The Melody and Lyrics of Black History

SPOTLIGHT Tara Nova with Paul Hefner.
LAST spring Paul Hefner, a bandleader and composer from Floral Park, had the idea of spotlighting Tara Nova, a longtime vocalist with his group, in a concert with a local twist: It would feature music by his colleagues in the Long Island Composers Alliance, which has more than 50 members.
“I’ll get a number of people to compose just for you,” Mr. Hefner, 55, said he told Ms. Nova, who not only liked the idea, but countered with one of her own. For the lyrics, said the singer, who is black, why not use texts by black poets like Langston Hughes?

That exchange was the seed for “A Long Island Composers Alliance Salute to Black History Month,” a concert of nearly 20 works to be held on Feb. 21 at the South Nassau Unitarian Universalist Congregation in Freeport. (Its debut will be on Feb. 14, at the Park Avenue United Methodist Church in Manhattan.) The concert is being produced by the composers group and Park Avenue Presenters, a nonprofit organization founded by Mr. Hefner.
Ms. Nova — her stage name, and the only one she would reveal — will perform in 12 numbers from an eclectic program of jazz and modern classical music. Some examples from the mix: a choral work derived from a Ugandan tale of the creation (“Mutima,” composed by Herb Deutsch of Massapequa Park) and another adapted from an Appalachian folk hymn turned black spiritual (“Bright Morning Stars,” by Jay Anthony Gach of Long Beach); a piece combining digitally produced music and voice sampling in Swahili with live performance (“Zulu Train,” by Jack Hotop of College Point, Queens); and some rousing rhythms by an ensemble on African drums. All the composers are expected to perform.
The concert is dedicated to the memory of Hale Smith, the black composer who died in Freeport in November at age 84. It will include several pieces by Mr. Smith, who was a member of the composers’ alliance and whose music bridged the worlds of classical music and jazz.The Village of Freeport will also honor the late composer: At the Feb. 21 concert, Mayor Andrew Hardwick is scheduled to present Mr. Smith’s widow, Juanita, with a lifetime achievement award for her husband and to declare the day Hale Smith Day.
As for the poetry angle, Langston Hughes will figure prominently, with three pieces based on his work. “He was the first poet I thought of,” said Ms. Nova, 51, who has a family link to Hughes. Her brother-in-law, George Houston Bass, who was a professor of theater arts and African-American studies at Brown University, had been his secretary, and later the literary executor of his estate. So she was aware of the poet at an early age, she said.
Hughes’s poems “Cross,” “Juke Box Love Song” and “April Rain Song” have been set to music by, respectively, Herbert Rothgarber of Freeport, Rob Schwimmer of Brooklyn and Jane Leslie of East Rockaway. Ms. Leslie also composed “Fearless,” a piece for tenor saxophone and piano that will be the background to Ms. Nova’s reading of Maya Angelou’s “Life Doesn’t Frighten Me.” The instrumental-talk arrangement “sounds almost like rap music,” Mr. Hefner said.
There’s a Caribbean element, too, with “Canto Negro,” a poem by the Afro-Cuban writer Nicolás Guillén, given a musical setting here by Cecilia Tenconi of Brooklyn.
Ms. Nova herself provided a poem, “I Dream of Africa,” for which she and Mr. Hefner created the score. Rehearsing it one evening last month at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation in Freeport, with Mr. Hefner at the piano, she sang of the continent “my ancestors walked upon,” its natural splendors and ancient cultures.
Not all the songs will be as strikingly affirmative. The lyrics of at least two — “Black and Blue,” made famous by Louis Armstrong in 1929, and Hughes’s “Cross” — deal with the sometimes thorny issue of skin color.
The subject has a certain resonance for Ms. Nova, who is of American Indian and European, along with West Indian, descent. “Growing up, I was always told I was not black enough or white enough,” said Ms. Nova, who grew up in North Bellmore. “I got it from both sides, so it was hard to fit into anyone’s circle.”
Such differentiations may have lost some of their sting since then, Ms. Nova said, “but we can’t forget where we came from.”
“Long Island Composers Alliance Salute to Black History Month,” Feb. 14 at 2 p.m. at Park Avenue United Methodist Church, 106 East 86th Street, Manhattan; (212) 427-5421. Suggested donation of $10. Feb. 21 at 2 p.m. at South Nassau Unitarian Universalist Congregation, 228 South Ocean Avenue, Freeport; (516) 623-1204. Suggested donation of $10.
The New York Times
February 7, 2010