Ask Your Mama: Langston Hughes & Laura Karpman

A choral interpretation of poetry by Langston Hughes.

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COMPOSERS: Karpman,Langston Hughes
ALBUM TITLE: Ask Your Mama: Langston Hughes & Laura Karpman
WORKS: Ask Your Mama (poetry)
PERFORMER: Janai Brugger, Angela Brown (soprano); Nnenna Freelon (vocals); The Roots; Medusa; San Francisco Ballet Orchestra/George Manahan


This richly immersive setting of Harlem poet Langston Hughes’s Ask Your Mama (1961) is more or less uncategorisable: free jazz, gospel, broadway, art song, soul and hip hop are all woven into its shifting, urban tapestry. Described as ‘an attempt to squeeze an entire country into a single piece of music’, it conjures a teeming, kaleidoscopic Ivesian mash-up, had Charles Ives been an African-American.

Hughes’s epic poem of racial oppression was subtitled ‘12 Moods for Jazz’ and dedicated to Louis Armstrong. In the margins he indicated particular songs – like When the Saints Go Marchin’ In, Dixie or The Hesitation Blues – and musical sounds, such as heavy drums or ‘lonely flute’. Composer and producer Laura Karpman takes his cues and weaves in German Lieder (Gretchen am Spinnrade sung by Jessye Norman), samples of Leontyne Price and Marianne Anderson and Gabrieli-like antiphonal brass, which melts into Blues in a thoroughly 21st-century remix. Hughes, the inventor of ‘jazz poetry’, knew how spoken language could be its own music, and his own reading lends a potent resonance.


The cycle features a multitude of voices, including luminous soprano Janai Brugger (winner of Domingo’s 2012 Operalia), jazz vocalist Nnenna Freelon and the powerfully incisive Monét Owens, accompanied by the San Francisco Ballet Orchestra under George Manahan. Musically, inevitably, it’s a mixed bag. As a piece of sonic theatre, its message hits home: ‘Oppression by any other name is just about the same, casts a long shadow, adds a dash of bitters to each song, makes of almost every answer a question, and of men of every race or religion questioners.’ Helen Wallace