When composer Tamar-kali goes fishing in low country South Carolina, she thinks of her ancestors – the Gullah Geechee – singing spirituals like “Wade in the Water.” And she pictures Harriet Tubman arriving with Union gunboats in the summer of 1863 when those ancestors actually had to wade in the water to their freedom.
The Gullah Geechee who called Tubman Black Moses helped create a rich book of spirituals who fused biblical images with their own plight. “You think of people who engage in this faith as a form of coping with their lot in life,” said Tamar-kali, “which is the absolute removal of their agency, their humanity, as serfs.”
Tamar-kali, who lives in Brooklyn, is always thinking about history, and it infuses her music. The biggest expression to date is her “Sea Island Symphony: Red Rice, Cotton and Indigo,” a new work for orchestra and singers that will have its world premiere Wednesday in Manhattan as part of Lincoln Center’s Summer for the City.
The programmatic symphony paints the Gullah Geechee story of the Civil War through the rise of Robert Smalls, a Carolina man who was born enslaved and became a US congressman in 1875.
“I’m a full-concept girl,” said Tamar-kali, who began working on the piece in 2019. “I started it and then I realized: Oh, this is not something small. Because it’s like I’m really going with the leadership of the muses.”
The world premiere of the symphony, performed by the American Composers Orchestra, is the culmination of a series she curated called “Freedom Is a Constant Struggle” this included panel discussions on the complex and often neglected history of America’s black composers and classical music. Tamar-kali said that it was important to her that the piece be contextualized and that the series takes place around Independence Day to emphasize that “the end of colonial British rule only symbolized independence for a very small population.”
The four-movement “Sea Island Symphony” is the most ambitious addition to date to a composing and performing career that has included punk rock, film scores and opera. Tamar-kali’s eclectic output is the product of wildly varied input—her family’s juke joint in the Sea Islands, blues and jazz, and the Ashkenazi chant melodies and classical music she absorbed growing up in New York.
Tamar-kali C. Brown – that’s her full name – describes herself as “a child that classical music lost.” She received a formal music education at an all-girls Catholic school in Brooklyn in the 1980s, studying theory and singing in a classical choir. But her experience there — she called it a “post-colonial missionary think-plan institutional space” — gave her “no desire to continue that journey that basically felt, to me, like a war,” she said. “So I learned early on that I was going to pursue music on my own terms.”
She arrived in the New York music scene shouting — shredding an electric guitar and belting out resistance lyrics with punk rock, becoming a fixture at Joe’s Pub. Shanta Thake, the new chief artistic officer at Lincoln Center, was an early fan. “If you were to just describe her visually, walking around, she’s so fierce,” Thake said. “There is this military fury that she has on stage, and just such a command of the audience, of the songs themselves.”
Another fan of the Joe’s Pub days was the composer Daniel Bernard Roumain, now a professor at Arizona State University. Roumain was living in Harlem in the early 2000s, and he invited Tamar-kali to his apartment, where they recorded a raw electric version of Kate Bush’s “Running Up That Hill.”
“She was this pioneering New York artist who was bold and dashing, avant-garde,” said Roumain, “incredibly powerful and incredibly inventive. She was a destination, and her career was, even at the time, a landmark.”
Tamar-kali transcended punk to found the Psychochamber Ensemble, an all-female string and choral group that also covered Kate Bush. She was dipping back into classical music, and she realized, if only after the fact, that she was trying to recreate the togetherness she experienced in school choir – but now in a safe space while maintaining her agency. “I didn’t even realize I was trying to heal myself,” she said.
Before long, Tamar-kali’s string writing and storytelling sense attracted film directors. She made her winning debut with Dee Rees’ “Mudbound” in 2017. She recently won a PBS documentary about the Gullah Geechee, “After Sherman,” and is working on John Ridley’s Shirley Chisholm biopic starring Regina King.
The film work is acoustic and often chamber-sized, with a handmade quality, created in her studio in the Dumbo neighborhood of Brooklyn. She often incorporates her own singing voice. Her music is always, somehow, vocal, Roumain said: It “is always limitless, always wants to speak. In a way, it cannot be contained.”
She composes most of her music with her voice, which she then translates into software and synthesizer mockups before it is interpreted by other musicians.
It was Roumain who nominated Tamar-kali in 2019 for an Arizona State commission that became the seed for “Sea Island Symphony”, a work she describes, stylistically, as Americana, a synthesis of all her influences. “It just… it sounds like me,” she said.
The finished symphony opens with a movement depicting the Port Royal Experiment of 1861, in which the Gullah were left to fend for themselves in the undesirable marshes of the low country, with a text sung by a tenor representing a newly freed person.
The second movement travels forward to the Combahee River Raid of 1863, when Tubman led a Union military operation to rescue more than 700 enslaved people, and picks up the true origins of the song “Kum ba yah.” “It’s not about making up or being all happy and sweet,” Tamar-kali said. “It is a cry for intercession from the higher power: ‘Come hither, my lord.'”
The segment culminates in a ring cry, a round of call and response that enslaved Africans developed to preserve their heritage while strategically not offending their white captors. The singers will be accompanied by a “crying stick”, historically often a mop or a broom, as drums were banned at the time.
The third movement is a scenic piece inspired by Special Field Order No. 15 of General Sherman, a military order of 1865 that gave the newly freed people ownership of the Gullah Geechee corridor.
The final movement traces the story of Robert Smalls, who used his navigational skills to sail to freedom; he joined the union army and later became a congressman. Although Smalls’ name is everywhere in his hometown of Beaufort, it’s another piece of history that Tamar-kali only discovered as an adult.
Tamar-kali said she hoped to eventually take the symphony down to the low country and to Washington. She insisted that this premiere be part of free summer programming, which means it’s one night only, with a small budget and very limited rehearsal.
Having grown up attending free concerts in Brooklyn and Central Park, she knows that “the most multicultural, multigenerational audiences, from the most diverse socioeconomic backgrounds, exist at free public programming,” she said, adding that it is “the gateway to diversity in the halls. But it’s overlooked, and it’s underfunded.”
Classical music lost her once. She wants it to find more people like her.