Program Notes

"If we keep on hiding, they will say we are not here...but of late, we are here." -- David Kato Kisule

This fall, Coro Allegro celebrated a milestone for LGBTI human rights in the U.S. with "A Concert for Marriage Equality." This spring, as our 24th season comes to a close, we are glad you are here with us as we raise our voices for LGBTI rights worldwide.

Today, we bear witness through music to the legacy, courage and humanity of slain Ugandan LGBTI activist David Kato Kisule (1964-2011). And though events in North Carolina and elsewhere remind us how far we have to go in our own country, we sing in recognition of the terrible dangers faced by countless LGBTI people in places like Bangladesh, Syria, Russia and in Kenya.

The story of David Kato's last days turns out to be an American story as well as an African one, reminding us how intersectional, i.e. how interconnected and inseparable, our histories can be, no matter what places we come from. Kato was murdered shortly after he and his colleagues won a court case against the tabloid that had published the faces of 100 LGBTI Ugandans next to the words "Hang them." This homophobic campaign and the notorious Ugandan Anti-Homosexuality Act were inspired by the 2009 mission of U.S. Evangelical ministers like Scott Lively, who came to Africa seeking religious empire from places like Massachusetts.

In recognition of how inexorably intertwined racism and homophobia can be, but also how the songs of our disparate struggles can inspire, empower, and move us all, Artistic Director David Hodgkins decided to pair Eric Banks' Aluta continua: The passion of David Kato Kisule with selections of African-American spirituals and gospel works. "Aluta continua," reminds us that "the struggle continues." Coro Allegro offers these songs in solidarity with the enduring spirit of Black lives from places like Ferguson, Cleveland, Baltimore, Staten Island and Charleston.

"So, we are brothers. So, we are friends. So, we are partners in the struggle" -- David Kato Kisule

As prologue, we open with four selections of what W.E.B. DeBois called "the sole American music…the most beautiful expression of human experience born this side the seas," the African American spiritual. "Hold on!" arranged by composer, arranger and choral conductor Jester Hairston, is on one level a work song, whose rhythmic pace made the difficult, backbreaking work of the field more bearable. On another level, lines like "If you wanna get to Heaven, let me tell you how. Just keep yo' hand on de Gospel plow" sing of faith but whisper of freedom. "The Plow" or "the Big Dipper" always points the way to the North Star. Whether that reference was a literal code for escape or a figurative promise that freedom would come, we can't know. But we do know that this Sorrow Song held on to became Freedom Song, morphing into that celebrated anthem of the Civil Rights Movement, "Keep Your Eyes on the Prize."

"Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child," was arranged by baritone and composer Harry T. Burleigh, who first showcased the spiritual as art song. The shape of its plaintive melody conveys the loneliness of a stolen people -- the displaced families and the fearful isolation of oppression that puts lives like David Kato’s at risk. "Were you there?" a 19th century plantation song was the first spiritual to be published in a major hymnal. Although its subject is the crucifixion, its repeated call to bear witness, and to be here together, made it the favorite song of activists as far afield as Mahatma Gandhi. "My Lord, What a Mornin'" delicately wanders the liminal space of dawn and awe, before being interrupted by the keening middle section with its marked death knell chords. Morning becomes mourning; but death is also a metaphor for escape. In the miracle of daybreak, "when the stars begin to fall," there is faith that the day of freedom will come.


Composer Eric Banks on Aluta continua: The passion of David Kato Kisule

I first heard about Coro Allegro when a singer named Natalie White auditioned for my ensemble, The Esoterics. Natalie had recently moved to Seattle from Boston, where she had sung with Coro Allegro for several years. She loved the community around Coro Allegro and had wonderful things to say about the ensemble's long-time director, David Hodgkins. Both Coro Allegro and The Esoterics are members of GALA (the Gay and Lesbian Association of Choruses), but are "mixed" ensembles, in that they are comprised of members of ALL sexual orientations. Our groups are in the "minority" at the GALA Festivals (because our memberships are not fully LGBTI). In my mind, our groups represent the future of the gay choral movement, where people sing together regardless of their sexual orientation. It was only a matter of time before I met David; we frequented all of the same conferences, and led similar ensembles. After Natalie's glowing recommendation, I did a little online research, and was impressed with David's programming and craft. When we finally met at Chorus America, we became fast friends.

For several years, David and I spoke about working on a project together. After a number of conversations over several seasons, David and I spoke at the ACDA convention in Salt Lake City about my writing a piece for Coro Allegro to sing at the 2016 GALA Festival in Denver. When the idea of a premiere at the GALA Festival came to the fore, I knew that I could finally write a piece that could recount David Kato's story for an international audience.

David Kato was killed on my 42nd birthday. I remember this vividly, because I am a fan of Rachel Maddow, and her coverage of Uganda's "kill the gays" bill (the "brainchild" of the American evangelist Scott Lively) was a daily feature of her then-new show. It is hard enough to believe that people are still living in countries where homosexuality is punishable by death, but it is completely insulting to me that AMERICAN evangelists are responsible for cultivating this hatred in sub-Saharan Africa (as well as in many other places) under the guise of a religious "mission," while the American LGBTI community is caught up in its own (for lack of a better word) "distractions." While I think it is good for Americans to celebrate victories on the front of human rights, I truly believe that we are not free until EVERY queer person in the world is free. If American missionaries are still sowing international hatred, it is the responsibility of American progressives to fight this hatred with understanding and attention. We need to hear stories like David's. People's lives are still very much in danger.

The story of David Kato Kisule is a tragedy. For this reason, I have chosen to let the texts of this piece speak for themselves, and to leave out nearly all of the adjectives and adverbs that composers normally put into their scores. This libretto is based on several sources – newspaper articles, blogs, the documentary films "God loves Uganda" and "Call me Kuchu" ("kuchu" is the Bantu word for “queer,” by the way), and several hours of interviews with David's friend John Wambere (Long Jones), a Ugandan gay man who found asylum in the Boston area. There is a lot to cover in David's story, and much of the text in this piece has to be sung and understood quickly and clearly. For this reason, I have adapted much of the texts that I gathered for this work.

"Aluta continua" is a slight misspelling of the Portuguese phrase "a luta continua" ("the struggle continues"), which was used as a rallying cry during Mozambique's war for independence. It was co-opted by the Ugandan LGBTI community to cultivate popular support in the face of opposition (or perhaps an American religious colonial presence). The piece is composed for double chorus, but only requires antiphony in the funeral scene, where one chorus represents the "Christian" protestors and the other David's friends and family. This role of David Kato was created for Reginald Mobley, who was the first to suggest to me that this piece be called a "passion"– not only to describe David's unflagging ardor for his cause, but to recognize that, like Christ, David was murdered after speaking truth to power.

Among the "borrowed" material in this piece are two hymn tunes – GREATOREX and BETHANY – otherwise known as the "Gloria Patri" and "Nearer my God to thee," as well as "By the rivers of Babylon" the 1978 song made famous by Boney M. According to John Wambere, it is common to sing this song "karaoke style" after a funeral of a beloved friend, and to substitute the name of the deceased for "Zion" in this line "...when we remembered Zion." The double-marimba writing is meant to refer to the playing of the Ugandan akadinda (or amadinda), a pentatonic Ugandan idiophone that is performed with at least two players, who play in quick on/off-beat alternation while facing each other. To represent the tension between Uganda and the colonial West, the two marimbas always play in transpositions of the pentatonic set, while the chorus and soloists sing in Western diatonic modes. The momentary dissonances between the two pitch sets are completely intentional.

Whenever a piece like this is completed, there are so many people to thank. First and foremost, I have to thank David Hodgkins, the director of Coro Allegro, who has the courage to program a 'passion' such as this for his audience in Boston, and take it to GALA, the international festival of LGBTI choruses. I am so grateful to Tanya Cosway, who, with her husband Paul and daughter Lizzie, have been amazing hosts and support for me while I have been in residency in Cambridge. The singers of Coro Allegro have been so inspiring in their willingness to meet and embrace such challenging subject matter without hesitation. I was honored to have several hours of interviews with John Wambere, who experienced so many of these harrowing moments first-hand. I have quoted John several times in my libretto, and his words have indelibly shaped my own musical rendering of these events. I am so grateful to John for sharing his story, and I am indebted to Janson Wu for facilitating our meeting. Finally, none of this would have been possible without the generosity of Tom Regan and John Brown, who immediately stepped forward to financially support this project (when it was only a concept) without hesitation. I hope that, as this work will strive to honor the life and legacy of David Kato, who gave voice to the voiceless in his struggle for human rights, Aluta continua will also honor the memory of Tom's parents.

Thank you SO VERY MUCH, David and Coro Allegro. It has been my honor to create this music for you. -- Eric Banks


As an epilogue to the story of David Kato Kisule, we close with two gospel works which bring us back to the civil rights struggles we still face in this country and the power of music to sustain and empower us all. Gospel, which along with Blues and Jazz has its roots in the spiritual, emerged from the African-American Pentecostal or Holiness churches and was carried by the Great Migration to the cities of the North. Marked by syncopation, swing, blues notes and strophic choruses that call out for improvisation, gospel honors suffering but transforms it into celebrations of faith. Just as "By the Rivers of Babylon," gave solace to the mourners in the Ugandan LGBTI community, "We Are Climbing Jacob’s Ladder," arranged by gospel music scholar Dr. Horace Clarence Boyer, lifts us up. Its optimistic refrain ascends and spirals "higher, higher" on the backs of the prophets, while the "B" section comforts with echoes of the 23rd psalm. It is a hymn about trusting in the Lord, but it is also an anthem of faith in the arc of history. As minister, composer, and civil rights leader Charles Albert Tindley reminds us, "The Storm is Passing Over." Tindley, who survived being beaten by a mob for leading protests against D. W. Griffith's notoriously racist film, "The Birth of a Nation," inspires us with the vigorous joy of his phrases to carry the struggle forward: "Have courage my soul, and let us journey on." Aluta continua! 

Program notes © 2016 Yoshi Campbell, Program Annotator, and Eric Banks, Composer. These notes are published here for patrons of Coro Allegro and other interested readers.  It is permissible to use short excerpts for reviews.  For permission to copy, publish or make other use of these notes, please contact the author and make a donation to Coro Allegro.