Afro Yaqui Music Collective's jazz opera a 'musical vehicle' to discuss climate change

Aug 16, 2019

For the Pittsburgh-based funk-jazz group Afro Yaqui Music Collective, advocacy is at the core of who they are. Their new album, a jazz opera titled Mirror Butterfly: the Migrant Liberation Movement Suite, is about climate change and mass migration.

Credit Afro Yaqui Music Collective

The group performs Friday night at Netizsche's boasting a large ensemble that features Asian, African, European and South American instruments. WBFO’s Nick Lippa spoke with the group’s co-leader and baritone saxophone player Ben Barson and singer/cellist Gizelxanath Rodriguez.

What’s behind the name ‘Afro Yaqui Music Collective’?

BB: “Our group is named the Afro Yaqui Music Collective. The Yaqui are a indigenous nation based in the state of Sonora in Mexico and they are known for their defense of water and rivers. Even though they are kind of in a desert region, they have been defending this river from all kind of agro-business and corporations that have been trying to divert it for a long time. They also were never colonized. They were fierce warriors. They’ve been called the Spartans of the Americas. And Gizelxanath Rodriguez has Yaqui ancestry. So our mission is to combine jazz and funk and even some hip hop with the music of Mexico and indigenous people from across the world.”

Gizelxanath how did you meet Ben?

GR: “I was an opera singer when I met Ben and he completely turned me in to being active, changing the world. Talking about ‘Mirror Butterfly’ the focus is on climate change and how it effects migration. We must reflect our times, as Nina Simone said. It’s imperative. You cannot just like away. All these injustices that are happening. We have to see, make people see, make people hear. Make people understand what’s going on and how to face these issues.”

And Ben’s mentor was Fred Ho right?

GR: “Fred Ho was a great influence to me. He passed away in 2014. We try to play his music and also try to follow his teachings of being self-sufficient. This kind of revolutionary work, it’s very important I think because being self-sufficient is the most revolutionary thing you can do nowadays... that’s basically why we moved to Pittsburgh and that’s what we are trying to do,” she laughed.

BB:  “Just to clarify, Fred Ho, my and Gizelxanath’s mentor, was an incredible baritone saxophone player. He was a jazz musician who fused jazz and Chinese music and Asian music and Chinese opera. He was a Guggenheim recipient, great composer and he passed away in 2014 due to cancer, which he talked about the toxicity of society and capitalism causing his cancer. He thought about his life as a struggle against the system. And we’re trying to continue that struggle in our music and our activism today. That’s partly why we moved to Pittsburgh, because in New York City it was extremely difficult to find land that we could cultivate.”

Can you elaborate on why you moved to Pittsburgh?

BB: "We’ve been here since 2014 and we’ve been participating in a lot of different really interesting urban and community farming projects. For instance, we worked on remediating a spring that had E.coli with mushrooms, which was sort of like a revolutionary technology at the time of bioremediation. We work in like predominantly African American communities that have low access to supermarkets or nutritional food. We work with and alongside black farmers. Neither Gizelxanath nor I are black, but a lot of our band members are and we try to be really inclusive of those voices and that history and that struggle. That’s sort of our farming hat.”

“And then on our music hat, we amplify those voices of local activists around food justice, around immigration justice, around police reform, but we also try to make connections with activists across the world. That was sort of how this jazz opera that we wrote, ‘Mirror Butterfly’ came about. By interviewing a Yaqui female activist named Reyna Lourdes, a Kurdish woman who was living in Syria and Turkey who was named Azize Aslan, who is also an environmental activist, and someone in Tanzania named Mama C who actually used to be in the Black Panther party. She’s been living in Tanzania doing kind of like homesteading, communal work, and community organizing herself. Those became the characters in this play that we wrote.”

I’ve seen reports that the ensemble can reach up to over 20 musicians. How large is your group typically?

GR: “It’s so funny that you ask this question,” she laughed. “I usually say 13, but it changes so much. It depends the place that we are and how many people are willing to travel with us as well. It always changes. But usually around 9 or 13.”

There’s cello and bari sax, but you also have an extremely diverse timbre too. What are some of the other pieces on this album?

GR: “We have a really talented woman that performs with us regularly. Her name is Jin Yang and she plays the pipa. It looks like a Chinese guitar that is played on the leg. Also there is another instrument that is really interesting, the koto. That’s played by Kento Iwasaki and the koto comes from Japan.”

BB: “We do have strings. Often times string players from East Asia that comes from our influence from Fred Ho and his attempt to integrate those experiences and those working class traditions from Asia and America. But a core instrumentation is three saxophones, bari, tenor, alto, guitar, keyboard, drums, and then usually a percussion player. Recently we’ve been working with Hugo Cruz who is an incredible percussionist, he plays the Bata drums which are ceremonial drums found in Santeria religion in Cuba. He also plays congas, etc. We have an electric bass player, sometimes upright. And then Gizelxanath mentioned we have these string instruments, the pipa or the koto, and then also Gizelxanath sings and she plays electric cello. We also have a rapper, or an MC as she likes to be called, Nejma Nefertiti who comes with us as well. All of those styles are represented. There’s also some Yaqui percussion that is sometimes integrated in to the group. There’s a drum that is played in the water which reflects their spiritual beliefs about water and their connection to the water and the land. So it’s this gourd that’s actually put in a tub of water.  When you play it you’re playing the water. As you can imagine, it’s kind of difficult to tour with that because you get water everywhere and it gets on the mics. We are trying to figure out a way to make that less disruptive for all the sound engineers that we piss off,” they both laughed.”

Why a jazz opera on these issues?

BB: “We think in like 20 or 30 years, the only thing anyone is going to be talking about is climate change. It will be like New York is underwater, it’s impossible to live in Mexico City. These are actual predictions that are being made right now. We think that it’s really important for us to start building an alternative vocabulary today to think about these things because our opinion, not just ours but the United Nations and a lot of other organizations, the best way to create a sustainable future is to empower indigenous communities to preserve their ecosystems.”

“Everybody in the band is passionate about that. Maybe not everyone in the band wakes up every day and says I’m going to go and protest at the refinery or something. But they all care about it deeply and it’s hard to find a musical vehicle to express that concern and that care. So we’re proud of ourselves for having found a formula where it’s ok to talk about these things. Where it’s ok to lift people’s spirits up while also drawing attention to the serious dangers we face. And we think we found a solution to it. In terms of indigenous solidarity across the world.”

GR: “I just want to mention that this jazz opera was inspired a lot by the Zapatista (Army of National Liberation). They are a revolutionary indigenous movement in Chiapas in the south of Mexico. The past two summers we have gone there to teach music. We learn from their schools about this story of a sword that cuts a tree and then it fights a rock and then it kind of breaks. But it keeps wanting to fight, and so he goes to a river and tries to fight water and the water dissolves the sword through time. For the Zapatista’s the sword is colonialism. It’s hundreds of years of colonialism and the sword represents that. We thought that story was very important to share with the world. The way the Mayan people see time and the way they perceive the world as well is very different. This is the core of this jazz opera.”

Doors open for Friday's performance at 9 p.m.