What is music, anyway? It’s the type of question a man with a Ph.D in jazz is prone to ponder.
“People say music is a universal language – and that’s true,” says Ben Barson, founding member of the Afro Yaqui Music Collective. “But in a way, it’s deeper than that. Music precedes language, by a lot of anthropologists’ accounts. Music is a way of creating new ways of relating with each other.”
Barson, and frontwoman Gizelxanath Rodriguez are at the core of the Afro Yaqui Music Collective – a Pittsburgh-based ensemble of world-class musicians representing cultures and styles from all corners of the globe. He is a nationally-recognized baritone sax player and professor at Pitt; Rodriguez sings in several languages, and plays the cello, too.
“We’re not your grandpa’s big band,” says Barson. “We’re rooted in that jazz, big band tradition. But we work really intentionally to bring a kind of decolonial perspective to that kind of music.”
The pair, who wed in 2015, move to Baja California next month, for a year of research and community-building, which makes Saturday night at the Thunderbird a farewell show, for which they’re pulling out all the stops.
Not much sounds like Afro Yaqui: take some tango, add cello and a splash of Chinese opera, and root it all in jazz and funk, filtered through the lens of indigenous autonomous movements and women’s liberation.
The collective has played in Kurdistan and Tanzania; Pittonkatonk and the Kennedy Center. Some of the other members include the Cuban percussionist Hugo Cruz; and Jin Yang, who plays a Chinese lute and has toured with Yo-Yo Ma.
Cruz’s band Caminos opens, as does Afro Yaqui sister group, Latin Sway, which reimagines classic and underground repertoire from Cuba, Brazil, Mexico, Argentina, Puerto Rico, and other countries in Latin America for the 21st century.
Barson says surprises are in store, including an appearance by saxophonist Roger Rafael Romero, aka f3ralcat, who amicably parted with the group a few years prior to pursue his own project, Feralcat and the Wild.
Barson is leaving Pittsburgh to pursue a Fulbright scholarship in Mexicali, Baja California, at the Instituto de Investigaciones Culturales, related to indigenous communities in Mexico who have “challenged ecological destruction and unbridled capitalism,” and how music can be used for community building and to challenge racism and exploitation.
“That’s a part of that kind of solidarity work,” says Barson. “I mean, there’s only so much you can do over email and over Zoom. You really have to show up and be there and build real connections.”
Rodriguez, who is of Yaqui descent, has been working in those communities in Sonora for years. In October, Mexican President AMLO apologized to the Pascua Yaqui for historical crimes. She, Barson and the collective actively support projects in these communities, including independent radio and media projects, for which donations will be accepted at Saturday night’s performance.
Nevertheless, Barson says he and Rodriguez’s absence will be a good thing, and that the collective can function more like a true collective during their absence. Besides, they’ll be back eventually: first, they have to live out their mission, of using music to empower as much as inspire.
“We think that music is a more direct way of building spaces where we can activate senses of community and solidarity,” he says. “People respond to music differently than a political speech or text – which are important ways to communicate as well, we don’t negate that – we just feel like this is a unique avenue to create spaces and the energy and desire for change.”
He is a 2x 2023 Western PA Press Club Golden Quill award winner, in feature and business reporting. And a 3x finalist in the investigative reporting category.
He is a 2018 first prize winner in environmental reporting from the Keystone Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists for reporting on lead in Pittsburgh’s drinking water.
In 2022 and 2021, he was awarded a grant from The Gumshoe Group to support his investigative reporting.