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'Requiem for the Enslaved' holds a major university's truths up to the light

Georgetown University owes its survival to slavery. A new album by Carlos Simon, an assistant professor at the school, unflinchingly confronts that legacy.

Transcript

SACHA PFEIFFER, HOST:

Carlos Simon is a young composer on the rise.

(SOUNDBITE OF HUB NEW MUSIC PERFORMANCE OF CARLOS SIMON'S "REQUIEM FOR THE ENSLAVED: VI. LIGHT EVERLASTING")

PFEIFFER: And he has an ear for social justice. Simon has written a string quartet in honor of Trayvon Martin. His large-scale tribute to George Floyd will premiere next year in Minnesota. And his new album, "Requiem For The Enslaved," has just been released. Our reviewer, NPR's Tom Huizenga, says Simon puts a contemporary twist on the Catholic Requiem Mass.

TOM HUIZENGA, BYLINE: Our story begins in 1838 in Washington, D.C., where Jesuit leaders of Georgetown College sell 272 enslaved people in order to rescue the financially strapped institution later named Georgetown University. Carlos Simon, now a professor at Georgetown, begins his requiem for those enslaved individuals with a practice we've heard too often in our own time, saying the names out loud.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "REQUIEM FOR THE ENSLAVED: I. INVOCATION")

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: Francis, 12 years old. Susan, 10 years old. Gabriel, 8 years old.

HUIZENGA: That's right. Children, even 2-month-old babies, were sold by Georgetown. Fast-forward to 2019. Georgetown students protest the school's troubled history and vote to set up a university reparations fund. The school also commissioned Simon to compose a requiem. He asked rapper and activist Marco Pave to write and deliver the texts.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "REQUIEM FOR THE ENSLAVED: II. LORD HAVE MERCY (LET US GO)")

MARCO PAVE: Lord, have mercy on my soul. Set us free. This is not a world created by God. This is a country created by mobs. Kill, pillage, freedom robbed. We were stolen. No time to sob.

HUIZENGA: Many of the major American orchestras have commissioned works by Simon. But for this requiem, he sits at the piano with a small chamber ensemble. Given Georgetown's Catholic roots, Simon structures his piece after the traditional Mass for the dead. But he fills it with Black music - riffs of hip-hop, jazz and spirituals.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "REQUIEM FOR THE ENSLAVED: LIGHT EVERLASTING INTERLUDE")

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Light, everlasting. Shine upon them, oh, Lord with saints of thine for all eternity.

HUIZENGA: "Requiem For The Enslaved" unfolds leisurely. Over a 45-minute span, Simon builds in spaces for anger, for calm reflection and passages of pure joy, like this glorious section, bustling with hope for a brighter tomorrow with the help of an acrobatic bass clarinet.

(SOUNDBITE OF HUB NEW MUSIC PERFORMANCE OF CARLOS SIMON'S "REQUIEM FOR THE ENSLAVED: VIII. GLORIA")

HUIZENGA: That's the Boston-based Hub New Music ensemble, a nimble quartet of winds and strings that shifts with the moods of Simon's music. Another key presence is trumpeter MK Zulu, who can summon sorrow or swing in equal measure.

(SOUNDBITE OF CARLOS SIMON AND MK ZULU'S "REQUIEM FOR THE ENSLAVED: IX. SHINE UPON THEM")

HUIZENGA: Simon's "Requiem" begins in chains, but it ends in freedom; the freedom of heaven, that is, a place to look back and call it like it is.

(SOUNDBITE OF CARLOS SIMON'S "REQUIEM FOR THE ENSLAVED: X. IN PARADISIUM (INTO PARADISE) ASHE")

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Now when you read the word slave in your false history books, you will know the truth. The so-called masters unknowingly elevated the souls of their property while simultaneously building a tomb in hell for themselves.

HUIZENGA: Last December, Georgetown students accused the university of stalling on its reparations promise. And today, if you go to Georgetown's website, it's not easy to find the history that Carlos Simon has set to music; music that, in its beauty and struggle, is a warning against history repeating itself.

PFEIFFER: The album is "Requiem For The Enslaved" by Carlos Simon. Our reviewer is NPR's Tom Huizenga. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.