Saturday, October 24, 2009

The Folk Opera Concerning the Congo Situation and the Life of Ota Benga

The following is the text of the program distributed at the first performance of The May Day Orchestra's new piece.

1/ Never A Fair Wind Home

Ota Benga, the narrator of most of the story, was a pygmy from the territory once claimed as the Belgian Congo. He was born around 1881 and suffered the loss of his wife and children at a young age as the colonial enterprise overtook his former home in the forest. European colonialists, along with foreign and domestic mercenaries, terrorized many villages. Ota Benga returned from an elephant hunt to find his people victims of one such massacre.

2/ Dreamed Another Circus

The territory of the Congo was explored and made known to the western world by such men as Henry Morton Stanley. He became a celebrity of his day when he found the more benign David Livingstone, presumed missing in an unknown region of Africa. In this part of the story, Ota Benga, who was captured by a neighboring tribe and later sold to a white man at a slave market, believes he has died and is on a journey to the next world. That he is. Philips Verner, a curator for the anthropology exhibition of the World’s Fair, acquires Ota and several other pygmies and puts them on a ship. Here he dreams.

3-4/ Forced March I (Death Walks Along This Road)

After Stanley’s “discovery” of the Congo, his employer, King Leopold II of Belgium, and other European monarchs had a clearer map of Africa. In Berlin, in 1885, they each stuck a claim, having never seen the land itself. Leopold demanded the Congo territory as his personal colony.

Ota Benga was one of the millions of victims of slavery. Though the Atlantic trade had fallen out of favor in the western world, Leopold devised other methods of forced labor. The rubber and ivory trades enslaved much of the population, pitting whole villages against each other in a struggle to survive. The Europeans also employed and armed ex-criminals and other undesirables, sending them to the colonies to make their living with a hope of finding their fortune.

5/ The Irish Orphan

At this point in the story, Roger Casement is introduced. Casement was an Irishman who became the British Consul in the Congo. On his last trip to the area, he found the population decimated and began to inquire where all the people had gone. He met William Shepherd, a black American missionary who had been warmly welcomed by various tribes. Shepherd, as well as Edmund Morel and Joseph Conrad, informed Casement’s report to the British which condemned the state of Leopold’s colony. Shepherd and Morel found themselves at the center of one of the first international human rights causes.

6-7/ Forced March II (The Horror)

Roger Casement’s report on the Congo begins to cause trouble for Leopold’s colonial reign. Unfortunately, the damage had been done. Leopold had masqueraded as a compassionate ruler trying to help his poor subjects develop their country. This was done with the aid of one of the world’s first international, and overtly false, public relations campaigns. This method was dependent on fixing and censoring whatever news got out to the world from his colony. The death toll of this post-slave-trade era amounted to genocide and the total numbers do not include all the people who continued to live with mutilated limbs. Severed hands and other body parts were used by the mercenaries to prove how many they had killed, but just as often they took a trophy and the victims survived.

8/ The Spectacle

Ota Benga existed as a living anthropology exhibit at the Saint Louis World’s Fair for much of the year 1904. The Apache chief called Geronoimo was also at the Fair. He gave Ota an arrowhead that he had carved. The pygmy was well-liked and he entertained many visitors to the Fair. Some incidents did occur, whether attributed to anger or a sense of mischief (probably both). After 1904, Ota Benga eventually became an attraction at the Bronx Zoo. After some scandal about a man living in a cage, he was moved to an orphanage for colored children.

9/ The Execution Of Sir Roger Casement

Roger Casement joined the independence movement upon his return to Ireland and was accused of treason by the British. Even though they had previously employed him and knighted him for his service, he was condemned for his political stance. Amidst scandal and rumors of homosexuality, Casement was executed by hanging in 1916.

10/ The Suicide Of Ota Benga

Ota Benga lived out his final years in Lynchburg, Virginia where he found friends in an African American community. Many people called him “Otto Bingo”. He had little source of income and with the beginning of World War I, Ota Benga found it increasingly difficult to find a way to go back home. In 1916, he shot himself. The war over natural resources in the Congo continues to the present.

If interested in finding out more details of this story, there are several books as well as sites on the internet. For Ota Benga’s story, there is a biography called “Ota: The Pygmy in the Zoo” by Phillips Verner Bradford and Harvey Blume. There are a few biographies of Roger Casement from various perspectives and time periods. For the Congo history, Adam Hochschild’s book “King Leopold’s Ghost” is a good place to start. Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” is also recommended.

The Ota Benga Family Band:

Dave Anderson – pedal steel, keyboard, banjo, trumpet

Melissa Anderson – electric guitars, electric bass, lap steel

Kevin Buckley – fiddle

Tim Rakel – acoustic guitar, banjo, kalimba

Josh Weinstein – acoustic bass

Mary Williams - drums

The first May Day Orchestra folk opera, “May Day, Or Songs For Lucy Parsons” is available as a 12” vinyl record. The tracks may also be downloaded from several internet music sites.

For more information,

drop an old-fashioned line to:

Folk Opera Records

PO Box 63098

Saint Louis MO 63163

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Twitter My Face

-so the FBI doesn't have to work so hard...

Please connect your-my-space account to your-face-book and your-twitter (whatever a twitter is). This way our federal government will save time and therefore tax money when paying security agencies to monitor this stuff.

Remember, reporting everything you do keeps us all safe

Monday, October 12, 2009

Never A Fair Wind Home

The May Day Orchestra will perform its second "Folk Opera" on Friday, October 30 at the Black Bear Bakery in Saint Louis. This debut performance will take place at the anarchist co-operative cafe where the first May Day project began.
The band is different this time, with Tim Rakel as the only member in common with the first ensemble. The Ota Benga Family Band, as the Orchestra is calling itself this time, consists of Kevin Buckley of the band Grace Basement, Melissa Anderson, Dave Anderson and Mary Williams of the band Tenement Ruth. More musicians may be added for performances after this month's debut.
The sound of this musical piece, titled "Never A Fair Wind Home", is also different than the first folk opera. There are fiddles, trumpets, guitars and banjo as in the previous work, this time with the addition of pedal steel and lap steel guitars, as well as drums.
The subject of this folk opera is also different but comes from a similar time period as the first. The subject is Ota Benga, a pygmy who was bought at a slave market in the Congo and brought to the United States for the 1904 World's Fair in Saint Louis. The songs tell some of the Congo's colonial history and follow Ota Benga on his journey to his strange new home. A coincidental story about Roger Casement, an Irish patriot once in the employ of King Leopold, is also told.
See the previous post from May 2009 labelled "Ota Benga" for more detail.
A biography of Ota Benga by Philips Verner Bradford informs much of the historical detail. Bradford is the grandson of the man, Philips Verner, who bought and brought Ota Benga to the Fair.
The performance on October 30 begins at 8PM. The Black Bear Bakery is located at 2639 Cherokee Street in Saint Louis, MO.

The May Day Orchestra's first recording "May Day, Or Songs For Lucy Parsons" is available in vinyl format from A-Pop Records, Black Bear Bakery and Vintage Vinyl. As of this week, the tracks are also downloadable from iTunes, and other internet stores.