Composition and arranging techniques from Grand Union Orchestra composer/director Tony Haynes

3: In praise of Eleggua

Another thread that runs through my music for the Grand Union Orchestra is a fascination with traditional West African drum rhythms, and using them to create brass and sax ensembles with lots of cross-rhythms (examples: Freedom Calls, Song of Reconciliation); the background to this is given in the note below. However, writing Can’t Chain Up me Mind, a show we produced to commemorate the bicentenary of the abolition of the transatlantic slave trade, I took a slightly different tack – I began it with an instrumental piece based on a Yoruba chant that itself had been transported, from Nigeria to Cuba.

You will have to do your own research to find sung versions of this chant, which is still heard in Cuba today; the orisha Eleggua is guardian of the cross-roads and said to bless journeys – often invoked by musicians therefore at the beginning of their gigs!

In one version I have heard, the lower voices sing a harmony a 6th below the upper voices: I liked this effect, so I incorporated it into my composition. The GUO arrangement is for a mini-big band – two trumpets, three saxophones, two trombones and tuba. The bass and drums are free (mostly rooted on F, but varying a little to follow the harmonic implications of the brass writing); the African 12/8 feel as ever provides a glorious flow to the music. The MP3 recording, just over 4 minutes long, is an edited version of the complete performance on the video clip, about 9 minutes.

The introduction is based on the first bar of the chant, a ‘call’ echoed by a ‘response’ which recurs throughout the number:


 [Click images for full-size view]

The complete chant, followed by the standard response, is brought in by the saxes under the trumpet solo:

This is expanded in two ways – first by being played in parallel 4ths and 5ths:

and then in triadic harmony that reflects the 6ths referred to earlier:

Then it is played in canon, together with the response, first in the short ‘call’version:

and then at full length:

Finally it is played by the full ensemble as a 3-part canon:

The next section is based on an idea of my own, inspired by another part of the vocal chant:

Drums dominate the rest of the piece, so it seemed an appropriate moment to give the highly rhythmic response its own work-out! It has basically two versions: the first one starts on a pickup beat (on 4, if you are counting the 12/8 in 4 beats to the bar); the second one starts after the downbeat, and corresponds to the common West African bell pattern agbekor or ewe. They have crossed over to interesting rhythmic effect in the earlier canonic sections; here the upper instruments kick off with version one, while the lower instruments answer with version 2, the agbekor rhythm (NB: this section is in the video recording, but omitted in the audio track):

Finally the response figure is chained in a way that crosses the beat, but respects the even-quaver African 12/8:

I produced a fully-scored version of this piece for a project with the Guildhall School of Music big band in autumn 2010. This is available from Grand Union as a score and set of parts, suitable for adventurous student big bands and youth jazz orchestras.


Grand Union’s third touring show, Strange Migration, explored migration and exile, so I set about recruiting performers who themselves had this experience. Among them was Sarah Laryea, who had come to England from Ghana a few years before to join the pioneering ensemble Steel An’ Skin, which memorably combined Caribbean and West African music and dance. A charismatic drummer, singer and dancer – born into a family of a long-line of master-drummers – she brought to Grand Union a wealth of Ghanaian songs and a knowledge of West African drum rhythms that formed the bedrock of much of our early repertoire and workshop practice; this in turn spurred to me to work more with African musicians and ultimately to write a whole range of African-inspired pieces.

It turned out later that Sarah had never played drums in public before she joined Grand Union, as this is regarded as the men’s prerogative in Ghana! Everything she knew, and performed with supreme confidence and aplomb, she reproduced from what she had heard for years and years as a dancer, from the rhythms of the drum ensemble accompanying her. This inspired in me a huge respect for the aural tradition, and none of the wonderful songs Sarah brought to the company were written down, although you hear around the UK today inaccurate and distorted versions of some of the songs she sang with Grand Union. This is why I have not notated the original Eleggua chant: it is important that you hear these sung by, and learn from, authentic artists from the traditions from which they come.


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This entry was posted on August 25, 2011 by in Composition, Music and tagged , , , .
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