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It took composer Liza Figueroa Kravinsky more than 20 years to complete her magnum opus: a swinging musical composition known simply as The Go-Go Symphony. But writing it wasn’t the hard part. So why the two decades? Well, you try finding classically trained musicians who understand the unique timing and rhythm of go-go. “Orchestras are not equipped to play go-go because they don’t have go-go musicians,” Kravinsky says.
Luckily, Kravisnky knew a few. In the late ’80s and early ’90s, she played keyboard in an offshoot of Trouble Funk and an all-female go-go group called Pleasure. In 2012, she called some old go-go friends, held tryouts, and started her own ensemble to play the piece of music she wrote. And in June of last year, they staged a performance on the National Mall. “I thought I would write this one symphony…and that I would have some orchestra play it, and that would be the end of the story,” she says.
Today, the symphony is a motley group of musical modalities, big personalities, and players from all walks of life. Before the band’s Nov. 1 show at Atlas Theater, here’s a primer on some of the Go-Go Symphony’s movers, shakers, and players.
Peter Van Siclen
30, Hartford, Conn.
When former Thurgood Marshall Academy music teacher Van Siclen joined the group, he played saxophone, flute, and sometimes the wind synthesizer. Then, Kravinsky learned he had a knack for arranging and composing. Van Siclen’s Green Line Symphony is a musical jaunt through the Columbia Heights, U Street, Gallery Place, and Anacostia Green Line stops.
“I’m interested in how jazz interacts with funk and more modern styles of music,” he says. “When I moved to D.C., my students in Anacostia taught me a whole lot about go-go—not only Chuck Brown’s original form of go-go, but also the more modern bounce beat, and the differences between these styles.”
Anthony Burt is the group’s percussionist, so you’ll find him onstage banging out go-go rhythms on congas, roto toms, and timpani drums. But drumming isn’t all Burt does—he also composed one of the orchestra’s songs, “Hands Up.”
“[The Go-Go Symphony is] multiracial; we have a lot of different people that come to our shows,” he says. “We’re breaking down different barriers as far as style of music. It’s still go-go, but it’s more symphonic. The average orchestra, people will sit down to listen to it, but our music makes people want to dance.”
Liza Figueroa Kravinsky
Kravinsky says the hardest part about arranging go-go music is allowing the beat enough space to thrive. Go-go is like a bonfire: Too weak, and it’ll never ignite. Too hot, and it might burn the place down.
“Classical music needs some new life to it. They’re losing their audience. Their audience is aging,” she says. “They need to find a younger, new audience. I thought mixing the go-go beats with classical would help do that, would help classical music breathe the current contemporary culture.”
29, Fort Washington, Md.
When the band stops playing, Jenkins starts talking. As the Go-Go Symphony’s MC, it’s her job to get the audience ready to get up and dance. Between written movements, the band jams in go-go time while Jenkins cues up new songs that keep the party atmosphere going.
“The role of the MC as I enjoy it is seeding energy into the crowd and being the voice of the show,” she says. “Getting the audience engaged and making the audience have more fun is primarily my role, the bridge between the audience and the musicians.”
Photos by Joshua Cruse