Music in Your Gardens: Q&A, Kamara Thomas

This summer, we’re proud to present Music in Your Gardens, a free eight-week online concert series showcasing nationally renowned artists who call Durham and the surrounding area home. The series shifts Duke Performances’ longtime summer series, Music in the Gardens, normally held outdoors at Sarah P. Duke Gardens on Duke’s campus, to an online format.

This Wednesday, August 5, we continue the series with Kamara Thomas. The pre-recorded performance will be viewable at 7 PM ET online, free of charge, on our website and on our YouTube page.

Each week, in advance of these performances, Duke Performances’ Michaela Dwyer and this week, DP intern Caroline Waring “sit down” over email to chat with each artist.

We encourage you to check Duke Performances’ blog to read previous Q&As with artists participating in our spring 2020 livestream series. We also invite you to explore or contribute to Duke Arts’ “Arts & Artists Are Essential” collection of voices, opportunities, and offerings, or you can subscribe to receive weekly updates.

What are you reaching for, and toward, within your expansive creative practice to find centeredness these days?

The Earth has been the only thing grounding me these days. Every time I start to freak out on the 2020 roller coaster, I go outside and put my feet on the ground, get my hands in the dirt, do some gardening. Relating to the non-human world helps me put things in perspective. It’s simple and immediate and full of information for whatever the present moment demands. I raise my hand proudly to say I hug trees — they’re incredibly, and literally, supportive. I’ve been painting them with red and white mud as a thanks offering. I’m doing the best I can to sit inside the question of how to play a purposeful role in the collective currents, day to day.

Since 2016, you’ve been working on the songspell project Tularosa: An American Dreamtime. The work, whose thematic anchor is the Tularosa Basin — a long-contested geography in the west of this country, in colonized land that is now called New Mexico — asks the questions, which you’ve distilled, and which I think are worth repeating here: “Why do we feel so entitled to mercilessly exploit the land? Why do we so easily enact violence for our own sense of expansion? Why do progress, dominance, and ‘winning’ seem to be the American values we and our government hold most dear? What are the costs of our individualization? Why do we fear the Other and force our beliefs onto the rest of the world so insistently?”

We could talk for days about these questions, which are central to living and working for so many of us. But to narrow slightly: What does it feel like to sit with these interrogations within the current state of the Tularosa project, and within our personal and political right-now?

American mythological identity has been on my mind for a long time, and honestly I never thought our mythology would come to the surface so plainly, and be so collectively acknowledged as it is starting to be now, so I feel a bit relieved that I’m not crazy. That said, the uprooting and repair work at hand can feel overwhelming. The Tularosa project has been helpful as a framework for processing it. Of course, there may never be satisfactory answers to these questions, but I think they all lead to taproots in our mythology that are way overdue to examine and restructure. 

In the larger Tularosa storytelling project my collaborators and I are trying to make contact with the hubris and vanity and deep, possibly irrevocable folly that define American self-perception. I want the work to aid communal processing, so I’m swimming in that right now when thinking of how to approach the storytelling beyond the song-cycle. I can feel these life-denying “imposter mythologies” driving us, and I’m trying to observe how they play out in real time — from macro to micro, from our collective reactions to my own relationship to loved ones and community.

What Tularosa has always been about is the Land itself and our dissociation from the physical realm, which I think leads to the belief that we can control and dominate and disrespect the environment and each other. It’s a collective psychosis, and I’m struggling with my own culpability within it.  Even the idea that somehow we humans are going to “save” the earth, as if we have that power. I feel like we’re in a waiting/testing period where the Earth is seeing if She wants to keep us around. It’s a question of whether we’re willing to sacrifice our lower-octave ideas of individuality and freedom, in order to come back into connection, harmony, care, and community with the powers that provide the basis of our physical existence. I think when we express individuality and freedom through those elements, it becomes citizenship.

I always have to come back to the stories, though, because I can preach these ideas all day, but it’s my job to get you around the campfire for a good story if I want you to listen.

Something that strikes me about your music is how embedded it is in an earthy, grounded spirituality. On your 2013 album with the Ghost Gamblers, Earth Hero, you write lines like: “All the folks on Prospect Street / Saw the vortex in the sky / As for me I choose to believe / It was aurora borealis.” You give the natural world a mystical and poetic sheen. How are you staying connected to the landscapes that inspire you while at home?

Spending time with the land where I make my home has been inspiring. Nature is teaching me all the time. Birth, growth, responsibility, maturity, death, resurrection — it’s all there. I’ve been working on taking moments every day to look more closely — tree bark, an insect, the birds, a leaf, all contain worlds within worlds. I’ve been getting to the Eno a lot as well; that oh-so-magical and welcoming river has had a lot to say lately.

Your musical work is spatial, and your spatial work musical: theatrical, real-timeembodied performance work is central to the art you create. How has the precipitous shift to virtual existence, transmission, and presentation shifted your sense of the spatial world of performance?

I’ve been embracing it, though I’m still a bit clueless as to all the virtual worlds and communities available. Parenthood this past decade has taught me that working with restrictions on time and resources can produce more potent ideas and simpler ways of getting them across. All of our artforms are getting transformed as they’re called into the virtual space. It has its restrictions and its opportunities. I’ve found as I perform into the virtual space, there’s a certain vulnerability and internal focus that I can access that can be harder in a room full of people. My sense of community is changing, too, as I get called to interact there. Beyond music I’m already having tons of ideas and projects brewing that communicate in that space. I’m also interested in how the experience of being together will be transformed once we can commune in physical space again.

In collaboration with your children, you painted one of the murals in downtown Durham as part of the Pay Black Artists project. Alongside other images and text, you incorporated quilt designs into your painting as an invocation of symbols used along the Underground Railroad in the movement toward freedom. I’d love to hear you describe this experience of image-making and image-marking, in and on the fabric of an aggressively shifting city. 

My daughter brought the quilt patterns home from school a couple years ago (shout out to Club Boulevard Elementary) and like any effective symbol does, they changed me and brought me to a deeper understanding, beyond words. They’re still teaching me and inspiring me so much.

The institutional, corporate, and political forces have forever been using the symbolic world to control our perceptions and beliefs, and I think part of the chaos of the moment is that collectively we’re taking our minds back. So, as we work to take down these monuments to the upholders of slavery, for instance, we’re also collectively uprooting unconscious beliefs about ourselves. It’s messy work, both internally and externally. I think it’s my job as an artist to generate new symbols that represent the good Future and try to replace some of the mythological bedrock.

My time in Durham has been relatively short, so I’m still making covenant with the land here. I’m so incredibly grateful for and indebted to the creative community here. I’m paying close attention to, listening to, learning from, and following the lead of artists with deeper and longer roots here, such as Aya Shabu of Whistlestop Tours, and the folks who put together Tall Grass Food Box. I stand with the downtown Durham mural project statement made by Art Ain’t Innocent and North Star Church of the Arts, and I’m trying to honor the support I’ve received by paying it forward to Durham’s Black creative community whenever and however I can.

What I loved about painting the mural with my daughters is that they reminded me that symbols can still be really simple. A heart still means Love. It’s really important to me to pass on to my kids what I’ve found being an artist. I believe in their power of creativity to open the world up to them, whether or not they want to become artists. In my becoming, I struggled with learning to believe in my vision, and then plan and execute the work, as well as ask for fair compensation. It was invaluable to collaborate with them and pay them and let them know that their creative labor deserved compensation. I was proud when my oldest daughter tried to negotiate for a bigger cut. Of course, then I had to explain about taxes and overhead, hehe.

An intentionally open-ended question I’m asking of all the artists participating in this series: What’s next?

I’m blessed to say so much! I’m focused on releasing the Tularosa album early next year, and starting work with my collaborators David Font of Elegua Records and the Band of Toughs theater company on the multidisciplinary storytelling project. I’m also planning the launch of my project Country Soul Songbook into the virtual space. This month I’ll be participating in a couple virtual panels on Black presence in Country/Americana, and helping to launch a Country Music Against White Supremacy initiative. My next musical appearances will be at the Country Standard Time Black Music Matters Festival and the Whippoorwill Arts Festival the weekend of August 29 & 30.

Duke Performances presents Music in Your Gardens in collaboration with Duke Arts, WXDU, Sarah P. Duke Gardens, Duke Continuing Studies, and Duke Summer Session. Hospitality partners include The Palace International and Locopops.