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Griot New York

Following brief interviews with Garth Fagan and Wynton Marsalis, the program includes a complete performance of Griot New York. The concept of a griot, a West African storyteller who keeps the cultural heritage of a people alive, is used to depict the non-European culture of New York City, and particularly the African and Caribbean backgrounds of some of its residents.
Music from this ballet is also available as 2CD album entitled: Citi Movement

Clip from VHS

Griot New York

Album Info

Ensemble Wynton Marsalis Septet with Garth Fagan Dance
Release Date February 28th, 1995
Recording Date December 7, 1994
Record Label Sony Classical
Catalogue Number SHV 66606
Formats VHS
Genre Jazz Recordings

Album Links

Amazon (VHS)

Track Listing

Track Length Preview
Griot New York Introduction 8:01
City Court Dance 11:51
Bayou Baroque 7:21
Spring Yaounde 5:52
Sand Painting 14:41
Intermission Music 4:10
The Disenfranchised 9:25
Waltz Detente 5:35
Oracabessa Sea 4:51
Highrise Riff 10:23

Liner Notes


Myths of Time
Mylar Myths of Space
Natural Mystic
Legends yes of Place
Cross Atlantic Movement
Syncopation — 747/1st Class
Ships Hold/No Class
Reservations & plantations concentration
Camp no home
AIDS class
Bujumbura cash caught
Upon the dawning of the 7th Day
Yours Your Self Celebrate
Ritual youth riffs spring
Spring Yaounde
Ostinato polyrhythmic Oracabessa Sea
Sea bayou delta chant
Chant Gregorian pulse
Rife ancestors ritual
Ritual skyscraper riffs
Rife ancestors ritual
Skyscraper skyscraper high rise riff

© Garth Fagan 1991

Griot: a West African storyteller, a cultural custodian who preserves and transmits a people’s history and traditions through music and dance
Yaounde: Capital city of Cameroon
Oracabessa: Town on the north coast of Jamaica known for its exceptionally deep blue sea
Bujumbura: Capital city of Burundi

Griot New York is a dream.
Like a dream, it speaks in the language of vision. Yet this 90 minute tour deforce is not abstract or remote from the life we live.
To the contrary, it bristles with human vitality. It is, at turns, profoundly joyous, intensely mysterious, deeply passionate, and genuinely tragic. Griot speaks of a particular city, the great metropolis of New York. But, just as Manhattan is the city of cities and a testament to human ingenuity, diversity, and iniquity; so too is this dance of dances an ardent glimpse into all that is best and all that is worst about the twentieth century.

GriotNew York began as a dream in the remarkably soulful and inventive mind of American choreographer Garth Fagan. From his vision he fashioned a work that represents to me the culmination of the impetuous and dazzling adventures of American dance during the twentieth century.

Like Garth Fagan, Griot New York is the child of some of America’s most innovative choreographers: Isadora Duncan, Martha Graham, Pearl Primus, Mary Hinkson, Alvin Alley, Lavinia Williams, Ivy Baxter, Jose Limon, and Katherine Dunham. But Griot is a child without a color or a nation. It is a child that is neither white nor black nor red nor yellow. It
is, ultimately and exquisitely, a child who knows nothing of the world except that part of the human experience which is deeply rooted in a fantastic word, and that word is dance.

Eventually, Garth Fagan invited composer and musician Wynton Marsalis to enter his dream. Together they began the impossible task that perpetually beckons people in the arts: to make the fragile images of the mind visible in the ruthless daylight of the world—to speak the unspeakable—and, in so doing, to change forever how we see ourselves and how we see the world around us.

One day, the visual artist Martin Puryear awakened to find himself in the same dream that Garth and Wynton were dreaming. And, though there is nothing more difficult than sharing someone else’s dream, somehow that is exactly what Garth, Wynton, and Martin succeeded in doing. There is not a moment, a note, a movement, an image in Griot New York that is not an essential part of a shared vision.

I also had a small dream. In 1990, when I was putting together a series of art events called the Philadelphia Festival Mythos, I asked Garth Fagan if he would create a new work for that festival. Garth laughed, for he was already immersed in the dream that eventually became known as Griot New York. So our dreams happily collided.

Garth had started envisioning a full-evening work while visiting his birthplace in Jamaica. In an attempt to give some form to his swift imagination, he wrote a poem about a griot, a figure out of West African culture: a keeper of tribal memory, a storyteller, and a legender. But in his poem, Garth was dreaming a dream that was larger and more transcendent than the memories of Africa.
Somewhere among the leaves of a single tree he managed to discover the forest. And so he became a new kind of griot, whose long memory circles every village of the primal world and whispers fabulous stories into every ear that is attuned to the songs of the earth.
When Wynton Marsalis became involved in Garth’s dream, he was a bit baffled by Garth’s poem. But with the help of a literary friend, he decided that the lines of poetry were about three things: it was about a great city, and it was about all the people from many different lands who came to dwell in the city, and, finally, it was about the lives lived and the deaths died in the city.

Griot New York is the long memory of a city named Manhattan. But just as New York City is a microcosm of the world, so, too, Griot is about everyone in every place where birth, love, joy, sorrow, and death define what we mean by the word humanity.

From these visionary beginnings grew a brilliant collaboration between Garth Fagan, Wynton Marsalis, and Martin Puryear, underwritten by the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM), the Vienna Festival-Tanz, the Houston International Festival, the University of Kansas Concert Series, and the Philadelphia Festival Mythos. Then, in 1991, Griot somehow found its way into our prosaic world where dreams have a difficult time surviving the harsh light of day.

The months of effort were rewarded. Griot received ovations in New York, Paris, Vienna, Houston, Philadelphia, and in every other city where it was performed.

Now there is one more important collaborator in bringing Griot to the widest possible public. Margaret Selby, producer of the distinguished PBS series Dance in America, brought enormous energy, exceptional talent, and unlimited affection to the realization of the video of Griot, making it possible for this seminal achievement in dance and music to be seen by millions of viewers.

Griot New York is performed by a group of artists called Garth Fagan Dance, a world-class ensemble founded in 1970 in the inner city of Rochester, New York. The physical beauty of the performers is surpassed only by the daring of their incredible flights through space and their exquisite theatrical intelligence. There is something of the tiger and the lamb in their movements. They remind us of our long heritage as graceful, exuberant, and passionate creatures. Rarely can one see such swiftness of motion combined with such spatial poetry and deeply expressed passion. And, with Griot New York, it also becomes impossible to recall any choreographic and musical collaboration in which dance has so vividly and imaginatively recapitulated the nuances, energies, and innovations of jazz. Yet Fagan’s choreography is not a slave to Marsalis’s fiercely original score. The dance lives a life of its own, rising and falling like tides upon the shore, momentarily merging with the music, only to spin headlong into its own rhythms and its own melodic lines.

Griot New York is divided into several contrasting movements:
“City Court Dance”: brimming with high style and wit in the depiction of human relationships in the global metropolis. Here is a perfect marriage of abstract dance and cheeky street moves.
Fagan has fused the energetic stomp of city kids with the genteel strutting of royal courtiers. It proves to be a cunning innovation, allowing Fagan to make it absolutely clear that his dance is not about just one culture, but about the whole world; that his dance s not about just one moment in time, but about the whole history of time. What he achieves is the liberation of the dances of Fagan Europe which became the seeds of most forms of dancing in the West, including classical ballet. Fagan knows that folk dances were borrowed and sanitized by the aristocracy’s musical servants, turning them into court dances—the frisky gigue and elegant pavane. So he reclaims the gigue from the royal court and gives it back to the people—turning a gleeful old dance on its head in order to give us a swift and wistful lesson in dance history, from Europe’s earliest folk and court dances to America’s hippest fandangos.

“Bayou Baroque”: a dark piece with a sense of tragedy that is larger than the individual or a specific calamity. The movement is full of death and detachment, the fearsome and the mysterious, as well as that part of any enigma that possesses the strange and fascinating beauty of the grotesque.

“Spring Yaounde”: A duet emerges like a flowering tree from the dark landscape of “Bayou Baroque,” a warm gust of life overtaking death. This is probably the most vividly sensual duet ever choreographed. It flows with a celebration of the human body at the same time that it beautifully ritualizes the body’s enormous capacity for passion. In terms of sheer originality, “Spring Yaounde” rivals the singular duet at the heart of George Balanchine’s ballet Agon.

“Sand Painting”: This is Garth Fagan’s meditation on the Navajo Indian ceremonies called “chants” or “sand paintings,” ancient rites devoted to spiritual healing through the use of chants and mandala-like “paintings” created on the ground with colored sand and minerals. Of all the sections of Griot, this piece seems to be the most personal, dealing both with Fagan’s esteem for the late Alvin Ailey, as well as with Fagan’s exploration of the Navajo ritual which heals by bringing people back to the center of themselves.

“The Disenfranchised”: This is the most narrative part of Griot, with deeply touching references to homelessness and poverty, as well as the grave personal losses and the avalanche of despair provoked by the devastations of the AIDS epidemic. Yet, even here, Fagan deals with not just one difficult moment in time but with the history of despair: from the humiliation of slavery to the inhumanity of the Holocaust. This series of agonized movements is an outcry against our indifference to catastrophes so measureless and so persistent that they elude the compassion of a public incapable of grasping the immensity of pain in our numbed and devastated societies.

“Waltz Detente”: After the gloom of “Disenfranchised” come a trio of dances of unimaginable enthusiasm and vitality. The first of these three movements begins with a marvelous change in rhythm from the energy of free-form jazz to a demented European waltz, which Marsalis has turned into a strange and tipsy music that transforms the dancers into fantastic vaudevillian clowns. There are also a few whimsical barbs aimed at the kind of “racial camp” that is dutifully impersonated by a few mindless Native Americans, Hispanics, and African Americans, who buy into the bogus attitudes about how they are supposed to dress and act. From the mad waltz, the music moves directly to the next movement, without a pause.

“Oracabessa Sea”: This exuberant movement draws its title from a Jamaican town known for its blue sea. Here the outlandish tempo of “Waltz Detente” is transformed by a fascinating syncopation, becoming a fantastic mix of African and Caribbean rhythms.

“High Rise Riff: The exhilarating finale, filled with speed, daring, and a great deal of wit and sassiness, is not just another “happy ending”. Throughout Griot New York, Fagan’s satire shrewdly takes aim at just about every urban stereotype, sending up all the nonsensical notions about people of color and the inane preconceptions about who they are and how they are supposed to act out their “ethnicity.” Through ninety glorious minutes of dance theater. Garth Fagan seems to implore us to discover the myriad ways in which we can and will survive the perils and can relish the ecstasies of our great cities. Yet, all of this social consciousness plays out against a marvelous sense of wit and self-mockery, of sensuality and daring, becoming yet another example of the remarkable choreographic range and theatrical brilliance of Garth Fagan.

Jamake Highwater
(The author of thirty books, including Dance. Rituals of Experience, and The Language of Vision)


Choreography and Concept by GARTH FAGAN
Music Composed and Arranged by WYNTON MARSALIS

Original Stage Lighting Design by C.T. OAKES
Lighting Design by ALAN ADELMAN
Music Producer: STEVE EPSTEIN

Executive Producer: JAC VEN2A

Norwood Pennewell, Natalie Rogers, Sharon Skepple, Steve Humphrey, Valentina Alexander, Chris Morrison, Bit Knighton, Bill Ferguson, La Vert Benefield, Joel Valentin, Micha Willis, Lazette Rayford, Sharlene Shu, Ferneasa Cutno, Nicolette Depass

WYCLIFFE GORDON, Trombone & Tuba

Also with:
TODD WILLIAMS, Tenor & Soprano Sax
RON CARBO, Conductor

Griot New York was co-commissioned by the Brooklyn Academy of Music, the Houston International Festival, The Vienna Festival-Tanz ’92, The University of the Arts (Philadelphia/Festival Mythos) and the University of Kansas Concert Series.

Program taped at Performing Arts Center, Purchase College, State University of New York
Special thanks to Liz Thompson
Scenic Design Associate: Michael Puryear
Costume Design Associates:
Charles Schoonmaker and Zinda Williams

Norwood Pennewell, Natalie Rogers, Valentina Alexander, Sharon Skepple, Steve Humphrey, Chris Morrison, Micha Willis, Lavert Benefìeld, Bill Ferguson, Sharlene Shu, Joel Valentin, Lazette Rayford, Ferneasa Cutno.

Wynton Marsalis, Marcus Roberts, Todd Williams, Reginald Veal, Herlin Riley

Natalie Rogers
Steve Humphrey, Sharlene Shu, Chris Morrison, Bill Ferguson, Sharon Skepple, Micha Willis, Lavert Benefield, Ferneasa Cutno, Joel Valentin, Lazette Rayford.

Wynton Marsalis, Marcus Roberts, Wessell Anderson, Todd Williams, Reginald Veal, Herlin Riley.

Norwood Pennewell, Natalie Rogers

Wynton Marsalis, Todd Williams, Wessell Anderson, Wycliffe Gordon, Reginald Veal, Eric Reed

Norwood Pennewell, Natalie Rogers
Sharon Skepple, Steve Humphrey, Chris Morrison, Valentina Alexander, Bit Knighton, Lavert Benefield, Joel Valentin, Ferneasa Cutno.
Wynton Marsalis, Marcus Roberts, Joe Henderson, Bob Hurst, Elvin Jones

Wynton Marsalis, Wessell Anderson, Victor Goines, Wycliffe Gordon, Eric Reed, Herlin Riley, Ben Wolfe, Ron Carbo

Norwood Pennewell & Company

Wynton Marsalis, Todd Williams, Wessell Anderson, Wycliffe Gordon, Reginald Veal, Herlin Riley, Eric Reed

The Company
Wynton Marsalis, Wessell Anderson, Victor Goines, Wycliffe Gordon, Eric Reed, Herlin Riley, Ben Wolfe, Ron Carbo

Valentina Alexander, Chris Morrison, Bit Knighton, Lavert Benefield, Bill Ferguson, Steve Humphrey & Company

Wynton Marsalis, Todd Williams, Wessell Anderson, Wycliffe Gordon, Reginald Veal, Herlin Riley, Eric Reed

Norwood Pennewell, Natalie Rogers, Sharon Skepple
Steve Humphrey, Chris Morrison, Micha Willis, Valentina Alexander, Lavert Benefield, Ferneasa Cutno, Joel Valentin.

Wynton Marsalis, Wessell Anderson, Victor Goines, Wycliffe Gordon, Eric Reed, Herlin Riley, Ben Wolfe, Ron Carbo

Total time: 85:00
A Thirteen Production/WNET in association with Sony Classical Film & Video
Design: Jo DiDonato
Photos: Paul Kolnik