New Recording Honors the Memory of Enslaved People
In 1838, Maryland Jesuits agreed to sell 272 enslaved people from Maryland plantations to plantations in Louisiana. The Jesuits made the sale in part to raise financial resources to help support their educational institutions, including Georgetown College, later renamed Georgetown University.
Georgetown’s role in the 1838 Jesuit Slave Sale was the impetus for composer and current Georgetown University Assistant Professor Carlos Simon’s Requiem for the Enslaved, now in a new recording on the Decca label. The recording features performances by Boston-based HUB New Music, trumpeter Jared Bailey (“MK Zulu”) and hip-hop artist Marco Pavé in a work that reinterprets the Catholic Mass for the dead with a mix of Catholic and African American musical and poetic traditions.
Simon says he began researching the history of Georgetown University shortly after joining the faculty there in 2020.
“Georgetown University is steeped in tradition, and it really has a huge influence in the D.C. area, so I really wanted to learn about the history and how I could contribute,” Simon said. “That’s when I started learning about the history of the founders, of the role of slavery the university had with the founders, them being Jesuits.”
Simon’s arrival at Georgetown came amid the much-publicized community conversations about the university’s history with slavery and stated commitment to reconciliation.
“Noticing that there was already work happening in the university to reconcile with the Descendants (of the enslaved), and also to really acknowledge the history, I wanted to join in the discussion through the arts,” Simon said.
Researched, created and recorded with financial support from Georgetown University, Simon’s Requiem for the Enslaved brings that discussion to the musical and spiritual realms. The work blends Gregorian chant, Spirituals and jazz improvisation within the conceptual framework of the Catholic Requiem Mass granting eternal rest to the dead.
Marco Pavé’s original spoken-word texts substitute the Latin text of the Requiem liturgy with sorrowful reminders of slavery – “Isaac ran away. Why was he captured in the first place? Runaway slave is a crime for the brave. Please give me death instead of new chains.” And nearing the end of the work, Pavé transforms the Requiem’s In Paradisum text (“May the angels lead you into paradise … may you have eternal rest”) into a traditional Yoruba blessing – “The souls of the oppressed will not suffer in the afterlife. An eternal ashe (roughly translated, amen) for the spirits of the enslaved.”
“Marco is basically the griot,” Simon said. “The griot is traditionally this person who is the storyteller, the holder of the history of the community.”
For Simon, creating Requiem for the Enslaved has brought a mix of emotions. There’s disgust – “How can a human own another human?” he wonders aloud – but there’s also gratitude.
“There’s this sense of gratitude of knowing where we’ve come from and how I am the embodiment of my ancestors’ wildest dreams,” Simon said, “to use my gifts, my art, to honor them.”