Del Rey resident Sebastian Blue is a senior at New Roads School and a local music performer who received a full-tuition scholarship to Berklee School of Music in Boston for next year. PHOTO CREDIT: Larry Hirshowitz

Sebastian Blue creates concept album of William Shakespeare’s “The Tempest”

By Bridgette M. Redman

Sebastian Blue wasn’t about to let a pandemic slow him down from creating and getting the most out of his high school experience. A sophomore when his school sent students home in 2020, he is now a senior and launching several parts of his multi-year project — an album and stage production of a de-colonized “Tempest” by William Shakespeare.

His recorded album — done in collaboration with artists around the world — was released on all streaming media on Black Friday. The hour-long concept album called “Full Fathom Five” has 13 tracks that Blue did as part of an independent study project with New Roads School in Santa Monica.

Blue, a Del Rey resident, performs throughout the area and recently received a full-tuition scholarship to the Berklee School of Music in Boston. He started the Shakespeare project in March 2020 just as lockdown was beginning.

“On March 13, we were told to leave and never come back,” Blue said. “That day I bought my very first electronic piano. I had been playing piano for 12 years and never owned a keyboard. The head of the school said, ‘Find a project to do with your life,’ so I bought a keyboard and I wrote an EP for myself.”

Blue said he had been playing music all his life, but this marked the beginning of his journey into creating music. He would take his keyboard out to local parks, the marina, Westchester restaurants and the beach so he could share his music and listen to the ocean.

Project morphs into retelling of Shakespeare

Then the school announced that any sophomores, juniors or seniors could do an independent study project where they could create whatever they wanted and use school resources. Many of Blue’s fellow students wrote papers, but he wanted to go in a different direction and create an album.

As for the choice of story, Blue said “The Tempest” has long been a favorite of his. When he was 10 or 11, he was really into magic tricks so his father took him to see a production of “The Tempest” in which Raymond Teller from Penn and Teller was performing as Prospero.

“This production had magic tricks and live music, it was so amazing,” Blue said. “I’m not sure I knew what it was about, but it was so cool to look at.”

Later, he learned that his dad had a shared love for the play and used it as his thesis in journalism school. Blue approached his English teacher, whom he knew was a Shakespeare scholar, and told him he wanted to do a concept album on “The Tempest.”

Themes pull artist up short

Not everything went smoothly at first. Blue started to write the music and re-read the script. As he dove into it, he realized that there was a lot of pro-colonialism in the story.

“I don’t want to advocate for colonizing countries and owning slaves — and those are the good guys,” Blue said. “So, I sat back and took a break.”

During the detour, he turned to one of his teachers who was a priest of Santero, also known as Lukumi, an African-based religion brought from Yoruba to Cuba. Blue reached out for help on a song he wrote that he was supposed to play at the school’s jazz festival which was canceled because of the pandemic.

They read through several books of songs belonging to Lukumi and there was one where the words perfectly fit his melody. Each of the religion’s songs belong to a particular deity or spirit and have their own rhythms and songs. The one that jumped out to Blue was about a particular orisha named Eshu. Orisha are the spirits and deities of Lukumi.

The words that fit his melody described bowing down to pray, a simple but devout prayer. Blue asked the priest to record a percussion part for the song. While they were working on that, Blue heard back from his English teacher who had a resource that he thought would help him get through his block.

The resource was a book called “A Tempest” by Aime Cesaire, a Martinique playwright who rewrote the play to be performed by a troupe of Black actors and to excise the themes of colonialism in it. Written in 1969, it is infused with Garvian ideology of Black liberation and Caribbean French-speaking literature and poetry.

“I was reading it and it was the craziest thing I’d seen,” Blue said. “This is what I want to do. He decolonized the themes of ‘The Tempest.’ This was perfect and I want to do this with music.”

Then he found a further surprise that cemented his connection to it. He got to the scene where Prospero is putting on a wedding play for Miranda and Ferdinand. In Shakespeare’s version, Roman gods make an appearance. In Cesaire’s version, the deity was Eshu.

“That was the deity of the song I had just spent two weeks on,” Blue said. “It all aligns. It’s not like he is that well-known. I was so surprised. That kind of started me off. Since then, I have worked with over 60 musicians in over a dozen different countries and all around Los Angeles.”

Group project takes on international flair

Blue’s collaborations range from West Africa and Brazil to the Caribbean, Mexico, South Africa and Asia. He sought out like-minded people who wanted to help him tell the story and they met on Zoom, speaking seven different languages, and created together.

Contributors included Moyi Mbourangon — or Martial Pa’Nucci — a West African rapper who spoke to Blue from his exile in Burkina Faso and a trio of Mexican musicians who speak a rare Mayan dialect.

The project took nearly a year.The 13 tracks on the record mix genres — much, Blue said, the way that the colonial word mixes cultures. Songs are done in the styles of classical choir, Latin jazz, traditional religious percussion, folk rock, spiritual, indie rock, Afrobeat, Mayan/English/Congolese/French rap, Chicago-style hip hop, singer-songwriter, poetry, opera/musical theater, contemporary classical, salsa, orchestral and sea shanty.

“The through line is that I wanted it to feel like it is all heart music,” Blue said. “It is all honest music, whatever culture it comes from. It is performed from the heart, just pouring your heart into your violin or drums or your guitar.”

The lyrics are more interpretative than a straightforward narrative. Blue said he took inspiration from “Spring Awakening” and the way it used lyrics.

Album to take the stage

With the album complete, Blue began another independent study project. At the end of this school year, he will have put the show on stage — performing set design, lighting design, costuming, music design and casting.

The title of the album and the stage version comes from the character Ariel, whom Blue turned into more of a narrator voice. In the original, Ariel sings to Ferdinand, telling him that his father is dead: “Full fathom five thy father lies; of his bones are coral made; those are pearls that were his eyes: nothing of him that doth fade but doth suffer a sea-change into something rich and strange.”
It was a lyric that Blue felt works in multiple ways.

“It’s the first song of the album,” Blue said. “When I heard that, I was working with these Caribbean and African musicians and I couldn’t help but think of the transatlantic slave trade. ‘Your father is dead beneath the ocean’ reminded me of all the bodies that were thrown overboard. I chose that to be the central focus.”

Caliban, the “monster” who is enslaved by Prospero, also undergoes a transformation. His story is told with music that pays homage to Black American music and African music — all of which is performed on the album by musicians with those origins. The lyrics he uses in Caliban’s songs object to his being named ‘devil monster’ and called wicked.

Album helps to say goodbye

While Blue is deep into writing the script for his project, he is also preparing to leave LA to go away to college.

“Over the past couple months, I’ve been mourning that loss,” Blue said. “This is an amazing place and I’ve found so many people to work with here. It is such a melting pot that I couldn’t get anywhere else.”
However, Blue also said that he’s ready to find new places in the world. The last lyrics on the record are: “And after all, I’m going home, heading toward new horizons.”

“It’s pretty much Prospero telling Ariel that he is going back to his hometown,” Blue said. “But for me, I turned it on its head and I am going to be finding my own home. This was Shakespeare’s last play. This is my first, my opening soiree into the world. I am picking up and going out, leaving home and saying goodbye.”

While the live production at his school will be an abbreviated version because of all Blue has to juggle, he said he would love to someday turn this into a full-length production.

“For now, I’m just a high school kid,” Blue said.”

Sebastian Blue