Tony Haynes, composer/director of the Grand Union Orchestra, tells the inside story of his music for the orchestra, its musicians and colourful history.

11: Can’t Chain Up Me Mind

I originally wrote Can’t Chain Up Me Mind for Freedom Calls, which was premiered at the Queen’s Hall in Edinburgh during the Festival in August 1988, and subsequently toured the whole UK. A performance at Sadler’s Wells was recorded and broadcast by BBC Radio 3 – our first for them, produced by Derek Drescher, legendary genius of BBC jazz programmes – and became our first show released in CD format. (The Song of Many Tongues started life as a cassette.)

The theme of Freedom Calls was simple – a celebration of liberation in different parts of the world over the past two hundred years, and a reminder that it was still overdue in many other places.

We commissioned lyrics from several writers who – through personal or family history – had direct experience of the fight for liberation. Vladimir Vega, a Chilean exile, wrote about the coup in Chile (Pinochet was still in power in 1988); the late and much lamented South African actor and playwright John Matshikiza wrote about apartheid and five hundred years of European exploitation (Nelson Mandela was yet to be released); and Valerie Bloom, poet and children’s writer from St Lucia (see also below) contributed three passionate lyrics, including this one in Caribbean dialect, expressing Africans’ experience of slavery in the New World.

Looking back twenty-five years later, it’s difficult to recall how creative decisions were made; and the older and more experienced I get – and the more developed my composition techniques – the more I attribute to instinct or inspiration! However, authenticity is crucial to Grand Union’s work, and I clearly sought ways of matching the raw emotion of these lyrics in the music I wrote, and to the Grand Union musicians who performed it.

So, at some point I must have felt that homages to reggae and samba – as legacies of the slave trade in the music of the Caribbean and Brazil – were the way to go, but filtered through my own creative sensibilities (not just a pastiche of the styles). It’s also worth noting that in this recording the singer is Jonathan André, British-born of mixed African and Caribbean parentage; and Tony Kofi, from a Ghanaian family, is the saxophone soloist.

The structure of the song is very simple:

  • a 3-bar instrumental intro which also serves as a link between verses and as a coda;
  • three verses alternating with an unchanging chorus;
  • a baritone saxophone solo improvised over a repeated 2-bar chord sequence and vocal riff taken from this chorus.

The verses sound as though they are in a minor key (G minor) and the choruses major (A major), but in fact the scales they are based on (and the harmonies they generate) are less conventional:

Scale 1a is an altered minor scale based on G, 1b very similar but based on E; both have in common a flattened, rather than perfect, 5th. The intro/link combines both. I wanted the song to sound firm and defiant rather than angry, so it starts with this powerful unison ensemble statement:

The three verses have the same melody – basically in G minor, but with F minor the most significant secondary chord. The melodic shape and chord sequence also echo the 12-bar blues form (the chords in bars 5/6, on the subdominant, have the same tone-apart relationship as those in bars 1/2 and 3/4 on the tonic):

The harmony has something in common with how reggae sounds, and I wanted the rhythm to be equally suggestive of a reggae feel, yet different. Rather than a straight off-beat quaver, therefore, the first off-beat chord is delayed by a further semi-quaver throughout; and where an F minor harmony precedes the tonic G minor, the resolution is also delayed, and the up-beat quaver emphasised as well held over the down-beat. The effect is further exaggerated by delaying the entry of the rhythm section until the end of the first bar, after the voice has started:

With all this going on, adding any kind of reggae-type bass-line – which I love and often employ for its sense of space and airiness combined with a forward propulsion! – would have complicated and confused the whole texture. So I opted instead to double the vocal line with the bass guitar (and later also baritone saxophone or tuba), which not only keeps the texture simple, but also has the advantage of adding weight to the melody, and hence the lyrics.

After an extra bar of G minor held over a bass E (an awkward moment that I feel now doesn’t really work compositionally, and is difficult to bring off), the chorus comes in. The feel here is pure, conventional samba:

This entire sequence of intro-verse-chorus is repeated twice more, and an altered version of the intro/link (over the D flat 2nd inversion chord at the end of the chorus) leads to a baritone saxophone solo. This is improvised over a 2-bar vocal riff, derived from the third and fourth bars of the chorus:

A final statement of the intro finishes the number.

Backstory and afterthought…

I first met Valerie Bloom when Grand Union was commissioned to produce its first-ever participatory show, Threads, in Manchester in 1986. Val had come over from the Caribbean perhaps 6 or 7 years ealier, and her warm and generous personality made her an invaluable link and arbiter between Manchester’s varied, energetic but sometimes fractious African and Caribbean communities, who were a central aspect of the show. Steel pans and West African drums made up two sides of the ‘triangle’ – complemented by a group of Indian musicians and singers – that lay at the heart of the show, the triangular trade in slaves, cotton and fabrics.

More importantly, Val got quickly to the idea that exploited at all points of the triangular trade – as slaves, cotton-pickers, weavers, garment-makers – were women, whether in Africa, the Caribbean, South Asia or England’s northern mill towns; and at the present day as much as in the past. So she produced powerful lyrics for a big chorus that brought together women singers from all these cultural backgrounds and occupations – one of the most memorable and moving sections in the show.

When people saw Threads – first performed (in promenade and in the round) in an unheated sports hall in the Abraham Moss Centre in February! – I wondered why they found the show so moving. The answer was (as a senior producer from Granada TV put it) its ‘authenticity’ – the fact that you could picture nineteenth-century events so much more vividly because they were portrayed by present-day African- or Asian-descended performers. This has remained a feature of Grand Union’s work – especially its participatory shows – ever since.

Furthermore, for me and for other Grand Union musicians, the fundamental affirmation in the lyrics of Can’t Chain Up Me Mind has another resonance: improvisation, playing music you have made up for yourself, is surely the most direct and individual expression of a musician’s personality; improvisation, for over a hundred years, has been irrevocably associated above all with jazz; and jazz is the musical form originally pioneered largely by descendants of African slaves. Is it fanciful to see a link here – that jazz is the music of the liberated, and therefore also the most liberated of musics?

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This entry was posted on April 24, 2012 by in Composition, Music and tagged , , , , .
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