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
J Mascis at The Way Out Club (in progress)
8 months ago