A slavery-era instrument stands on the National Mall singing ‘Songs of Liberation’ – NPR | WHs Answers

The Katastwóf Karavan Consists of a steel frame mounted on a wooden chassis with red oak and muslin wall panels, a propane fired boiler, water tank, gas generator and brass and steel 38-note steam calliope.

Robert Shelley/National Art Gallery


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The Katastwóf Karavan Consists of a steel frame mounted on a wooden chassis with red oak and muslin wall panels, a propane fired boiler, water tank, gas generator and brass and steel 38-note steam calliope.

Robert Shelley/National Art Gallery

An unusual work of art in the Sculpture Garden on the National Mall also makes unusual noises: archaic and eerie.

It is an old-fashioned steam calliope, an instrument commonly seen at carnivals and on river boats many decades ago. But this Calliope was designed in 2018 by a leading American artist, Kara Walker, and plays music composed by Jason Moran, a luminary in the world of jazz.

The Katastwóf Karavan looks like a circus wagon. It’s adorned with certain imagery Walker is famous for: silhouettes. But Walker’s work is a far cry from the sentimental black-and-white portraits that once hung in oval frames in wealthy homes. It shows slavery at its most brutal in the pre-war South. Their silhouettes seem cut from the shadows of history.

“It’s the edge — that’s what’s always drawn to me,” Walker told NPR. “The ambivalent, the liquid, the flowing.”

Walker is also drawn to a specific era in American history. She conceived this project while visiting the New Orleans neighborhood where kidnapped Africans were held before being sold into the plantation nightmare. As she reflected on the lack of memorials to those who lived through unspeakable horrors, she heard the music of a steamboat going down the Mississippi. The happy tone, she noted, had not changed since before the Civil War. Certainly it was heard by enslaved people waiting for the auction block at Algiers Point.

“One can only guess how this event leads to the desire to build a calliope. But it meant I ended up down an internet rabbit hole full of vape enthusiasts,” Walker told an audience at the National Gallery of Art, where the piece is part of an exhibition called Afro-Atlantic Stories.

To do that Katastwof Karavan, Walker worked with a craftsman in Michigan who built this 38-note aluminum and oak calliope. But instead of pumping out Americana standards, she wanted the instrument to scream and cry. protest and dream. Sometimes it sounds like it’s singing spirituals. Sometimes it sounds like an alarm.

Musician Jason Moran performs on the Katastwof Karavan in May 2022 on the National Mall.

Isabella Bulkeley/National Art Gallery


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Musician Jason Moran performs on the Katastwof Karavan in May 2022 on the National Mall.

Isabella Bulkeley/National Art Gallery

“Musicians often talk about how sound is transmitted,” observes musician and composer Jason Moran. (Like Walker, he’s a MacArthur “Genius” Award winner.) Like the story, he says, the sound continues in waves that continue even when you stop hearing it. “Not just how it goes through you, but to the people behind you. Reaches the people blocks away. But most of us don’t think it ends on this planet either.”

The name of Katastwof Karavan comes from the Haitian Creole and means “catastrophe”. In a pamphlet accompanying the play, Walker notes that Americans have never given an event that defined generations a name — like “Holocaust” or “disaster.” “We just say ‘slavery’ as if that were a legitimate job instead of what it was, a disaster for millions,” she writes. (The “kara” in “Karavan,” she also notes, is a deliberate play on her own name.)

A 2018 performance during the Prospect 4 arts event in New Orleans.

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Art lover Alysia Thaxton was thrilled to see this Katastwof Karavan in the National Gallery of Art’s Sculpture Garden. She’s a longtime Kara Walker fan. But the silhouettes that adorn the floats — images of enslaved people bound around their necks or trapped in the swamps — aren’t always easy to view, she said. Jason Moran’s music made the experience easier.

“It was a kind of redemption,” she said. “Not holding everything so it can just keep flowing and not clog up. There was no sticking.”

The Steam Calliope works by release as it happens. Each key releases the pressure that has built up in the Calliope’s metal tubes. But Kara Walker cautions those tempted to use her instrument as a metaphor for today’s pressures and frustrations.

“To break free, you have to know what’s holding you,” she observes. “You have to know what really binds you.

But maybe this musical monument has something to offer at a moment when Americans are grappling with new technologies, labor and debt crises, ethical consumption and a staggering wealth gap, she says. Here’s a machine from the past that learned new music. It sings to us in solidarity.

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