Queer singer-songwriter to perform African folk songs

Queer singer-songwriter to perform African folk songs

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Ashley Phillips brings her voice and guitar stylings to International House’s Ibrahim Theater for the 2018-19 season of “International Journeys,” a collection of artistic performances that reflect the theme “Origin Stories.”

Phillips’ work, “Tell ’Em I’m Gone,” is an hour-long performance highlighting songs from the African diaspora. The three-part concert will begin with songs from the children’s playground, then turn to work songs and field hollers and end with songs of freedom.

The performance is collaborative. Phillips will play with four other musicians, including Bethlehem Roberson on the tarima, a wooden platform that doubles as a percussion instrument and a stage for dancing.

“She’s coined her style ‘Vo-cussion,’” said Phillips.

“Tell ’Em I’m Gone” is also interactive. Multidisciplinary artist and community organizer Maria Bauman-Morales will lead attendees in a social dance.

“It will be a conversation. It will definitely be Maria pulling from her own experiences and recollections of childhood and inviting audience members into that as well,” said Phillips.

The work songs will also ask the audience to join their voices to the music.

“A lot of field songs were call-and-response. So there’ll definitely be moments when the audience will be invited to engage either with an emotion of sorts or their voices.”

Because the performance is flush with collaborators lending a range of musical styles, Phillips thinks of “Tell ’Em I’m Gone” as “a kind of gumbo.”

“Shane is jazz-leaning. I have more of a blues/folk influence, so there’s that element. And Paulette is funk.”

 The genres of “Tell ’Em I’m Gone” all have roots in blues music, she said.

 “There’s definitely a way of interweaving all of those things, but it informs our more contemporary approach to those songs, which have maybe been heard in one particular way,” said Phillips.

All of the songs are storied folk tunes. For the performance, Phillips has reworked some of the lyrics.

“What I’m familiar with in the folk tradition is there are a million-and-one verses, because people continue to write different verses within the structure of the song. And that’s what I’m doing in this,” she said.

Phillips added that she and her collaborators chose songs that spoke to their memories.  An example is “Take This Hammer,” which contains a lyric borrowed the performance’s name.

“A lot of this has been sort of pulling from our own lineage and our own experiences and connections and memory. Some of these songs certainly weren’t in the experience of doing work, but there’s a connection to ‘Take This Hammer’ in a different context. [We can] follow the arc, maybe, from the person who we know who introduced the song to us.” 

Many of these songs have a complex history, not all rooted in rose-toned nostalgia. But evoking complicated themes was a purposeful choice.

“With a lot of the songs, maybe not specifically the playground songs, but more like the field songs or work songs, there is hardship, but there’s also transcendence. And I think that’s really what we’re hoping to reflect in the concert performance,” Phillips said.

The freedom songs, which are the last act of “Tell ’Em I’m Gone,” speak particularly to hope in the face of oppression.

Among them is “Follow the Drinking Gourd,” a folk song used as a map on the Underground Railroad.

“It felt important to end on freedom songs — playing things that speak of hardship and are also transcendent and hopeful,” said Phillips. “It felt really important to creating an arc in the program to end on something that is undeniably uplifting.”  

Ashley Phillips will perform “Tell ’Em I’m Gone” at 7:30 p.m. Oct. 12 at the International House’s Ibrahim Theater, 3701 Chestnut St. Tickets are $20 online, $25 at the door. Those under 30 and arts-industry professionals receive $5 off. For more information, visit https://www.interculturaljourneys.org/gone/. 

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