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Music Text

Text by Santiago Martin Bermúdez. Additional text inspired on chants of Congo origin


picc.üiro/marimba/cyms/crot-mixed choir-strings

Abbreviations (PDF)


Boosey & Hawkes (Hendon Music)

This work is available from Boosey & Hawkes for the world.


World Premiere
Walt Disney Concert Hall, Los Angeles, CA
Los Angeles Philharmonic / Tambuco Percussion Ensemble / Los Angeles Master Chorale / Gustavo Dudamel
Programme Note

When I first read about Yanga, I was captivated not only by the enigmatic circumstances that surrounded his life, but also by his unusual reactions to those circumstances. Gaspar Yanga was a privileged African prince of a royal family of Gabon during the XVI century. His life violently changed for he was captured and brought to Mexico as a slave. I immediately imagined his astonishment and felt his rage, his indignation and profound feeling of powerlessness. Facing despair, in 1570 he managed to escape and lived for over 30 years as a fugitive. During those years he helped others to scape, and with all those people he organized constant assaults to caravans and messengers who transported goods and gold extracted from all over New Spain to the port of Veracruz with the help of indigenous people to be embarked to Europe for the building of church altars and the opulent expensive life of the Spanish golden age of the XVI Century. All stolen goods were divided among Yanga´s people to survive. He selected his stealing wisely and chose not to do so in exchange of favors like direct contact with the crown of Spain. That is how he managed to negotiate and promise to stop the sealing if he and his people were allowed to live freely and produce their own goods. That is how San Lorenzo de los Negros in Veracruz became the very first free from slavery independent settlement of the Continent, around 1609! And as a result, Gaspar Yanga became the first black ruler of America. I just could not help but to share my passion and exciting findings on Yanga's fascinating life to Gabriela one day.

--I know what your next opera should be about, I said. She immediately adopted the idea and further investigations and research with Mexican noted historian Antonio Díaz de León so the project grew quite fast. The opera initiative was presented to Festival del Centro Histórico and its director Sergio Vela recommended us with Santiago Martín Bermúdez (b. Spain 1947) who wrote a splendid libretto. Unfortunately, the festival encountered financial difficulties so the project is still pendant.

When the LA Phil and Gustavo Dudamel asked Gabriela Ortiz to write a piece for choir and orchestra to be programmed along with Beethoven´s ninth for one of the 100th LAPhil anniversary concerts, she did not know what text to use at first. Our friends Jan Karlin and Jeff Von Der Schmidt who knew about Yanga's project, encouraged her to present the idea to write a choir and orchestral piece that could grasp the essence of Yanga's life, certainly as humanly significant and yet different in many ways, as it is the Hymn of Joy.

Gabriela asked Santiago to send a new poem based on his libretto to start composing the piece. She also decided to used chants texts from Congo origin. That is how Yanga for choir, percussion quartet and orchestra came about, a periphrasis of what will be an entire opera one day.

Gabriela, what can you tell us about the piece?

Yanga is divided into four rhythmic and slow contrasting sections. One of the most important features of the work is the use of African instruments that arrived in Latin America such as the batás, guiros, shekeres, cabasas, among others. My idea was to add the unique color of these instruments into a musical discourse from my imaginary sound world without trying to directly emulate Afro-Latin American rhythms. The choir is often used rhythmically, creating various polyphonic textures and thus dialoguing with the solo percussion parts and the orchestra. To me Yanga is a work of an immense expressive force that speaks of the greatness of humanity when in search of equality and the universal right to enjoy freedom to the fullest”

I think the adding of a percussion quartet to the original idea of only choir and orchestra is quite striking, for Gabriela´s command on composing for percussion takes this piece to yet another level of musical eloquence, power and innovation.

© Alejandro Escuer, Summer 2019


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