“Back then, I knew more things, more of the dirty tricks which history has covered up. I discussed them only with my friends. Now things have gotten all mixed up in my head. In spite of that, I can remember the most important things, though I can count on the fingers of two hands the times I’ve spoken of them to anyone.”
These are the words of Esteban Montejo, and the reason why I wanted to share this quote –– besides the fact that he and his story are what inspired this work you are about to hear –– is because when I think back on how I first began programming this residency at the Met Museum, I was preoccupied with the idea that I needed to provide a voice for stories that had been made silent. But honestly, after spending now almost two years contemplating the first-hand accounts of the many voices that have been featured throughout this residency, I’m not sure if I can stand behind that statement anymore, because voices of dissent have always existed in times of the systematic oppression of human beings.
Some individuals may not choose to speak about their experiences right away, some may remain quiet out of a need for self-protection or preservation. Some may have chosen to not share their stories, because of a lack of trust, or just outright fear; but one thing I’ve come to appreciate is that by the time these individuals were finally asked the right questions, and ready to speak, what was said was direct, sincere, cutting, and of course unique, because of their individual life experiences – but they also seemed to represent shared life experiences, because their observations and assessments of the world and people around them took place over such extended periods of time.
These voices may not come from those who can read or write. These are voices who don’t necessarily express themselves in a way that would secure a legacy or share memories that would present themselves at their most heroic, but these voices, these stories, help to define our history –– if we are actually interested in an unabridged account of history.
So again, I genuinely don’t know if stories are ever really made silent. They just may not have been listened to. They weren’t given a platform like I have been given.
I’m going to close with Esteban Montejo’s words, and then I’d like us to all sit in silence before we hear his story.
“There are things in life I do not understand… There are things you can’t change. The course of life is very complicated… I lived through it all… I rebelled… I ran away… But they caught me… They put shackles on me… You talk about this kind of thing now and folks don’t believe you. But I experienced it, and now I’ve got to talk about it.
You have to keep quiet or tell the truth.”
ESTEBAN MONTEJO (1860 – 1973)
FROM MIGUEL BARNET’S BOOK, BIOGRAPHIA DE UN CIMARRÓN (originally published in 1966)
METROPOLITAN MUSEUM OF ART (New York, NY)
‘EL CIMARRÓN’ WEAVES POLITICS AND MUSIC IN A RUNAWAY SLAVE’S TALE
Anthony Tommasini, The New York Times
Ms. Bullock, who introduced the performance by reading from the memoir, said that the way she described her Met residency at its start — as an exploration of “silent voices” — no longer seemed right. They were not silent, she said; they were just “not listened to,” not “given a platform, the way I was.” It’s admirable that, when Ms. Bullock was given a platform, she used it to amplify those voices.
OPERA IN A TEMPLE OF ART
Heidi Waleson, The Wall Street Journal
This season, the unconventional American soprano Julia Bullock ’s residency was particularly imaginative… [El Cimarrón] Henze’s 80-minute chamber piece for voice, flute, percussion and guitar was a tour de force for the mesmerizing bass-baritone Davóne Tines, who recounted Montejo’s story with a deliberate, matter-of-fact cadence that belied its horrifying content.
Different sections powerfully evoked the brutality of slavery; the freedom of life in the jungle; the machines of the sugar factories; Montejo’s musings about ghosts, women and priests; and his account of the Battle of Mal Tiempo, when he joined the rebel cavalry in slaughtering Spanish soldiers with machetes. With direction by Zack Winokur, the percussion instruments crowding the stage of Grace Rainey Rogers Auditorium became, among other things, an obstacle course for the escaping Montejo and the jungle that hid him for years.