The Heroic Melody of ‘Yanga' at the Dallas Symphony Orchestra

Jorge Baldor, curator of “Yanga: The Path to Freedom in the Americas” at the African American Museum of Dallas, talks about Gasper Yanga and the orchestra’s collaborative concert.

Dallas Symphony Orchestra Yanga Tambuco Percussion Ensemble
Jesús Cornejo

An African prince turned freedom fighter is at the heart of the Dallas Symphony Orchestra’s concert on June 7 at the Meyerson Symphony Center in the Dallas Arts District.

The orchestra collaborated with the African American Museum of Dallas and Latino Arts Project to present Gabriela Ortiz’s Yanga, a composition inspired by Gaspar Yanga. Yanga was an African prince sold into slavery and sent to Mexico, then known as New Spain. In 1570, he escaped, leading other escaped slaves to establish a maroon colony near Veracruz. The colony of fugitive slaves survived by raiding caravans along the Camino Real between Mexico City and Veracruz.

After defending the colony from Spanish attack in 1609, Yanga negotiated a peace treaty with Spain and helped establish San Lorenzo de los Negros de Cerralvo as the first free African community in the Americas. He was named a “national hero of Mexico” in 1871. In 1932, San Lorenzo de los Negros de Cerralvo was renamed Yanga in his honor.

Dallas Symphony Orchestra Yanga Tambuco
Jesús Cornejo
Written for percussion ensemble, choir and orchestra, Los Angeles Philharmonic premiered Gabriela Ortiz's Yanga in 2019 with Tambuco Percussion Ensemble.

The concert featuring Tambuco Percussion Ensemble and Dallas Chamber Choir complements Yanga: The Path to Freedom in the Americas, an exhibition on view at the African American Museum of Dallas through October 21. Jorge Baldor, the curator of the exhibition, talks about Gaspar Yanga and his legacy.

NBC DFW: Why is Yanga’s story important to know now?

Jorge Baldor: Yanga's personal story of overcoming adversity is an inspiration to all of us.  It reminds us that sometimes the solutions are within us once we have the courage to take action.

NBC DFW: As the curator of the exhibition at the African American Museum of Dallas, what did you learn about the slave trade experience in America?

JB: Omar Ibn Said's diary, written in Arabic and available to view online at the Library of Congress, pointed out that over 20% of those enslaved were Muslim and read the Koran in Arabic.  We often imagine those that came enslaved as being illiterate, without family or social structure or religion but in fact the opposite was often the case.

NBC DFW: How does music amplify Yanga’s story?

JB: Music amplifies all our lives and Yanga's heroic story is made more compelling with the sounds of the Tambuco Percussion Ensemble and the Dallas Chamber Choir joining the DSO's conductor Maurice Cohn.  This collaboration of this performance mirrors the collective impact that the Latino Arts Project's Yanga: Journeys to Freedom exhibit combines with Cara Mia Theater and Anita Martinez Ballet Folklorico to tell Yanga's story using different art forms.

NBC DFW: What do you find most compelling about Gabriela Ortiz’s Yanga?

JB: Gabriela Ortiz was the right composer for Yanga's piece.  Her contemporary interpretation has African influence with tones that also directly connect with her own Mexican background.  Having the Tambuco Percussion Ensemble perform and the Dallas Chamber Choir singing in Spanish, we will see Gabriella's work as she intended.

Dallas Symphony Orchestra Gabriela Ortiz Yanga
Gabriela Ortiz composed Yanga.

NBC DFW: What you find most powerful about Yanga’s story?

JB: If we don't tell our own story, others will use their narrative to define us.   Yanga's compelling story of negotiating with the king of Spain, as a former slave, and creating the first free African community in the Americas, was intentionally wiped from history so that he would not be recognized as a hero.  But eventually the truth was revealed, and he is now recognized for his accomplishments as a leader and liberator.  

Learn more: Dallas Symphony Orchestra and African American Museum of Dallas

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