The Department of Music will host its next Music Colloquium Series event Friday, Sept. 29, from 4 to 5 p.m. in Harkness Chapel. Marysol Quevedo (University of Miami) will present “Sisters of the Clear Waters”: Afro-Diasporic Womanhood in Tania León’s “Oh Yemanja.”
About the talk
In recent years the final aria, “Oh Yemanja (Mother’s Prayer),” of Tania León’s opera Scourge of Hyacinths (1994) has received numerous performances, including one by Alicia Hall Moran in the recent Kennedy Center Honors of 2022. With a sparse accompaniment of piano and cello, it has become an attractive number for mezzo-sopranos to include in art song recitals. When Dawn Upshaw included it in The World so Wide (1998), however, New York Times critic David Mermelstein found León’s aria an outlier within Upshaw’s album, opining “the soprano’s focused timbre conveys both maternal concern and a faintly exotic atmosphere.”
In this presentation I analyze “Oh Yemanja” as a synthesis of disparate traditions that, much like the composer herself, challenges categorization. Yemanja, an Orisha venerated in Afro-diasporic Yoruba religions, governs all forms of water and is worshipped as a nurturing mother figure by practitioners. In several accounts, León has shared how the aria’s melody emerged from a prayer-song her own mother and grandmother sang. “Oh Yemanja” not only merges contemporary classical music traditions with Yoruba-derived melodies, it also combines aesthetic and spiritual practices that draw from and speak to Afro-diasporic understandings of womanhood, motherhood, sacrifice, and pain. In both text and music León offers a prayer to Yemanja that evokes the clear and nurturing waters through a hauntingly spiritual, liquid sonority. In contrast to Mermelstein’s superficial assessment of the female voice as “faintly exotic”—a dismissive appraisal historically levied at Afro-diasporic expressive practices—I contend that the aria can only be fully understood as a complex tapestry when one accounts for the frayed and mended identities of Afro-diasporic womanhood upon which it is based.
About the speaker
Marysol Quevedo, a native of San Juan, Puerto Rico, is an Assistant Professor of Musicology at the Frost School of Music at the University of Miami. She received her Ph.D. in musicology with a minor in ethnomusicology from Indiana University. Her research interests include art music in Cuba before and after the 1959 Revolution and more broadly the relationship between music composition and performance, national identity, and politics in Latin American music scenes. Quevedo’s chapter, “Experimental Music and the Avant-Garde in Post-1959 Cuba: Revolutionary Music for the Revolution,” was published in 2018 in Experimentalism in Practice: Perspectives from Latin America (Oxford University Press). Her article “The Orquesta Sinfónica Nacional de Cuba and its Role in the Cuban Revolution’s Cultural Project” was published in the journal Cuban Studies in the spring of 2019. She has written several entries for the second edition of the Dictionary of American Music and is a contributor to Oxford Annotated Bibliographies. Prior to moving to the Frost School of Music, Quevedo worked as a program specialist for the Society of Ethnomusicology.
Quevedo has presented at the national meetings of the American Musicological Society, the Society for Ethnomusicology, the Latin American Studies Association, the Sociedad Chilena de Musicología, the Canadian Association of Latin American and Caribbean Studies, Florida International University’s Cuban Research Institute’s Cuban Studies conferences, and the University of Miami’s Cuban Heritage Collection’s New Directions in Cuban Studies conferences, among others. She is also an active member of the Latin American and Caribbean Music Section of the Society for Ethnomusicology and the Cold War and Music Study Group of the American Musicological Society. She currently serves as one of the editors of the AMS’s online publication Musicology Now.