Jordi Savall Explores the Musical Legacy of 'The Routes of Slavery'

Jordi Savall's "Routes of Slavery" features music from Brazil, Colombia, Guadeloupe, Mali, Mexico and Spain. (Photo: Courtesy of Claire Xavier)

There aren’t a lot of early music historians who are also celebrities, but the Catalonian composer and musician Jordi Savall is one of them. He shot onto the international scene in 1991 with his heart-stopping viola da gamba performances in the film Tous les Matins du monde. He has made more than 100 recordings, and his books have been published in eight languages.

Over the breadth of his half-century career, Savall has used his celebrity to draw crowds to hear epic musical adventures into history, sharing the stage with family and talents far beyond his home country of Spain.

With The Routes of Slavery, Savall has been touring the world with a couple dozen musicians, singers, and dancers from four continents, pairing them with local narrators and academics to cover the transatlantic slave trade. The troupe performs at UC Berkeley and at Stanford this weekend, before heading to Seattle and then Austin.

For the purposes of Routes, Savall sets his boundaries thusly: 1444, when the Portuguese began trading slaves, and 1888, when Brazil became the last Western country to abolish slavery. During that time, tens of millions of people were forcibly shipped from Africa to the Americas. (Estimates vary, depending on whether you account for those who died en route.)

The Catalan musical historian Jordi Savall collaborates with artists from around the world on a musical exploration of the transatlantic slave trade.
The Catalan musical historian Jordi Savall collaborates with artists from around the world on a musical exploration of the transatlantic slave trade. (Photo: Courtesy of Jordi Savall)

"This was the primary economic engine of the world economy for centuries," says US history professor Jim Campbell, who will be part of the pre-show talk at Bing Concert Hall on Sunday. "It's hard to imagine any history that we in the West have managed or contrived to forget and evade more thoroughly. Most Americans have no clue of the scope, duration and historical significance of the transatlantic slave trade."

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Then, to emphasize his point, Campbell gets Biblical. "You know, there's a passage from the  story of Jacob  where he prophesies the diaspora."

And thy seed shall be as the dust of the earth, and thou shalt spread abroad to the west, and to the east, and to the north, and to the south: and in thee and in thy seed shall all the families of the earth be blessed. - Genesis 28:14

"That grim but oddly hopeful prophecy is, to me, also the story of the transatlantic slave trade -- and we here see it realized musically."

The result is lush, moving and even joyful.

Campbell's partner in the talk is Grant Parker, an associate professor of classics at Stanford who's also involved in the university's Center for African Studies.

"It's clear that Jordi Savall is very conscious of the problems of celebration in the  context of such a grim history. Yet he has pulled it off with such a sensitivity, making it very clear that he's interested in the individuals the lives involved and adding a human dimension to people that are otherwise names or perhaps not even names," Parker says.

In this era when the personal narrative reigns supreme, it's hard for many audience members to wrap their arms around a multi-century epic with so little written record from the people who were enslaved.

Between the music, Savall has narrators read from a variety of sources. There's a passage from an 1855 Abraham Lincoln wrote to a friend and slave owner in Kentucky. There's a passage from Martin Luther-King Jr's 1963 book, Why We Can't Wait.  Perhaps most horrifying is the first reading from the 1444 book the Chronicle of the Discovery and Conquest of Guinea, by Gomes Eannes de Azurara.

Very early in the morning because of the heat, a few Portuguese seamen unloaded their African cargo consisting of 235 slaves on the south west point of the Algarve in Portugal. This arrival of this collection of Africans was a novelty which attracted the curiosity of a number of people, including Prince Hendry of Portugal.  He watched impassive on horseback and himself received 46 of the slaves present, the royal fifth.

"The fact that they're human beings is inconsequential," says Santa Clara University theatre professor and actor Aldo Billingslea, who's serving as the narrator for the Saturday performance at Zellerbach. "All of it speaks to me in some way. These beautiful sounds go right through your cartilage, your bone, your flesh and move your soul. It's a spiritual event." 

What Savall has fixed on is that music is a form of history. Those slaves are speaking to us across the centuries about their experience. 

The Routes of Slavery plays Saturday November 3, 2018 at Zellerbach Hall and Sunday, November 4, 2018 at Bing Concert Hall. For more information, click here and here.

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