On Global Filipinos: Tenor Martin Bakari: Opera’s Fil-African American voice

Recording Grigory Smirnov’s ‘Dowson Songs’ at Oktaven Audio in New York. Photo by Grigory Smirnov

By Loida Nicolas Lewis

What a surprise to discover Martin Bakari, a Filipino-African American operatic tenor whose mother was born in Naga City, Camarines Sur and whose father is from Zanzibar, Tanzania.

Bakari recently performed as the tenor soloist at Carnegie Hall in the well-attended “Carmina Burana” concert of the Cecilia Chorus of New York.

“Praised by Opera News as a ‘vocally charismatic’ performer with a ‘golden tenor,’” says the Carnegie Hall program, “Martin Bakari has recently joined Atlanta Opera, Arizona Opera, and Pittsburgh Opera for the title role in ‘Charlie Parker’s Yardbird.’”  

I was introduced to Martin by Aida Bartolome, founder of the Foundation of Filipino Artists Inc. in New York.  I was able to interview him in Seattle where he was rehearsing “The Marriage of Figaro”in preparation for performances with the Seattle Opera.

His mother Maria Purificacion General met his father Iddi Bakari at the University of the Philippines Los Baños where she was a scholar studying sociology. His father was also on a scholarship from the United Nations to study agriculture.

A Mother’s Day celebration with mom Maria Purificacion General-Bakari. Photo by Wendy Alviar

They fell in love and eventually got married in her hometown, the Bicol city of Naga. Martin’s strong-willed and determined mother was not afraid of breaking the conservative rules of Philippine society: marrying an African who is of Muslim faith. They had their first son Umoja (which means “unity” in Swahili), and seven years later the family moved to the United States.

Martin was born shortly thereafter in Seattle where his mother’s aunt, Remy, had immigrated. He was named after St. Martin de Porres and was baptized at the Immaculate Conception Church, Seattle’s oldest Catholic church.

His younger sister Zyna (which means “beautiful treasure” in Swahili) was born seven years after him. His parents intentionally spaced their children seven years apart to allow them “breathing room.”

Martin’s maternal family is very musical. His mother, her 10 siblings, his grandparents, and his many cousins have all enjoyed playing the piano or strumming the guitar, and of course singing karaoke.

When he was 2 years old, Martin’s family moved to Yellow Springs, Ohio near the home of his maternal grandmother Luz. His father’s first job in Ohio was as a dishwasher in a nursing home, and he soon learned what a rewarding and in-demand profession nursing is. He began pursuing his own career as a nurse. After completing his LPN and Registered Nurse studies, he worked in several hospitals and nursing homes and would eventually become a Director of Nursing before retiring.

Martin’s mother worked as a preschool teacher when he was a child, and she later went back to school herself to become a Licensed Massage Therapist. Since earning her license, she has continued her studies throughout the world in various healing modalities, including lymph drainage and craniosacral therapy, which she has used to treat hundreds of individuals in her Yellow Springs office.

His Carnegie Hall dressing room. Facebook photo
Cast as Don Basilio (seated) in Seattle Opera’s ‘The Marriage of Figaro’. Photo by Philip Newton

When Martin was 8 years old, his mother brought him to audition for a local children’s theater company. He would perform with this group for six consecutive summers. Though it was only intended to be a fun, recreational activity for Martin, these early stage experiences ignited his love for the theater.

Martin played trumpet and clarinet in the school band and took piano lessons with a local musician named Karen Gorden. After hearing Martin sing in a high school musical theater production, Gorden encouraged him to take voice lessons and consider auditioning for college voice programs. He took her advice and began taking singing lessons at age 16.

Following his college auditions and graduation from high school, he enrolled at Boston University, where he studied voice and music education. He completed both the Bachelor of Music degree and Opera Institute programs.

His talent, hard work, positive attitude, and dedication helped him win a scholarship to the Juilliard School in New York for his graduate studies in voice. He earned his Master of Music degree in 2013, gained additional training and experience in various young artist programs, landed an agent, and has since enjoyed a career as a principal operatic tenor.

Aside from the above-mentioned opera companies, Martin has performed with the Kennedy Center, Washington National Opera, Dallas Opera, Chicago Opera Theater, Cincinnati Opera, Portland Opera, Utah Opera, Virginia Opera, Detroit Opera, Fort Worth Opera, Opera Carolina, and other esteemed music organizationsHe has also performed with Wynton Marsalis and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra in Marsalis’ “Abyssinian Mass.”

Internationally, he has appeared at major venues in Dresden, Hamburg, Munich, Frankfurt, Cologne, Bari, and Tel Aviv.

In 2018, Martin was a prize winner in the George London Competition. His recording of Grigory Smirnov’s “Dowson Songs”(Naxos) was featured by Opera News as a Critic’s Choice album. 

To what would he attribute his success in the rarefied world of opera? Martin mentioned his mother’s insistence on following his passion, focus, dedication, and most of all, a sense of gratitude to God for all the things he has been given.

To learn more about Martin and keep up with his performances, feel free to visit his website www.martinbakari.com and follow him on Instagram @martinbakari1.


(C) The FilAm 2022

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