Narratives of Freedom: Chanting Down Babylon with Ancestral Voices

In April 2013, I followed my inspiration from reggae legend, Bob Marley, to “Chant Down Babylon.”[1]

I had played the track countless times until the refrain

Come we go chant down Babylon[2] one more time

retrieved distinct images from the vault of my memories. Links began to form

Music -> the Key

Chant Down Babylon

CHANT down Babylon

Chant DOWN Babylon

Chant DOWN BABYLON

Communicating -> to Everyone

Loan your voice to the Sound of Freedom!

Loan your voice to the Sound of Freedom!

I recalled my childhood neighbour, an elderly Shouter Baptist woman who spoke about “chanting keys”. I remembered the power of the drums and the singing at the Orisha Palais and the Shouter Baptist ceremonies; the involuntary reactions in fetes and concerts, when a calypsonian would strip his music down to ancient rhythms. I became motivated to tap into the power of sound and decided to create an installation that would be driven primarily by sound, and the notion of sound effecting change – both in the literal, emotional sense and the mythological, physical sense (as in the fall of the wall of Jericho, or the “chanting down” of a foe).

Colleagues and members of the public from around the world responded to my call for “voices” to animate the script I entitled “Narratives of Freedom”. This was comprised of first-person stories of escape, rebellion and resistance told by men and women who fought back against enslavement.

Dalia recording "Moses" at the Schwartz Center for the Performing Arts

Dalia recording “Moses” at the Schwartz Center for the Performing Arts

Excerpts from well-known sources such as The Confessions of Nat Turner (as read to Thomas R. Gray, 1831) and Narratives of the Life of Frederick Douglass (Frederick Douglass, 1845); as well as slightly more obscure stories from the Underground Railroad: Authentic Narratives and First-Hand Accounts (William Still, originally published in 1872), such as the murdered ally of escapees – Seth Conklin; and the courageous boatman Arnold Gragston, whose account can be found in Remembering Slavery (Berlin, Favreau, Miller 1998); were combined to create approximately fifteen minutes of dialogue, that was recorded by each vocalist, at their own pace and in their own style.

In addition, Sheretta and Kenny recorded two widely known Negro Spirituals:

“Let my people go”, which was banned in the South of the United States, during slavery; and

“Swing Low Sweet Chariot”, both of which reflect the yearning for freedom and/or release, in life, or through death.

Finally, performers were invited to attempt a song from Sarah Bradford’s Moses of Her People, which Harriet Tubman recounted as the encoded song she sang to warn her friends and loved ones of her impending escape (1844) from the Brodas Plantation in Maryland. I made use of this recording, in both its spoken and sung forms.

The recordings would eventually be remixed to form the audio portion of the installation “A Possibility” which was on display at the Gary Snyder Project Space, New York City, in May 2013.

For giving of their talent and time, I acknowledge with immense gratitude, the final caste of “Narratives of Freedom”

Michael Cherrie

Ayanna Leonard

Asha Darbeau

Dara Healy

Marc Hem Lee

Kenneth Lyons

Sheretta Noel

Marissa Williams

Dalia Davies-Flanagan

Damian Archie

Miranda Medrano

Kimerly Cornish

Carole Boyce-Davies


[1] the track “Chant Down Babylon” on Marley’s posthumously released (1983) Confrontation album

[2]In the Rastafarian system of belief, Babylon represents the oppressive and exploitative society established during slavery and colonialism. According to Rastafarians, Babylon is the government and other institutions, including the police force (enforcers of Babylon’s unjust laws).

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