Castle of our Skins Celebrates a Decade
Castle of our Skins is a hard organization to define, equal parts ensemble, arts education provider, producer, and advocacy group. This season they’re celebrating ten years, a milestone for sure, but also remarkably young for what they’ve accomplished and the esteem with which they’re held: a leading light – perhaps the leading light – in celebrating the music of Black composers, and a hub of information and inspiration for musicians and music-lovers the world over.
The journey began with just two people: “ultimately Castle of our Skins started through friendship, and trust, and curiosity,” Ashleigh Gordon, COOS’ Artistic and Executive Director recounted in a recent video interview. “Myself and Anthony R. Green are co-founders, Anthony being a Black composer, myself a Black violist. I say that we’re alphabetical buddies – Ashleigh Gordon and Anthony Green; at graduation we were literally next to each other, so it was very much fated that we’d be in each others’ presence.
“Upon graduation, we wanted an opportunity to connect and support one another, very naively thinking there was more than just he and I who were interested in classical music by African Diasporic composers. And of course you scratch the surface and realize there’s 500 years’-plus worth of musicianship and artistry. Once we realized the scope of what we didn’t know, we also realized this is a way for us to learn and a beautiful way to bring people into this learning. So our interest in research, in history, in understanding more about our backgrounds, in music-making, all of that mashed together, mixed and baked, is ultimately what created Castle of our Skins.”
Castle of our Skins’ ability to inspire collective learning, not just with audiences and students, but throughout the classical music field, is one of the things that has put them in a league of their own. “I’m a life-long teacher – well, over 20 years, which seems like a long time! – and I value education, and one-on-one mentorship, and sharing of knowledge. That’s something that happens whether it’s on stage at the Schomburg Center or in a classroom; sharing of knowledge is a through-line for everything that we do.”
Ashleigh Gordon at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum (photo credit Bearwalk Cinema)
Ashe continued, “similar to the Harlem Chamber Players, we are multi-ethnic for a reason. It’s not a ‘for us, by us only’ initiative; we want to make sure the creatives who are engaged with us are able to be advocates in their own spaces. Community is very important. It’s this warm invitational feeling: come, play and learn, and hopefully you can take what you learn elsewhere.”
Castle of our Skins’ educational mission also employs more traditional formats – classroom work, residencies, and lecture recitals – and recently, in response to overwhelming demand, the open-source publication of curriculum guides to assist educators in teaching about Black composers and their music.
The ensemble’s eclectic and interdisciplinary programming also continues to grow in ambition and scope. Their season-opening MassQ Ball, co-curated by artist Daniel Callahan, featured over 120 artists (over 100 of them People of Color) including a performance by Castle of our Skins, Hip-Hop and traditional African, Indigenous, and Korean dancing, Brazilian capoeira, Japanese taiko drumming, Mexican folk music, spoken word artists, and a land blessing by representatives of the Masschussett tribe.
An intimate ensemble of seven will present Love Affects, a revamped version of Castle of our Skins’ very first concert program, marking their New York City debut at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. This program, too, is interdisciplinary, a dialogue of music and spoken word; poet Angel C. Dye has curated – and will read – a new selection of texts, and the musical selections have been updated as well, anchored by Adolphus Hailstork’s, Songs of Love and Justice, and Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson’s String Quartet No. 1, “Calvary.”
“The concept of the program still holds true to what we did in our first year” Ashe said, “how love impacts how we see ourselves and our relationship to each other, how love can be a driving force for actions we take to better our collective future, how love can inform and infuse our thinking around past, present, and future.”
The program’s themes have proven auspicious and speak volumes about Castle of our Skins, an organization born out of friendship, curiosity, and, certainly, love. The community that has sprung up around them in ten short years is reason for hope, built around a greater awareness of our past and present, and looking ahead to a brighter future.
Get your tickets for Castle of our Skins in Harlem on Friday, November 18 at 7:00 PM: