A musical sculpture on the National Mall sings 'songs of liberation' An old-fashioned steam calliope designed by luminaries in the worlds of art and jazz is on display at the National Sculpture Garden.

A slavery-era instrument is on the National Mall, singing 'songs of liberation'

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On the National Mall here in Washington, there's an art display with a most unusual sound.


MARTIN: That's an old-fashioned steam calliope, which was a thing that you'd see a lot at a carnival or on a riverboat hundreds of years ago. This calliope was designed by luminaries in the worlds of art and jazz. And as NPR's Neda Ulaby reports, an artist is using the sound to help tell an important story.

NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: Artist Kara Walker is famous for a certain kind of image. They're silhouettes, those black-and-white portraits that used to hang in oval frames or lockets. But Walker's silhouette shows something ugly - slavery at its most brutal in the antebellum South. Her silhouettes seem cut from history's shadows.

KARA WALKER: It’s the liminal space. That's what I'm always drawn to - the ambivalent, the liquid, the fluid.

ULABY: Kara Walker is also drawn to the 1800s, a time in American history when slavery was at its peak.


ULABY: Kara Walker conceived of this project while visiting New Orleans. She heard a jolly steamboat, like this one, while walking through a neighborhood where kidnapped Africans were once held. Surely, she thought, they heard music just like this before getting sold into the nightmare of plantations. Right then hundreds of years seemed to melt away.

JASON MORAN: Musicians often talk about how sound carries.

ULABY: Musician Jason Moran composed music for the steam calliope Kara Walker built. It's called the Katastwof Karavan. Katastwof is taken from Haitian Creole. It means catastrophe. Like history, Moran says, sound carries on in waves. It continues even after you stop hearing it.

MORAN: Not only just passes through you, it gets to the people behind you. It gets to the people blocks away. But also, for most of us - we think that it doesn't end here on this planet either.

ULABY: To build the Katastwof Karavan, Walker found the community of steam enthusiasts online. She worked with one in Michigan to build this 38-note calliope. But instead of pumping out Americana standards, she wanted the instrument to scream and weep. She wanted it to protest and dream. Sometimes it seems to be sounding an alarm. Sometimes it's almost singing spirituals.

MORAN: Sounds - you don't know how you even receive them. You don't know how you know these phrases or you know the way these songs feel.

ULABY: The music is loud in person. It's meant to take up space. It's music, says Jason Moran, like a monument.

ALYSIA THAXTON: I'm glad I have the earplugs (laughter).

ULABY: Alysia Thaxton, in a white raincoat, came to see the calliope at the National Sculpture Garden even in the rain. She's excited. She loves Kara Walker's art. But the silhouettes decorating this caravan - images of enslaved people chained by their necks or caught in the swamps - are not always easy to look at.

THAXTON: All kinds of feelings come up that I don't know how to process.

ULABY: Thaxton says the calliope helps those feelings find a place to go.

THAXTON: It was sort of a release - yeah, a release for me not to hold it all in.

ULABY: Release is how the steam calliope works. Each key releases pressure held inside the instrument's metal pipes. But even at a moment when so many people feel stuck, angry and crave release, Kara Walker says, easy with the steam calliope metaphors.

WALKER: To be released from something, you have to know what's holding you. You have to really know what's binding you.

ULABY: Perhaps, she says, this musical monument has something to offer, when Americans are struggling with new technology, labor and debt crises, ethical consumption and a staggering wealth gap. Here is a machine from the past that has learned new music, she says. It's singing to us in solidarity.

Neda Ulaby, NPR News.


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