Pianist Samuel Boateng dives into the traditional, the supernatural, and the urgent on ‘Sunsum is Spirit’

by David Bernabo

Recital continues our partnership with the New Hazlett Theater by publishing a preview and an editorially-independent review for the five performances in the 2021 CSA Performance Series season.

Throughout the season, Recital is meeting with each of the artists to bring you a brief profile of them and their work in the days before their opening performance. We will publish a considered review for each performance, developed from post-show discussions with a consistent panel of local experts in related disciplines.

Samuel Boateng wants to re-imagine how stories about Africa are told, not only the content, but also the delivery. His new interdisciplinary work Sunsum is Spirit merges music, dance, storytelling, and video projection to provide a different ending for a commonly-told — read: stereotypical — story about Africa and the slave trade. Director Kelsey Robinson and choreographer Chrisala Brown alongside a cast of exemplary local musicians and dancers are on board to guide this collaborative, surrealistic production as it explores West African tradition, mythology, and migration.

“When people think of Africa in the 1700s and the 1800s, which is the general broader period that we are trying to situate this fictional story, they assume enslavement and kidnappings and war and famine,” says Boateng. “We’re not denying the fact that in reality these things occurred; however, that is not the end of the story.”

In Boateng’s production, we are introduced to three characters. They are tasked by their local elders to find a cure for a disease. On their travels to find the cure, they become aware of a deception. Their leaders had planned to sell them into the system of slavery.

“We’re imagining a retelling of the story where people that were supposed to be part of the slave trading process find redemption,” says Boateng. “Through a very deep, creative, spiritual process, they find a knowledge that allows them to resist that stereotypical story. They become our heroes, they become our examples, and they become our new leaders for the next generation. So, we’re saying, no, the story doesn’t have to end there, and even if it did end there, we still have the right to take these stories and reimagine better endings.”

Sunsum is Spirit can serve different purposes for different people in different places, especially now that COVID-19 has shifted this Pittsburgh performance to an international one via New Hazlett Theater’s free virtual screening. (Get tickets for the April 29 and 30 performances here.)

Maybe Sunsum is Spirit is one’s introduction to Ghanaian history or maybe it’s the catalyst to change a long-held belief. It’s no secret that America’s version of world history is incomplete, heavily skewed, and often floating in its comfortable white supremacism. Those conditions don’t prize accuracy, depth, or nuance, and while these mentalities infiltrate the output that does exist, they also narrow the scope of what information can exist and what kinds of histories are disseminated. I’m thinking of my own knowledge of Ghana. It’s not a lot, most of it learned from liner notes from Awesome Tapes From Africa records.

“We’re trying to bring certain ideas of mythmaking and what an African tradition is supposed to be to life in a very complicated time,” says Boateng. “I hope that this production joins the conversation about rethinking what blackness is, rethinking our relationship to African history. If nothing at all, hopefully this production encourages someone to take a book and actually read about African history. Hopefully, that ends the stereotyping and unknowns about the place, because I’ve received some really interesting, weird, painful questions about Africa that shocked me coming from people in Pittsburgh. There has to be an avenue where someone can come in and at least hear some music or see some actions that change certain perceptions. It seems the national media both from African countries and the U.S. aren’t doing that job, so we look to art to help in that process.”

“The idea of a people realizing that they’ve been deceived by their leaders,” continues Boateng, “the idea of a people feeling like they want to dethrone their leaders, the idea of people feeling help! comes from a creative and deep look inwards. It’s something that is also very persistent in Ghanaian and African lives today; not just in that historical context. There are people who are so disappointed in the state that they compare their time now to the period of being enslaved, because they do not understand how certain things are still happening today. So, the kind of freedom and justice and inward search that our travelers embody is the same kind of ideas that we’re trying to bring forth for people today — that we can still hold our leaders accountable. The African story doesn’t end with bad leaders who always borrow money from European countries. There can be a change, and a change starts with the people. Of course, it’s easier said than done, but that is why we make art, that’s why people write books, that’s why people go into politics — to bring these things to bear so people can draw from and build on that. The research for this piece was mostly done with Ghana in mind, but because I’m working with all these amazing artists from the U.S., it was important to think of the diaspora and think of what it means when we bring down monuments that tower over us, to think of what it means when people begin to find among themselves — even as strangers — ways to collaborate and reach a desired destination.”

Fans of New Hazlett Theater’s CSA series may remember Boateng (as a collaborator and pianist) from Afro Yaqui Music Collective’s Migrant Liberation Movement Suite performance, but his musical chops formed a good while ago in Ghana playing gospel at a Christian Pentecostal church.

“I would say the church was an important step for me as a growing musician.” Boateng started playing drums and percussion before switching to keyboards. The weekly structure of church services allowed for ample practice time. In his 20s in Accra, the capital of Ghana, Boateng played in popular bands. “I did highlife music, reggae music, jazz and other jazz hybrids, and I kept doing gospel, as well.” A performing arts bachelor’s degree program brought him to Kent State University, and gave him space to experiment with theater arts, dance, and music. Boateng stayed on at Kent State for a masters in ethnomusicology, studying popular music and changing perspectives about gender in Ghanaian music. Jazz became a bigger part of his interests, which drew him to the Jazz Studies program at University of Pittsburgh for his PhD.

“My research deals with jazz and Ghanaian musicians — West African musicians, in general, and their relationship to jazz,” says Boateng. “I focus on how Ghanaian jazz histories, practices and discourses allow for the articulation and nurturing of Black diasporic solidarities, cosmopolitan imaginaries, decolonial epistemologies, and cultural sustainability. When you look at jazz in the 60s and 70s, the musicians decided to move away from our typical understanding of what jazz is and to play free improvisation and to extend themselves. In that extension, there is a correlation with their own spirituality and their own growth.”

Boateng cites Alice Coltrane as a big influence, among others. Coltrane’s early 70s records turned to the cosmic, incorporating a larger sound palette anchored by her harp, organ, and piano playing. Alongside Coltrane, other artists like Albert Ayler, Don Cherry, Sun Ra, and Pharoah Sanders were using music to reach for something beyond.

“As someone who grew up in Ghana, it became more meaningful — that sound is not just something for our physical world. Sound can cause sudden changes that we can’t see. So, I’ve been experimenting more and more in this field, and now find myself experimenting with electro-acoustic music for that purpose. So, there are scenes where I’ve created electro-acoustic music not just for the mood, but hopefully to carry a message, to invoke certain things in certain people.”

With the onset of COVID-19, Sunsum is Spirit will be a filmed production. As a substitute for the live energy that comes with an in-person performance, the collaborators have made an interesting set design choice.

“One thing we are relying more on is fabric — fabric as part of the design of the background itself and fabric as a way to create the path and direction of our travel. And fabric for our dancers to use.”

The fabric also plays into the climax of the story. Boateng asked me if I wanted to know about the climactic scene. I opted to be surprised. So, you’ll have to tune in to see what unfolds.

Sunsum is Spirit also features Melessie Clark, Wali Jamal Abdullah, Richard McBride, and Ira Cambric, dancers Ira Cambric, Simon A. Phillips, Ebony-Naimah Zanuwa, Sheryland Neal, and musicians Hugo Cruz, Roger Romero, John Bagnato, Eli Naragon, Maya Brown-Boateng, and Morgan Hawkins.

Get tickets and tune in virtual via Crowdcast on April 29, 8:00pm or April 30, 11:00am & 8:00pm. Find more information about viewing the performance on the New Hazlett Theater’s website.

Music | Performance | Art | Criticism

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