On Sunday, Oct. 3 at 3 p.m., the Englert Theatre will host an exclusive performance of John Rapson’s final work, Esteban and the Children of the Sun. Tickets are $25 for general admission, $10 for students, with masks and proof of vaccination/negative COVID test required.
Esteban is a suite of 14 songs performed by 13 musicians, composed or arranged by five distinguished artists from diverse musical backgrounds. During the performance, a slideshow of images and some narrative text will recall the world of Esteban, who was born in 1500 in Morocco and, after being enslaved by the Spanish and stranded in Florida, became the first African to travel across North America. The performance is the culmination of Rapson’s vision and a true testament to his artistic process, which emphasized how the careful preparation of parts creates the conditions for something vital, delightful, creative and beautiful to emerge. His creative invitation to what exceeds expectations is extended to each person present.
Esteban and the Children of the Sun weaves together history, image and music with commentary about how the story relates to contemporary life. This commentary was written by local poet Caleb Rainey and will be performed by Rainey along with local blues musician Kevin Burt (who has garnered international acclaim). Rapson gave Rainey a map of the story, including points where levity was important — but more importantly, gave him permission to create.
According to Rainey, “What was great is [Rapson] knowing that he didn’t have the experience of saying what he knew needed to be said,” Rainey said, “and insisting ‘I hired you to do what you do. So do it. I trust you.'”
This process in faith informs how Esteban was born. Rapson believed that the story needed to be told, and he knew that others’ voices were vital in bringing it to life. So he invited talented collaborators to embody what he envisioned.
“[Rapson] had parts of stories that he sent me, different ideas, and he’d point a direction of what he’d like the feel to be,” said Burt (guitar, harmonica, vocals), who composed four songs in addition to performing with Rainey. “But he wanted songs that had the emotional grasp but weren’t just focused on the time or the specific individual—something that applied to the individual but had a broader scope.”
This method of working based on inspiration and trust echoes throughout Rapson’s career. Daniel “Nielo” Gaglione (mandole, vocals) composed four pieces for Esteban. He became one of Rapson’s closest collaborators after a first hour-long conversation about Hot Tamale Louie, which was so inspiring to both that they composed the work in a week.
Gagilone notes that the idea to create another project came quickly, but says, “[It] took John time to find the principal subject.” Rapson spent three years studying Cabeza de Vaca before realizing, Gagilone said, that “Esteban was the one he wanted to talk about, write music for and honor.” This shift helped both feel that the spark was there. “At the moment he knew, we met like we did for the first time, and I composed four pieces of music in one week.”
Tara McGovern attests to this strength as a long-standing trait of Rapson’s life and career. She began working with him as a student in 1997, and she currently serves as the vice president of HTLIC Media, the non-profit that Rapson set up to produce Hot Tamale Louie and which will continue to produce future collaborations by artists from Iowa.
“What made John extraordinary as a teacher, McGovern said, “was his genuine curiosity and kindness and his demonstrative commitment to valuing each individual’s experience.” The egalitarian themes of love in his public work flowed outward from his consistent private interactions. “There was no hierarchy for him in musical style, background, educational experience, age or any of the fabricated ways that we tend to separate people. All of those qualities shine in collaborations like Esteban and Louie because he consistently centered making space for the untold stories that piqued his curiosity and exploring the ways in which collaboration enriches the storytelling experience.”
Audiences know that the thrill of a live show comes from life — the particular details and circumstances that would be impossible to predict, but can only be lived. These are also the qualities of a good story, which is why Rapson’s later works incorporate elements beyond instruments.
“[For Rapson,] music making is how we make sense of life,” said Trevor Harvey, president of HTLIC Media (who also arranged the slides of narrative text and images). “Music isn’t done in a vacuum but moves in other forms of expression and experience.” Harvey described Rapson’s notes as “flashes of images” and believes John hoped the slides would “pull the curtain back for the audience to show how his sound world emerge or come to exist.”
For Burt, one of the things he’s most grateful for is how Rapson’s family provided the passion and support to let the project live. The CDs, available for sale at the show, attest to this. The music was conducted and recorded at Rose Hill, the home of Rapson’s daughter, during a scramble for suitable studio space.
“[Recording here] was his idea,” Hannah Rapson states, “and it birthed a new collaboration. With me. It was a chance to make more life together.” She adds, “I think the music will speak for itself. … My dad lived for music [and] the music kept him alive longer.
Harvey emphasized that Sunday’s performance will be one of a kind in that these artists may never again perform together. The performance will be filmed, and Harvey is hopeful that HTLIC Media will make the recording more widely available in the future. Fortunately, the non-profit will also keep alive John’s “type of work, he said, especially “the commitment to artistic collaboration, supporting a diversity of musical backgrounds and perspectives and supporting local musicians and music making.” These values shine at the core of Esteban and the Children of the Sun, helping those who experience it feel the joy and beauty of being alive.
Gaglione and McGovern (as KERAK) debuted one of the songs as a duet during the Summer of the Arts festival, and this small glimpse let those around sense the beautiful and life-affirming nature of the work. Sunday promises to be exponentially better, with a full roster of images in a multi-dimensional performance. Additionally, each person connected to the project seems inspired by the chance to bring Rapson’s vision to life.
As Burt put it, “It’s turned everyone’s fire and focus up just a little bit more. Our hopes, our desires are turned up. It’s a little bit more intense, but with a wide open heart — because that’s what John did.”