The San Antonio nonprofit arts organization Musical Bridges Around the World (MBAW) is known for its ongoing mission to build bridges between nations through music.
However, racial tensions heightened by the Minneapolis police killing of George Floyd in 2020 and subsequent protests had MBAW turn its attention back home, looking to bridge gaps in understanding among cultures inside the United States.
In considering how to broach the topic for MBAW’s Musical Sprouts youth education program, which has focused on the music of world regions considered trouble spots such as Syria, the Palestinian territories, Iraq and Ukraine, Director of Advancement Suhail Arastu said, “We asked what the need was in the schools. And they said, ‘We understand that you’re Musical Bridges Around the World, but we are suffering as a nation from these racial tensions. … How can we showcase for the kids the beauty of African American music?’”
The result is The Quilt, an hourlong documentary film exploring the roots, outgrowths and influences of African American music from the time of slavery to the present day.
Director Julya Jara originally embarked on the project for the Musical Sprouts program in part because the coronavirus pandemic spurred a shift to video production, but she said it eventually became a dedicated film project in itself.
The title and concept originated with San Antonio writer Cynthia Freeman Gibbs, who wrote the script for the film and became its co-narrator, along with her 14-year-old niece Lauren Anya Hunter.
Freeman Gibbs envisioned a metaphor for interconnections between a range of musical styles featured in the documentary: slave songs, spirituals, the blues, ragtime, jazz, music of the Harlem Renaissance period, gospel, music of the civil rights movement, R&B and hip-hop.
“You can look at all the different connections between music from the past and the music that we listen to today,” Freeman Gibbs said of her approach to the script. “I thought that would be important for kids — and anyone — to realize that it’s not separate,” but culture and historical facts are “interwoven and connected and all stitched together.”
The metaphor concisely illustrates “the interconnectedness of all of the people and cultures and how big of an impact African American culture has,” Jara said.
Filmed in segments, each style can be taught separately during the five-week Musical Sprouts program, or together as a one-hour film that can be shown at film festivals or broadcast on television or presented online. MBAW’s Musical Sprouts program serves the San Antonio, North East, Southwest, South San Antonio and Devine independent school districts for the 2021-22 academic year, and the six elementary schools that will receive The Quilt are Price, Palo Alto, Southwest, Devine, Kriewald Road and South San.
The documentary features performances by leading figures in Texas music including jazz scholar and performer Aaron Prado, who wrote original music for the film, and pianist Arlington Jones of Dallas, vocalist Beverly Houston, mezzo-soprano Veronica Williams, trombonist Ron Wilkins, blues singer and guitarist Marc “Mockingbird” Smith and Andrea “Vocab” Sanderson, a musician and current San Antonio poet laureate.
“The Quilt: A Living History of African American Music” concert Jan. 23 at San Fernando Cathedral will feature artists from the film presenting their various musical specialties.
Serendipity also played a significant role in producing the film, Jara said. While visiting the Carver Community Cultural Center during filming, Jara noted an exhibition of work by members of the African American Quilt Circle of San Antonio and asked if their quilts could be featured in the film’s opening sequence.
“We were lucky to … catch that moment and bring it into the film,” Jara said. “It really helped us to tie everything together.”
Making such an elaborate production for the first time as an organization has taught everyone involved to expand their skill sets and explore their own creativity, said Anya Grokhovski, MBAW CEO and artistic director.
“This project became a labor of love to a lot of creative minds,” Grokhovski said. “It brought about the best creative juices in people, and they’ve continually surprised us.”
While the release date for the finished film has not been set, the Jan. 23 concert will serve as a live, in-person preview. The concert is free but tickets are required for entry, with registration available here.
This story has been updated to reflect the correct name of the African American Quilt Circle of San Antonio.