I first recently read about singer Serge Kakudji after an unfortunate incident involving him, which happened last month – and is a reminder that the world is still a very ugly place. I will get to that in minute, but first, I have to tell you about Kakudji who is a rather extraordinary person.
He’s an opera singer with a thriving career in Europe, but that itself is far from unusual. There are many black male opera singers working today, but what makes Kakudji unique is that he is a countertenor. Now, there are several other black countertenors, the most prominent of which is Derek Lee Ragin, who’s been preforming for over 20 years, but there still aren’t that many. And Kakudjii is even more unique in that, at least, to my knowledge, he is the first African born countertenor coming from Lubumbashi in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Now for the uninitiated, a countertenor is a male singer who is trained to sing in a high pitched vocal range, almost identical to a female mezzo-soprano, or a contralto, and they specialize almost exclusively, but not entirely, in music of the Baroque classical period from the early 1600’s to the mid-late 18th century. The basic purpose of these singers is to replicate, as much as possible, the vocal range and sound of castrati singers who sang in Baroque operas and performances of the time.
"Castrati" singers started out as young boys who sang in choirs and who were believed to have extraordinary voices. So those chosen were literally castrated (all sanctioned by the Catholic Chruch) in order to keep their voices at that high pitch. As they grew older, their voices became more powerful and stronger, but still retained their high vocal range.
Though the practice was supposedly banned by the church in the late 19th century, it actually still continued, more or less with a wink and nod, for a few more decades. The last known castrati died in the early 20th century.
However, the use of countertenors is now very commonplace in stage and in recordings, and there are quite a few who are big names in the field, such as David Daniels, Bejun Mehta, Ragan, and possible soon Kakudji. Still people who have no knowledge at all of classical music or opera unfortunately tend to freak out or laugh when they hear them.
Kakudji, who first began singing and studying in his native country (as well as in Zimbabwe), after discovering classical music through taped recordings when he was a kid, first made a name for himself in Vienna in 2006, and has been performing all over Europe in opera productions and concerts.
But back in 2013, a documentary about this remarkable and inspiring journey, titled "Reve Kakudji," was released, and played the festival circuit overseas. Although I could not find any film festival in the U.S. that screened it. But it might find some kind of outlet here soon.
But, as I started this post saying, recently things took an ugly turn for Kakudji. Last month, he was the victim of a vicious hate crime when he was savagely beaten during a trip to Palermo, Sicily. No word on whether his attackers were caught.
Kakudji did have this to say about the incident: "The fact of being black almost cost me my life on 20 July in Palermo… I can now walk with just a single crutch. Thank you for your thoughts… Do not forget to respond with love to people who are trying to hurt us."
He also added that he intends to be back on stage very soon.
As I said, the world is an ugly place no matter where you are. One hopes that he will recover quickly and get back to singing.
Below is the trailer for "Reve Kakudji." You’ll also find a brief clip of him from a performance in Madrid, of Claudio Monteverdi’s 1643 opera, "The Coronation of Poppea," in which the character he performs was very obviously inspired by a very famous pop singer.