Most times, concerts are presented as something to be observed. Rarely are they as immersive as JOJO ABOT and esperanza spalding’s new interdisciplinary work, A GOD OF HER OWN MAKING, presented at Brooklyn’s National Sawdust on September 23-24, 2022. It starts with being seated on the same floor that the performers are on, with no concert stage to separate the audience. The venue employs strobing lights, sage smoke, and haze against its iconic backdrop of white asymmetrical sound boards that zigzag across a black wall. The audience sits in the midst of it all, as if they, too, are performing.
It’s the exposure under the warm blue, red, and purple lights that changes audience engagement. The colored lights illuminate the entire space, and at times are pointed directly into the audience, but not for naught. JOJO ABOT and spalding continually traverse the entire space, moving through the audience in dance — slithering their way back and forth in no way familiar.
Surround-sound speakers fill every corner of the venue, and a projector flashes fast-moving images of Black women and children – performers like Nina Simone juxtaposed with unknown African women dancing and singing. JOJO ABOT and spalding initially take turns with solo performances, always reappearing as something or someone else in new visually stunning costumes. Each performance piece is a different scene that, by the end, amounts to seeing a play. Most captivating is the use of their voices to create distinct atmospheres. JOJO ABOT’s voice scoops into the earth, reaching lows that dig down into red clay and lift clear water out of a deep well. spalding’s voice stays above ground, flittering with the birds and capturing the wind to glide through the air.
In a particularly chilling scene, spalding creeps out of a door in the back corner, inching slowly towards the performance space. She has her bass in tow, picking it up with each small step before placing it back down again. Her movements are smooth and steady — lightweight — not at all what might be expected of someone singing, playing, and walking simultaneously. She wears a white knee-length dress made of tulle and sings eerie lines that move in quickly shifting intervals in her bottom range before ascending, perching on a held tone, then resolving down just a half step; the bird has reached the highest branch of a towering tree, which bends ever so slightly in the wind. spalding stops just short of the open performance space, lingering in the aisle against all expectations. The whole scene resembles a ghost inhabiting a haunted house, only glimpses of it caught in a mirror at a distance down a long corridor.
JOJO ABOT swallows the entire venue when she appears. Choral counterpoint bounces around surround sound speakers, seemingly shifting the space while she bellows with such a pristine blend that, if the audience couldn’t see her mouth moving, they wouldn’t know that her voice was separate from the voices in the speakers. The music is ceremonial in nature, some sections over a harmonizing choir with African drums, others only a choir that sways in and out.
When the strobing lights turn to the audience, they scan the room as if searching for an idea or a spirit that has receded into the dark shadows along the walls. When JOJO ABOT and spalding finally join together, they hit a neo-soul-esque trance on a chant that repeats, “I made up my mind…to be…” — the end of the sentence continually buried in lush layers of vocal accompaniment. The music transforms into a hip-hop rhythmic flow, then scatters into celebratory African drumming.
Before closing the entire show, the artists address the audience directly. spalding refers to the label of jazz as “a marketing branding trick” that leaves musicians with “no way out.” She pays homage to the recently deceased “jazz” saxophonist, Pharoah Sanders. JOJO ABOT tells the audience that “all the power you seek lives in you — it’s not in this room. I can’t give it to you.”
Reducing this experience to a musical concert — one of sitting in a concert hall, watching two musicians play instruments or sing on a stage, listing off the composers performed and the technical skill in which it was executed — would fail to capture what JOJO ABOT and esperanza spalding gave of themselves throughout this interdisciplinary production involving dance, instruments, voice, and supremely visual delights. And what they gave of themselves? Everything.
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