songs to the blues in her book Blues Legacies and Black Feminism.
Brown, who grew up idolizing Davis, came away from the collaboration buoyed by her resilience in the face of present-day political struggles. “She’s a larger-than-life figure and she’s not bitter whatsoever,” he says. “She’s still full of life and positive energy. But she doesn’t mince words about being really concerned about the direction of the country. She has such a grand, bird’s eye view on racism misogyny and violence. Her idea that is that if we’re not allowed to act on them in a violent way, the human race can survive as a species.”’
Brown’s performance doesn’t just mark the festival’s embrace of an explicitly political agenda. It represents the emergence of music as a major component of SFIAF. Launched in 2003 with a focus on dance and theater, the festival has increasingly incorporated musicians since returning to Fort Mason in 2015.
With Gallery 308 serving as an intimate, cabaret-style venue, SFIAF presents musicians from Mali, Pakistan, China, Spain, Argentina and Japan. Some of these artists also proudly position themselves as part of the resistance against Trump’s policies. But it’s Brown’s work with Down by the Riverside that best captures the festival’s mission “in terms of what Dr. King was speaking about in 'Beyond Vietnam,'” says SFIAF Director Andrew Wood.
“I can’t just talk about civil rights, I have to talk about cross-cultural organizing," says Wood. "Anthony embodies that stance. He looks for these things that resonate with him and his bicultural-ness and brings talented people with him.”
Anthony Brown's Asian American Orchestra, Angela Davis and Voices of a Dream perform at the San Francisco International Arts Festival on May 26. Details here.