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The Castle of our Skins

Boston series celebrates black musicians and composers

Celina Colby
Celina Colby is an arts and travel reporter with a fondness for Russian novels.... VIEW BIO
The Castle of our Skins
Soprano Farah Darliette and Castle of our Skins musicians in Night Songs. (Photo: Pamela Green)

In 2003, musicians Ashleigh Gordon and Anthony Green launched Castle of our Skins, a concert and education series dedicated to celebrating black artistry through classical music. Now, the organization collaborates with the Boston Public Library, the Gardner Museum and the Outside the Box Festival to present its performances and educational offerings.

Author: Pamela GreenCastle of our Skins at Museum of African American History.

Gordon, artistic and executive director, says, “The classical music world has a tradition of exclusion, particularly with black composers. We work as cultural promoters to bring black music into the community.”

Education provides the core of the Castle of our Skins experience. The group provides workshops for all ages, introducing black music and telling stories about the composers. “A Little History,” the baseline workshop, weaves music, history, poetry and audience interaction into a rhythmic storytelling. “Ella Scats the Little Lamb,” brings jazz scatting basics to children using classic nursery rhymes.

Since 2016, COOS has held the Cultural Ensemble-in-Residence position at the Roxbury YMCA, providing free, regular workshops and performances to the community.

Gordon attended Boston Conservatory and suspects COOS will stay based in Boston, but she says the city bears its own challenges. “Boston is a very transitory city. People see better opportunities for black musicians elsewhere and they migrate.” Gordon has often struggled to find classical black musicians to collaborate with, as many move to Chicago, New York and other cities with larger scenes. COOS has begun holding regular musician meetups to find local talent and provide a networking forum for artists.

Despite these challenges, Gordon has seen positive changes in the past year. “With the city of Boston spearheading a lot of cultural diversity programming, we’ve had a lot of support,” she says. She hopes to foster more partnerships with local organizations and to broaden their university residencies, which currently include Brandeis in Waltham and Gettysburg College in Pennsylvania.

2018 will also mark the launch of COOS’s “Ain’t I a Woman” project, named after Sojourner Truth’s famous speech. The project will explore black feminism through music, visual art, spoken word and history by delving into the lives of black female composers. In March 2018, COOS will put out a call to local visual and literary artists to submit works related to the theme.

Above all, Gordon hopes the coming year will promote increased awareness and appreciation of black musicians. “It’s not for a single demographic — we want everyone to learn about black music, we want everyone to be culturally curious,” she says. “The heart of what we’re doing is trying to expose people to black artistry on a high level.”