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Why Abiyoyo

Inspired by Pete Seeger's telling of the story since I was a boy, I felt there was something special about the piece. A folktale set in a somewhat fantasy world about a Black father and a son relationship, super rare, the book also featured notated music which as a young aspiring musician myself was everything I was looking for -- and the melody was pretty catchy. Though I enjoyed the story, I always felt as if something was missing from the piece; details about the character's life, names, why they were so sad. Also missing was what was going on in this community around these people to put them in a place where they felt that removing someone from the society ultimately would somehow better the situation. There were a lot of unanswered questions. There seemed something interesting about a white man having the privilege to travel and collect these very traditional, authentic African songs and then put them in a book that, upon reflection, overlooks or ignores some of those very elements. For instance, the choice to have the boy in the story plays the ukulele versus something more traditional to the time and the area is an interesting choice. I saw this as a missed opportunity for Seeger to tell the history of an instrument that he had become so well known for and associated with.


"... A ballad-style retelling of the story featuring new songs, new characters, and a new life... Truthfully, it verges on full-blown operetta at times."- X. Taylor

How to elevate this 12-page children's story into something much more tangible, more real, something that had a little grit to it?  The darkness (I felt) that could be brought to this fantasy world, where the father is a magician and the son has some sort of innate natural musical ability.


After finding Pete Seeger's sources, I searched further, looking for varying renditions of the story… I reflected on his 9-Minute performance and use of traditional African storytelling style, sometimes seeming almost symphonic these ballad pieces last anywhere from minutes to 2 hours. I was determined to create and tell a version of the story using as many traditional elements as possible. This went on to become my format for the story-song "Musical."


A ballad-style retelling of the story featuring new songs, new characters, and a new life... Truthfully, it verges on a full-blown operetta at times.


This new life came with a new sound. I wanted to create a soundscape that was deep, spiritual, and authentic. I reflected heavily on the South African Gospel, traditional tribal voice/instrumental patterns and layering, and in particular the use of harmony of the Iscyamanthi singers.


This composition is an attempt to create a truly individual sound full of all these authentic African elements, which are used very sparingly in Western music, and often as tropes. I wanted to dive in head-first and bring something to the stage with a depth in storytelling that seems to almost have been avoided.


The first and most important thing for me in telling the story was to give the main two characters names. Seeger chose to title the characters simply Boy and Father given this country's racial history and the use of the term boy in association with African-American men, for me, it takes away from their humanity of Black persons, whether they be fictional or not. So, I gave them names -- the boy's name would become Azizi (of Swahili origin meaning "precious treasure"), and the father's name Sam (meaning either "God hears" or "to bring together"). Then came reflecting on the story and asking why does it seem as if this father and son (whom we don't see together at the very beginning of the book) are acting out? The son is unfazed by his annoyance to others and a father who seems almost bent on self-destruction.  These people live in a small village, which got me thinking of another Seeger quote where he reflects on wanting to return to a society of small villages. Where he found that people "took care of one another." Seeger, in his telling of the story, has a man who seems to not care at all about those around him, continuously playing tricks on them. Something was missing -- or should I say someone; a mother.


This bore the character Zilla. To keep the magic in the family. I decided to make her an Inyanga, which is a type of spiritual medicine healer. Then came another twist in creating this character; the reason that these other characters were acting out is that this became their void.  They were searching for Zilla, and she was gone, dead. The one who kept them on the straight and narrow...

- Xavier Taylor

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