Composition and arranging techniques from Grand Union Orchestra composer/director Tony Haynes
One of the very special moments in 11.11.11 at the Hackney Empire last November – itself one of the most successful and unusual shows Grand Union has ever produced – was the performance of Yemen by singer/baglama player Günes Cerit from the Grand Union Youth Orchestra and ‘Second Generation’ group.
The song was absolutely appropriate to the theme of the evening, celebrating the spirit of Armistice Day. It’s a stirring indictment of conscription, in this case of Turkish men being sent to fight a bloody war in which they had no direct concern – in Yemen, which gives it a further spine-tingling resonance in this year of the Arab Spring.
However, the song was not new to us – it was one of the pieces I arranged for a project with the well-known Anatolian singer Sabahat Akkiraz about 15 years ago and which was subsequently recorded; the story of this collaboration is told below, and this analysis is built around a shortened version of that recording. (The full version, about half as long again, appears on the Grand Union CD Around the World in 80 Minutes, together with other pieces from this collaboration.)
The tonal centre of the piece is B, based on a B minor scale with a sharpened 6th (‘Dorian mode’), but with the half-flattened 2nd degree of the scale, somewhere between C sharp and C natural, which is very characteristic of Turkish music; and it has a typical 5-beat rhythm. The excerpt starts with a statement of the ‘verse’ by the baglama (saz), played twice:
This is accompanied by a military-sounding snare drum tattoo, which features more prominently in the fuller versions of this piece, breaking the rigid pattern up a little:
Another characteristic of Anatolian melodies is the repetition of sequentially-descending phrases. In this song the structure is unusual, in that the voice only enters with the highest phrase – a kind of ‘chorus’ – after the saz has played the ‘verse’ part of the melody twice:
The pedal B comes in here (with the rhythm section) for the first time, but then – for dramatic and musical reasons, and to underline this structure – I shift the bass to E (suggesting a kind of E minor 9th harmony) for the ‘verse’ melody (which is again repeated). This time around, the instruments (flugelhorn and flute) take over the ‘chorus’, but against a half-time feel, 5/4 rather than 5/8:
…and in later performances, including the Hackney Empire 11.11.11 show, I added a women’s chorus here, singing an English translation of the Turkish lyrics:
As you can see in Example 4, the rhythm now has an unusual kind of 5-beat Latin feel (not unlike the ‘Killer Joe’ keyboard rhythm in example 6/1 below!) – already suggested in some of the baglama rhythms, in fact – which can be notated like this:
This becomes the backing for the flugelhorn solo, which for contrast and variety dips down to B flat minor before coming back to B minor. Then the instruments play the original ‘verse’ melody in 5/8 against this 5/4 feel – again over an E rather than a B root – before the voice comes in as before with the ‘chorus’ section in the original 5/8 time over a B. The snare drum is reintroduced, and under the original ‘verse’ theme it takes the song out, with a free flute obbligato and gradual fade.
Our first big participatory show in north/east Londonwas If Music Could… in 1992, and it involved performers and groups from many different local communities –Caribbean and African, Chinese, Indian and Bangladeshi, Somali and of course Turkish and Kurdish. Our main contact with the Turkish community was through a group of exiled intellectuals, academics and artists based in a cultural centre on the Islington/Hackney borders, who met regularly to sing and play traditional Turkish music.
The most accomplished musician was Cemal Akkiraz, who had come to London many years before, persona non grata in his native Turkey. He also established the Anatolian Music Centre in north London, taught saz and ran ensembles at different levels of ability. Many of his students and groups – the saz, or more correctly ‘baglama’, comes in different sizes, like Western European string instruments – took part in If Music Could… and subsequent big Grand Union participatory shows like Dancing in the Flames (Union Chapel, Hackney Empire 1995) and Where the Rivers Meet (Sadler’s Wells Theatre 2000).
Cemal is a great saz player, and member of a family of some of Turkey’s best-known musicians. His sister is Sabahat Akkiraz, who tours all over the world, renowned as perhaps the leading exponent of Anatolian music and a best-selling recording artist. Knowing the work of Grand Union through Cemal, she suggested we work together to create, perform and record versions of her material outside the strict conventions of traditional Anatolian music. The first fruits of this collaboration were heard at the Union Chapel in the London Jazz Festival of 1997, recorded and performed a year later under the title Echoes from Anatolia, and Sabahat herself took part in Where the Rivers Meet.
Working with Sabahat’s repertoire posed significant challenges, as my notes on Yemen above suggest. Metres and phrase lengths irregular by Western standards were relatively easy to negotiate; besides Yemen, there are two other examples on the Around the World… CD – Halay, which takes on a kind of West African rhythm; and Yagmar Yagar, set to a reggae-type bass line. (There is also an improvising tradition in Anatolian music, and Halay notably pits Sabahat’s voice against that of South African drummer Brian Abrahams.)
Harmony, however – entirely absent from the tradition – is a different matter, especially deciding how to handle the ‘out-of-tune’ 2nd, but that must wait for another day…