The composer spoke to Love London Love Culture’s Emma Clarendon about The Grand Union Orchestra’s upcoming performance of ‘Uncharted Crossings’ at Shoreditch Town Hall.
Thanks so much for talking to me. What can audiences expect from Uncharted Crossings? Some great music – moving and exhilarating by turns – celebrating the remarkable impact of African music on our culture; and some powerful performances by charismatic musicians and singers of African heritage. The Grand Union Orchestra not only boasts some remarkable singers, but also leading jazz players like saxophonist Tony Kofi and the brilliant South African trumpeter Claude Deppa. And since it features African and Caribbean rhythms, different drumming styles will be well to the fore, led by djembe/talking drum master Francis Fuster from Sierra Leone.
Can you tell me a bit more about the musical choices made for the performance? I wanted the event to be celebratory, while not denying some of the horrors of the past. Chief among these, of course, is the transatlantic slave trade, when over 500 years ago millions of Africans were transported to Brazil, Cuba, the West Indies and southern states of the USA. In horrific circumstances, they took with them their customs, their culture and their religions; remarkably these survived in the New World, and above all their music has developed into an extraordinary legacy. So aspects of these traditions form the bedrock of the show.
How can music be used to tell the backstory of the Windrush generation effectively? As ‘back-story’ suggests, I wanted to go behind the Windrush story itself, and look at where the people (and indeed Caribbean music) came from. The recent scandals about the way the Windrush migrants have been treated are in a way another example of the treatment of African-descended people over the centuries, including the Transatlantic slave trade. Because ultimately most Caribbean people will trace at least part of their ancestry back to Africa, the story can be told through a variety of musics reflecting those traditions. However, in this case there are also songs and singers, so the lyrics can tell contemporary stories – of, for example, obstacles and prejudice faced by immigrants today.
How easy was it to come up with the programme for Uncharted Crossings? Most of the music is therefore rooted in African chants and rhythms – combined with compositions of my own. I am particularly inspired by West African Yoruba culture – which of course also survives to this day in Northeast Brazil and Cuba (as a consequence of the slave trade). Unsurprisingly traditional West African, Afro-Cuban and Caribbean rhythms dominate, and different drums and styles of drumming are a strong feature of the show.
What do you hope the evening will achieve? I hope audiences will be both emotionally moved and viscerally excited by the music. I hope they will also note that – although created in present-day cosmopolitan London by a diverse variety of musicians and singers – its own ancestry can be traced in the imagination across the Atlantic in both directions, and back to the Africa which inspired it originally! I hope they will also think more deeply about history and questions around migration – which has so profoundly shaped our society.
After this performance, what is next in store for the Grand Union Orchestra? Next year we begin with a similar project, but concentrating instead on some the other cultures in East London, and the range of musical traditions that flourish here – certainly Bangladeshi and other Asian (like Chinese), perhaps also (or later in the year) East European, Roma and Turkish). There will a special focus on Bethnal Green, as well as the wider sub-region. We are also well-known for large-scale projects involving young people and community groups: we are currently engaged in one with schools in Merton for the Albert Hall in March, then later in the year Croydon (Fairfield Halls) and Hackney.
By Emma Clarendon
Uncharted Crossings will be performed at Shoreditch Town Hall on the 9th December. For more information visit: http://grandunion.org.uk/uncharted-crossings.php