Finding "Tom-Tom"

Du BoisExcerpts from an opera by Shirley Graham Du Bois will be performed for the first time since 1932, when it was staged in a stadium for 25,000 audience members in two days.  

By Samantha Neville '19

Tom Tom: An Epic of Music and the Negro, written by Shirley Graham Du Bois in 1932, is an opera that performers and organizers of an event featuring it have never seen performed by a company or heard on a recording. In fact, it hasn’t been performed since the 1930s  -- when 25,000 people over two nights saw it in the Cleveland Stadium. It doesn’t have a Wikipedia page and most opera buffs are unlikely to know it. But that could change soon. 

Davóne Tines ’09, a member of the American Modern Opera Company, will perform excerpts of the work during Listening to Tom-Tom as part of the RUN AMOC! artists residency taking place at Harvard Feb. 23-March 3. The Tom-Tom event, which takes place February 26, begins at 11:30 a.m. at Schlesinger Library, where the Du Bois’ archives are housed, and, around noon, moves to the Horner Room at Agassi Theater for Tines’ performance with pianist Matthew Aucoin ’12, both of whom are on campus for residency. 

There are several reasons for the piece’s obscurity. It was written during the Great Depression and may have been lost in the course of national crisis. The score itself was 

Shirley Graham Du Bois. Courtesy Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute
thought to be lost until Harvard purchased Du Bois' papers in 2001 and found the manuscript among the collection. Also, there is the issue of the times in which the  writer lived. Du Bois, who studied at the Sorbonne in Paris and graduated from Oberlin College in the early 1930s, was a musician, writer, composer, political activist, wife of W.E.B. Du Bois and a woman of color.

This African American female composer made what is a really astounding piece of art, and it was not given a very large life beyond its premiere, but it’s amazing that it even occurred,” Tines said.

Lucy Caplan ’12 is a violist and a doctoral candidate in American studies at Yale University, where she focuses on the intersections of music, national identity and social change, with a particular emphasis on the work of early 20th-century African American artists and intellectuals. Caplan encountered Tom-Tom as a junior history and literature concentrator, and it ended up being part of her thesis. It is also part of her current research at Yale. 

As someone writing a dissertation, I spend a lot of time working with texts, looking at musical texts and musical things but not actually hearing them, so it’s really great to be able to work with performers and actually hear what this music might have sounded like,” said Caplan, who will lead the discussion at Schlesinger.

Caplan is impressed, among other things, with the ambition of the piece.

It’s epic in scale,” Caplan said. “It covers centuries of history, goes through zillions of musical styles and attempts to tell a monumental story.”

Tines summarized the plot of the opera this way:  We start in Africa with a character called the Voodoo Man who has a connection to the tom-tom, the beating of the drum, which also Shirley Graham points out is a connection to the heartbeat or the beat of the African people. You could say the opera is the journey of that heartbeat through time, so the journey of these people through time.”

Caplan and Tines hope the performance and discussion on Tom-Tom will offer audiences a new sense of the possibilities for what opera can be. They also hope people think critically about artistic canons – what gets included, forgotten, lost.

We’re in a cultural moment of really questioning what genius means and who gains power,” Caplan said. Tom-Tom may help artists and audiences explore the reaches of that power more deeply.