‘Requiem for the Enslaved’ by Atlanta composer released ahead of Juneteenth

Playing organ and piano with his father, a preacher at a Pentecostal church in Atlanta, Carlos Simon learned spontaneous composition. "I understand his rhythm, where he’s going, and a lot of times I know which key he’s going to go to. He was predictable that way."  Photos: Carlos Simon

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Playing organ and piano with his father, a preacher at a Pentecostal church in Atlanta, Carlos Simon learned spontaneous composition. "I understand his rhythm, where he’s going, and a lot of times I know which key he’s going to go to. He was predictable that way." Photos: Carlos Simon

Carlos Simon hymns ancestors with fusion of gospel and Gregorian chant.

When Kennedy Center composer-in-residence Carlos Simon was 10 years old his family moved from Washington, D.C., to Atlanta, and his father started a Pentecostal church.

Everybody in the family had a job. His dad was the preacher. His sisters ushered. His brothers helped count the money. Carlos played the piano and the organ.

In a charismatic service the preacher might break into song at a moment’s notice; a member of the congregation might stand up and sing. Generally no one is reading sheet music or calling out chords to the piano player.

When his dad started “tuning” young Carlos was responsible for finding the pitch — right out of the air — and providing the accompaniment in the correct key. He was also responsible for on-the-spot creation of musical commentary for the sermon, laying down the stabs and swells that lift the mood of the congregation up and bring it back down.

“I learned a lot from that environment,” said Simon, now 36: “How to read a room, how to respond musically to what’s happening in the services.”

It was the best ear-training a young musician could ask for, and the Tri-Cities High School graduate was way ahead when he studied music theory at Georgia State University and later earned his doctorate at the University of Michigan.

Soon he will release an album, “Requiem for the Enslaved,” that revisits this gospel training.

The composition pays homage to 272 African Americans, formerly enslaved by the Jesuits at what would become Georgetown University, then sold by the university to help pay debts and keep the school afloat.

The sale took place in 1838. None of the human chattel who worked the fields in Maryland to support the school were spared. Husbands, wives, grandparents, children, babies: all were auctioned off, then loaded onto a boat bound for New Orleans and three plantations near Baton Rouge.

The sale generated $115,000 for the Maryland Jesuits, $3.3 million in contemporary dollars. In 2016 Georgetown started researching the school’s debt to slavery, propelled by student protests. Genealogists traced the families of those enslaved, and students and professors at Georgetown began making regular trips to Louisiana to visit descendants. When Simon became an assistant professor at Georgetown last year he decided “I have to be a part of this conversation.”

He has journeyed to Bayou Maringouin, met with descendants, examined the documents from the time, bills of sale and shipping manifests detailing the human cargo. “I talked with a lot of the descendants before I wrote a note.”

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Former Atlantan Carlos Simon got his start playing organ in a tiny Pentecostal church. at age 10. On Juneteenth he releases "Requiem for the Enslaved," a gospel, jazz and hip-hop-influenced Catholic mass in memory of a group of 272 African Americans sold in 1838 to rescue Georgetown University from bankruptcy. Photos: Carlos Simon

Credit: Carlos Simon

Former Atlantan Carlos Simon got his start playing organ in a tiny Pentecostal church. at age 10. On Juneteenth he releases "Requiem for the Enslaved," a gospel, jazz and hip-hop-influenced Catholic mass in memory of a group of 272 African Americans sold in 1838 to rescue Georgetown University from bankruptcy. Photos: Carlos Simon

Credit: Carlos Simon

Combined ShapeCaption
Former Atlantan Carlos Simon got his start playing organ in a tiny Pentecostal church. at age 10. On Juneteenth he releases "Requiem for the Enslaved," a gospel, jazz and hip-hop-influenced Catholic mass in memory of a group of 272 African Americans sold in 1838 to rescue Georgetown University from bankruptcy. Photos: Carlos Simon

Credit: Carlos Simon

Credit: Carlos Simon

Simon discovered that the first four notes of the old spiritual, “Oh When the Saints,” correspond to the first notes in an ancient Gregorian chant, and he meshes these elements in a gospel-infused Catholic mass.

His “Requiem” begins with an “Invocation” which features a low flute, then a troubled trumpet, intoning “The Saints,” as voices of Georgetown students recite the names of the enslaved. They ask “Eternal rest give unto them oh Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon them.”

The 10-movement piece is performed by the Boston-based ensemble Hub New Music, with Simon playing piano, and trumpet performed by MK Zulu.

Simon worked with spoken-word artist Marco Pave, who can be heard in the recording asking “What does it mean if your body was never free? What happens to the soul of the slave if the shackles release?”

Simon is now on staff at a university that profited from slavery, but he said the students and faculty are determined to rectify that history. “We have to do better, we have to reconcile with our past,” he said.

The taint of slavery is almost impossible to escape, he added. “It’s common,” he said. “If you have an old institution like that in America, you can’t get away from it. Slavery is involved in some way, especially in the South.”

Decca Records is releasing the recording this month on Juneteenth, to coincide with the national holiday that celebrates the end of slavery. “The holiday means a lot to Black people,” said Simon.

Atlanta’s Juneteenth celebrations June 17-19 will include a parade up Marietta Street and a music festival at Centennial Olympic Park.

Simon hopes to bring the piece to Atlanta and perform it in concert, but he is currently busy writing for the National Symphony Orchestra and the Washington National Opera.

He has recently received commissions from the New York Philharmonic, the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Los Angeles Opera, the Philadelphia Orchestra and was commissioned to create a work celebrating the 150th anniversary of Morehouse College.

For more information about “Requiem for the Enslaved,” go to deccaclassics.com.