Review: FREEDOM: Spirit and Legacy of Black Music, at the Stratford Festival.

by Lynn on August 25, 2021

in The Passionate Playgoer

Live, in person, under the Festival Theatre Canopy at the Stratford Festival until September 5:

Curated, directed, musical directed by Beau Dixon

Lighting by Kaileigh Krysztofiak

Sound by Peter McBoyle

Music arrangements, Beau Dixon

The Singers:

Robert Ball

Alana Bridgewater

Beau Dixon

Camille Eanga-Selenge

Gavin Hope (Standby)

The Band:

Beau Dixon, Conductor, keyboard

Rohan Station, Acoustic guitar, electric guitar

Roger Williams, Acoustic bass, electric bass

Paul Antonio, Drum kit

Joe Bowden, Percussion

A rousing, throbbing cabaret of songs and words about freedom.

The subtitle of the Freedom Cabaret is: “Spirit and Legacy of Black Music.” The description of what the cabaret is about is clear and resounding: “From the moment Black people landed on North American soil, their music took room and became the basis of much of the popular music we hear today. There is an endless list of exceptional Black musicians who have been lost to history, while their white counterparts gained fame. From church hymnals to the blues, from jazz to rock ‘n’ roll, R & B and rap, we owe much of our musical history to Black culture, and it’s time to give credit where credit is due.”

And in his own program note, Beau Dixon writes: “Black music, at its heart, is about freedom—not just the idea of social and economic freedom driven by racial injustice, but a freedom of the mind and soul. It’s possible that the Black voice is singing for all people who are seeding freedom from within.”

In Beau Dixon’s meticulously curated cabaret of 23 songs and a reading, the spirit and legacy of Black music is clear and bold. The cabaret is divided into categories: Negro Spirituals, Silent Voices, Message Lost in the Voices, Encore, and Reading (Emancipation Poem by Haui (Howard J. Davis). Within these categories are songs such as “Freedom for My People”, “Trouble So Hard”, “When the Levee Breaks”, “Hound Dog”, “Crossroad Blues”, “I Wish I Knew How it Would Feel to be Free.” “Pata Pata” “Change is Gonna Come”. 

Dixon puts a lot of emphasis on the importance of Bob Marley and his songs in the expression of freedom and emancipation. He includes four Bob Marley songs: “One Love”, “Zimbabwe”, “Slave Driver,” and “Redemption Song,” “One Love” might seem a gentle one but it has a solid message. The others by Marley are more pointed in their intention.

The Blues are given their due with a fascinating comment—that even though they depict a darkness in their lyrics, they also convey a humour and wink as well.  Beau Dixon said that a lot of the blues were written by or for female artists. I wish he had expanded on that fascinating fact with more examples.  

The cast of four bring their own gifts to each song and interpretation: Robert Ball has a beautiful tenor voice and a courtly manner and imbues his singing and interpretation with poignancy; Alana Bridgewater digs deep through her rich voice and puts the heart and soul into such songs as “Hound Dog” and “Home is Where the Heart Is” among others. Camille Eanga-Selenge has a pure soprano voice and sings “Pata Pata” by Miriam Makeba and Jerry Ragovoy with all the intoxicating rhythm contained in that celebrated song. Beau Dixon seems to be able to do anything. Music pours out of him he is so gifted. He curated the Cabaret choosing the songs carefully and who would sing them; he is the music director; he plays the keyboards and multiple harmonicas as further accompaniment; he is the music arranger; a performer and the conductor of the cabaret. He would make a kicking motion for further percussive emphasis. And when one thought he must be getting tired, he flopped on the ground and did three full pushups. I was exhausted.

At one point towards the end of the concert, Dixon yelled out that he had something to say. The band played quieter to let him speak. What followed was a list of various people of colour who were leaders in creating inventions, accomplishments, social change and the young girl who won the championship spelling Bee. I have a quibble here, about the sound. I can appreciate that it’s thought the audience should hear both the singers and the band. I just wonder why the band has to be as loud in amplification as the singers. The band is supposed to support the singers not drown them out. I found that happened occasionally during Freedom. Some of the lyrics of some songs were drowned out by the band.  I would like to have heard that list of people and what they invented-accomplished without the attendant amplification. Also, Camille Eanga-Selenge had a speech that seemed very important but I could not make out what she was saying because she was drowned out. The message of all these songs and speeches is important. We have to hear the lyrics. Nothing will be diminished if the amplification of the band is decreased. In fact the message will be heard ‘loud’ and clear, which is the point.

In any case, Beau Dixon’s curation of Freedom is a huge accomplishment, an education, and an eye-opener regarding music by Black artists. And it’s seductive—the message is pointed but the music gets you swaying to the beat and tapping your toe. It’s music that came from pain but expresses joy.

Produced by The Stratford Festival.

Plays until: Sept. 5, 2021.

Running Time:  1 hour 30 minutes.

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