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The Diaspora Arkestra Presents a Wide-Spanning Tribute to Black American Music

Aug. 22, 2017
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When the team at Washington Park asked Radio Milwaukee DJ Tarik Moody to book a night of their Wednesday night concert series at the park’s band shell, he went above and beyond. He didn’t just book a band, he created one, and quite a large one at that—an 18-piece ensemble billed as the Diaspora Arkestra.

“I didn’t want to have a four piece band up there,” Moody says. “A band shell just looks so weird with only a few members up there. Then I had this idea of how to use all those musicians by having them run through a timeline of African American music. I wanted to show how many styles of music in America really came from African Americans, so I thought what better way to show that than to have some of the best Milwaukee musicians of color perform various genres that African Americans helped create or innovate.”

If condensing the entire scope of black American music into one program sounds like an epic undertaking, that’s because it is, says saxophonist Jay Anderson, who, along with singer B-Free, helped assemble the band and curate the event’s setlist. What began as a manageable 15-song setlist gradually ballooned to 25 songs for a program Anderson says will run about two hours and 20 minutes with no break.

“The whole thing starts with Ethiopian folk music and ends with Beyoncé and covers everything in between,” Anderson says. “Making that setlist got really hard. We had moments where we’d thought we’d finalized it, and then we’d be looking around, and it was like, ‘Ah, damn, we forgot Earth Wind and Fire!’” The players also got some input from their parents; it was Anderson’s mom who reminded them to include Michael Jackson.

The scope of the program begs the question: Why go through the trouble to create such an elaborate band for a one-off performance? “Because it’s fun,” Anderson says, “and it helps us expand our horizons as musicians.” Already this year, participants in the Diaspora Arkestra have been part of similarly ambitious tributes to Stevie Wonder, A Tribe Called Quest and Amy Winehouse, so they have experience with these kinds of undertakings.

But Moody also sees the Arkestra as a sort of trial balloon for something bigger. For the last few years, he’s dreamed of launching what he calls the “Diaspora Festival”—an African American music showcase roughly patterned after the New Orleans Essence Music Festival or Brooklyn’s Afropunk Festival, and the Arkestra or something like it could be a part of it. Moody plans to videotape the Washington Park performance and use it as part of his pitch to investors to help make the Diaspora Festival happen.

“There’s no major festival like Afropunk or the Essence Festival in the Midwest,” Moody says, so the idea is—why not have Milwaukee do it before Chicago does? Hopefully it’d bring a lot of money to the city, having people come in for it, booking hotels. I think it could really help change the image of the city. I mean, I’m not trying to solve segregation with a festival, but hopefully it might help retain more black professionals, and it might start to make people more interested in what’s going on in the city. It might start to change impressions of the city. It’s just a vision I’ve had, but I’ve been here 10-and-a-half years now,” Moody continues. “And I feel like, if I’m going to stay here longer, I have to do something big.”

Washington Park Wednesdays’ Diaspora Arkestra concert begins at 6 p.m. on Wednesday, Aug. 30. The performance will also serve as the kickoff for the VoodooHoney label’s second annual Strange Fruit Festival, which continues Thursday, Aug. 31 at Gibraltar and Friday, Sept. 1 at Company Brewing.

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