Composer Notes

Eric Banks on the 2016 premiere of
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.