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Nossa Senhora Suite

Deanna Witkowski

Traditional Afro-Brazilian expressions of the Virgin Mary merge with new music for jazz quartet plus voices.


Photo credit: Jason Gardner Photography

UPDATE (Jan 25, 2017): I've received a residency fellowship from the Sacatar Institute in Itaparica, Bahia, Brazil! I'll be spending two months at Sacatar (dates TBA) to begin work on the Nossa Senhora Suite.

The Nossa Senhora Suite (NSS) merges Afro-Brazilian expressions of the Virgin Mary with jazz composition, culminating in public performances and a new album featuring my jazz quartet plus voices. Each movement will explore a different Brazilian manifestation of  Mary, including Nossa Senhora Aparecida, patron saint of Brazil, and Iemanjá, goddess of the seas. NSS will combine regional rhythms, melodic lines, or songs associated with Mary with newly composed music for my instrumental jazz quartet: soprano/tenor sax, piano, bass and drums; auxiliary percussion; and four vocalists.

NSS reflects my longstanding relationship with Brazilian culture. As an adult, I studied Portuguese and am now a fluent speaker. I have performed in Brazil on three occasions: in 2006, 2007, and 2010. While I have been active in the NYC Brazilian jazz scene since 1998 and have released five albums as a leader, this will mark my first recording to focus solely on my work in Brazilian music, and is a necessary next step.

NSS also furthers my ongoing work in combining jazz and religious liturgy in the context of specific communities. I have composed over eighty liturgical jazz works and actively work with congregations around the country as a guest performer/composer.

As a newly named Sacatar Institute Fellow, I will complete a two-month residency in Itaparica, located outside of Salvador, Bahia in Brazil, to begin NSS-related research. Bahia itself is central to the project because of its concentration of churches and of terreiros, spaces where the Afro-Brazilian religion of candomblé is practiced.

I am particularly interested in learning Marian music from women who are devotees of Nossa Senhora in any form, whether Iemanjá or Nossa Senhora Aparecida. Learning their songs or even specific words that they associate with Nossa Senhora will then inform my own composing of the new work. Musically, the vocal writing will include part-writing (SA, TB, SATB) as well as improvisation and interaction with the instrumentalists, both with text and wordless vocals.

NSS will receive its premiere in the 2017-18 academic year at Union Theological Seminary. UTS is donating the use of James Chapel, a space routinely used for public art and music events. UTS will also host an educational workshop that I will plan with Dr. Claúdio Carvalhaes, a UTS professor originally from São Paulo. The workshop will focus both on the musical results of my research as well as on my interactions with devotees of Nossa Senhora. Both the concert and the workshop will be open to the public, and the concert will be videotaped for dissemination on my website and on YouTube.

Post premiere, the suite will be recorded and released as my sixth album. I will reach out to my venue network from my past appearances in traditional concert venues, colleges and churches to begin touring in 2018. Because NSS will hold interest for both traditional concert venues and religious institutions, it will impact a wide range of communities.