Arts & Literature
Skokiaan – Doug Johnson on Music for AIDS Orphans
It’s been well over a decade since the Loving Healing Press published AIDS Orphans Rising by Sister Mary Elizabeth Lloyd and the compassion for the children orphaned by the AIDS epidemic in Africa continued in arts. In music, Doug Johnson created Skokiaan in 2009 as part of a benefit to help orphans in Zimbabwe and Ethiopia impacted by AIDS and hunger.
At age sixteen, Doug learned to run printing presses. He recalls that a squat, Mexican man from California looked at him through his cigar smoke and asked, “Are you sure you want to learn this? Ink gets in your blood.” And ink got in his blood. So in 2006, he launched Cave Moon Press. Doug comes from a very musical family. Music was self-taught and an offering of love, leading him to spend 28 years in a small country church, playing, arranging, and composing on piano. That morphed into finding software, so he could compose for symphony, in case anybody ever needed help with a project.
RTS had a chat with Doug about Skokiaan and music production as well as his publishing work. Readers can see below how Doug has been engaged in arts with a humanistic passion.
What sparked the idea for doing a piece on AIDS orphans?
I arrange and compose for multiple genres and causes. The concert Keys Around the World itself was the reason to compose the piece. I was playing in a traditional marimba band at that time on djembe. The leaders of that band, and I came up with the idea of generating a benefit concert. They were already performing the traditional arrangement of Skokiaan. I arranged my piece so I could customize the program for the concert.
What kind of music is Skokiaan?
My first experience with the piano was to learn the blues scale and chord structures of American jazz. I spent my 28 years coming up with a way to blend that improvisational metaphor with traditional pieces. This was my version.
Tell us about the meaning of Skokiaan and how it relates to the creative spirit of the piece.
Skokiaan in the traditional arrangement has many percussive harmonies and rhythms on a band full of marimbas. I was told it translates to “Happy Africa” and comes out of South Africa. It has somehow sifted through the subconscious of American jazz. Louis Armstrong arranged a version.
Has it been performed in concerts or special events?
This was only performed at this concert for AIDS orphans in 2011. Like I said I customize pieces for the venues. At that time, I was arranging music in my head every week for a small country church. I played other venues and always scripted the songs out in my head for the specific audience.
Your press has published poetry collections. Have any poems from your titles inspired you to create music?
That’s a tough question. I am also a visual artist, drawing and painting, and a teacher. I’m can’t reach into my head and pull out one title from a work. Cave Moon Press has been around for sixteen years, and to be honest, I scramble to help the get books into the world. I’m not trying to dodge your question. It’s kind of like do I have a favorite child? Do I have a favorite meal? Life is a grand buffet, and I’m grateful for all my children.
Do you think today’s digital age has taken music production to a whole new level?
It is a challenge to communicate to this generation of creators: the poets, artists, composers, and writers, what it took when I started in the mid 1980’s. My mentors, who are even older, can even tell you it took longer. What now sits on my laptop in software for the production of a book, used to take up the entire floor of a building. I started when I was 13 cleaning cameras about the size of a smart car, or large golf cart. The chemicals were caustic and had to be changed on a weekly basis. I had to hand script all my compositions for choir and symphony. I was chatted with an old school composer and he still did it that way. The cost of music software and equipment was astronomical with a tenth the quality we have now. Whole new level doesn’t begin to describe the process. How did you people live before the refrigerator? How did you people exist before the internet? I couldn’t run Cave Moon Press without this whole new level. Life-changing.
Tell us about some of your publishing and music projects in progress.
We just launched a beautiful project in March, Stronger Than Fear. Carol Alexander, and Stephen Massimilla, of Columbia University in New York were able to attract poets like Naomi Shihab Nye, Rita Dove and other luminaries to an anthology of poems. The book offers poems of empowerment for all walks of life. Oh! I forget to say that in this new world, Cave Moon Press operates to make the world better one book at a time by donating back to causes with each project. Stronger Than Fear benefits the Malala Fund.
What is coming down the line is a YA mystery series written for middle school children. These novels have an indigenous hero (Yakama tribe) who helps solves murders in his small town. He is a quiet science geek with Asperger’s, so the books also address the challenge of how disabled children deal with the public school system. I am working with a local university to launch the “Violet Lumley Rau Literacy Project” to help fund early learning literacy priorities in our community. I live in the second poorest county in my state, and it is an awesome privilege to have the internet as a tool to leverage. Global resources can be brought to bear on social justice issues that need solved right next door.
My music life as slowed down a bit. I find myself in the same place as 2006, needing to explore Patreon and other digital solutions to get your music out into the world. Most of my music comes out of collaboration. When I wrote Obama’s Prelude for symphony, I was arranging music with a professor out of Kenya. If you know anyone that needs some help, let me know. If any of your readers can help a greying composer negotiate this new world, let me know. I love to learn.
During my research, I’m picking up my paint brushes again. I am working on a painting of witness simply out of conscience. It is entitled Shooting Fish in a Barrel of Tears: Prayers for Uvalde. We all need to pray. The world needs to be better for our children.
Thank you Doug for taking the time for this chat.
This has been awesome. Thank you very much for the chance to talk about ways to help the world.