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  • Neil Leonard

IDENTIFIED at the Smithsonian Institute National Portrait Gallery

Updated: Feb 24, 2020

From the exhibition booklet.

The sound for IDENTIFIED presented by the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery uses a hybrid ensemble comprising jazz musicians from Philadelphia, New Orleans, and Havana, a wind ensemble from the Duke Ellington School of the Arts, and folkloric musicians from Matanzas, Cuba. The work acknowledges musician, artist and everyday people who are missing from the museum’s historical collections through a processional performance that establishes new connections between the sound of Civil War era brass bands, New Orleans jazz, and Cuban sacred music. The museum’s spaces are transformed into an array of stages enabling performers to respond to American portraiture and create new music for the site where Walt Whitman tended to ailing soldiers, President Abraham Lincoln hosted his second inaugural ball, and Red Cross founder Clara Barton worked as a Patent Office clerk in the newly built “temple of invention.”

Trumpeter Terence Blanchard and I open the performance with a prelude under the spectacular undulating glass–and–steel roof that floats over the Robert and Arlene Kogod Courtyard. Accompanied by electronic sound and field recordings, the ensemble opens the way for Campos-Pons, my wife and longtime collaborator, to emerge as the mythical persona “Fefa” and lead a procession. Melodies from the Americas intertwine as musicians follow with her to address portraits and the museum’s grand architecture and historic spaces.

The musicians chosen for this performance are all masters of their art. Frank Williams introduced me to the folk music of the African diaspora from his home in Philadelphia long before I’d traveled to hear music beyond the city limits. Multi-Grammy award winning composer, flautist, and pianist Oriente Lopez greeted me in Havana in 1988 and invited me to perform with Afrocuba, a legendary Cuban jazz band that he directed. I met Ramon Garcia “Sandy” Perez after Campos-Pons and I collaborated with his mother Ana Perez Herrera, lead vocalist and dancer for Los Muñequitos de Matanzas, when we created our installation Alchemy of the Soul. New Orleans born and multi-Grammy award winning trumpeter and film score composer Terence Blanchard is one of the living pioneers of a brass tradition that began a century ago when figures like King Oliver and Louis Armstrong re-conceived the role of the trumpet in the 20th century. The sonic tapestry draws on the voices of these musicians and the line of musicians who taught us, both celebrated and obscure.

Neil Leonard

May 8, 2016

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