Carnegie Mellon University
January 31, 2019

Carnegie Mellon Historian, Collaborating Artists Debut "Casop: A Requiem for Rice"

New symphonic work tells stories of slaves on Lowcountry rice plantations

By Abby Simmons

Abby Simmons
  • Dietrich College of Humanities and Social Sciences
  • 412-268-6094

"Casop: A Requiem for Rice" a new contemporary classical symphonic work that tells the stories of Africans enslaved on Lowcountry South Carolina and Georgia rice plantations, will premiere at 7 p.m., Feb. 13, at the Carnegie Music Hall in Oakland.

Edda L. Fields-Black, associate professor of history at Carnegie Mellon University, is the project's executive producer and librettist.

"'Casop' is a new approach to teaching slavery, one that takes the humanities into a new realm. We are taking history off the shelf and putting it on the stage," Fields-Black said. "We mourn the souls of the enslaved who died, their bodies unburied, their suffering unmourned and their sacrifices unmarked."

Composed for full symphony orchestra and choir, the new work is an African and African-American inspired take on a classic requiem — in the spirit of Verdi, Mozart, Faure and Britten. The orchestral debut has been supported by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, and the original score has been commissioned by the Pittsburgh Foundation’s Benjamin Harris Memorial Fund and Nicky Horvitz Gordon Memorial Fund, the Heinz Endowments Small Arts Initiative and the Opportunity Fund.

"'Casop' is an important work that challenges conventional thinking about slavery and African culture, including its technological advancement, and I hope it finds a wider audience and stimulates public discussion and greater understanding," said Doron Weber, vice president, programs and program director, Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.

Other principal artists involved with the project are three-time Emmy Award-winning composer John Wineglass, internationally renowned director and filmmaker Julie Dash, and distinguished cinematographer David Claessen. The Colour of Music Orchestra and Chorale, an elite group of classical musicians and vocalists of African descent, will travel to Pittsburgh from its Charleston, South Carolina, headquarters to present the work.

Fields-Black has written extensively about the trans-national history of West African rice farmers and served as a consultant on the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture's permanent "Power of Place" exhibit. "Casop" incorporates her primary research from Works Progress Administration and slave narratives, travelers' accounts and archeological reports to recover the voices of enslaved Africans and bear witness to the humanity, labor, skill and suffering of blacks engaged in rice production.

Paul Gardullo, Smithsonian National Museum of African-American History and Culture museum curator, said "Casop" is a powerful demonstration of the role art and music can play in reliving history.

"By breathing life into this history and seeking a way to express not just the horror of racial slavery, but also the creativity and resilience people of African descent who cultivated crops and shaped the landscape while keeping their lives and culture whole, 'Casop' will fill a massive silence in the history that no book or archive can. This work is a transformative force for truth-telling, for healing, for reckoning and for beauty within and despite pain." 

West African rice production technology — developed by farmers in the Upper Guinea Coast more than 500 hundred years before the Transatlantic slave trade — laid the foundation for South Carolina and Georgia's commercial rice industry and made South Carolina's rice planters the richest with the largest slave holdings in the nation. Fields-Black said the floods fertilizing the inland and tidal rice fields created the deadliest living environments for enslaved laborers in the U.S. South.

The requiem draws on funerary traditions among the Diola-Fogny, rice farmers who lived along the Casamance River of present-day Senegal. In the event of untimely, accidental and suspicious deaths, Diola-Fogny ritual specialists performed casop, a "ritual interrogation of the corpse" via spirit possession. During the funeral, the deceased was asked to tell his or her story about the circumstances of death. Once the truth was revealed, the dead would be buried and harmony and peace restored to the community. In "Casop," Fields-Black, Wineglass and collaborators turn lamentation into celebration of the critical role enslaved Africans' ingenuity, technology and industry played in the economy of the U.S. South. They establish casop as a new genre through which all oppressed peoples can tell their own stories.

"Our ancestors lost their youth, health, lives and children as a result of reshaping the coastal landscape, carving rice fields out of cypress swamps, building earthen embankments and moving as much earth with hand tools and baskets as was displaced to construct the Panama Canal," Fields-Black said. "Yet, there are no memorials to commemorate their appalling sufferings, involuntary sacrifices or immeasurable contributions.”

Tickets are now available on the Colour of Music Festival website. Tickets are $30 for adults, $20 for students and seniors (ages 60-plus), and free with a CMU ID. Groups of 10 or more may purchase tickets at a discounted rate of $25 for adults and $15 for students and seniors. Email for the CMU ID and group promo codes.

The project, three years in the making, is part of CMU's Martin Luther King Jr. Day Celebration. "Casop" was originally funded by CMU's Center for the Arts in Society, a research center in the Dietrich College of Humanities and Social Sciences and College of Fine Arts that investigates the role of arts in societies and the intersection between the humanities and the fine arts. Numerous foundations, corporations and individuals have provided funding for the project.

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