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

14: Bengal to Bethnal Green

This Post introduces the series of regular monthly programmes Grand Union is presenting at the Rich Mix Centre, directed by our tabla player and singer Yousuf Ali Khan; it also pays tribute to our long and valued relationship with the Bengali community in both East London and Bangladesh. It’s based around a filmed performance of the song Milon Hobe at the Tower Hamlets Mela in May 2009; the full story of how it came about is told below…

The song Milon Hobe is by Lalon, one of the three most revered of Bengali poet-songwriters (and the earliest, since he lived in the 19th Century – Tagore and Nasrul being the others). Like many Bengali songs, it is in 3-time – 3/4 or 6/8 – which can often seem rather bland and plodding when played in the traditional way. African and Latin-American rhythms offer a variety of devices for enlivening this basic metre, depending on the character of the song. In this case, I opted to base the arrangement on the West African bell-pattern agbekor or ewe (see also Post 3), which seems to suit it, giving it a certain flow and freedom.

The scale it’s based on – the classical Indian Rag Kafi, often called the dorian mode in Western music – is common to many Bengali songs, and is equally familiar in many folk musics worldwide. (In my view it’s the most ‘natural’ of minor scales, and its particular flavour comes from the major sixth – rather than the minor sixth of the conventional European classical minor scale – which unusually makes the subdominant chord a major triad in a minor key.)

Because it’s based almost throughout on a pedal C – albeit a busy bass guitar riff which brings out the African 12/8, rather than a fixed drone – I kept the harmony deliberately simple, using parallel chords derived from the scale. These are the main elements:

This material is first heard all together in the introduction – the bass guitar, trumpets, trombones and saxes between them outline the agbekor bell pattern – and comes again later to round off the trumpet solo section:

The same feel continues under the voice, but the chord sequence moves twice as fast. It’s also worth noting that the melody is 7 (rather than the conventional 8) bars long – or 2 3-unit phrases  repeated followed by 2 4-unit phrases repeated – which has the effect of  pitting the words ‘milon hobe koto dine’ against different harmonies and across the African rhythm:

This is followed (in this version, shortened from the original live performance!) by a characteristically blistering Claude Deppa trumpet solo, and his remarkable improvised duet with Sumi, the singer. A slightly developed version of the introduction, which introduces the F chord into the harmony for the first time, leads to a unison brass passage over a variation of this new chord sequence, with melodic phrases based on the bell pattern and other African drum rhythms:

Now comes a complete contrast. South Asian compositions typically consist of a main section, or sthayi, with a complementary antara (equivalent to a bridge, release, middle 8 etc in Western music), generally in a higher register. Here it also suggests a change of tonality, so while the rhythmic tension is released, the relentless pedal C riff shifts to a bass on F, and the saxes and trombones underline the basic contours of the melody:

Then the main melody (Ex 3) returns first with the original backing material, but then worked up into a powerful coda where the brass and saxes support the voice with harmonies which abandon the consecutive triads, but still derive entirely from the notes of the Rag:

Bringing Bengal to Bethnal Green

Grand Union has always been based in East London, and – wherever its busy touring schedule has taken it – has always made a point of developing relationships with the richly diverse neighbouring communities, often producing projects which involve them and their musicians (like The Golden Highway, Doctor Carnival or If Music Could…). The oldest and strongest of these connections is with the Bangladeshi community, largely because GUO includes among its core musicians several leading and much-loved Bengali artists, like Yousuf Ali Khan, Lucy Rahman and Akash Sultan.

A welcome by-product of Grand Union’s relationship with the Bengali community in London is that we get to visit Bangladesh itself, and we can invite Bangladesh-based artists – like Yousuf’s cousin the sarod virtuoso Shahadat Hossein Khan – to work with us in the UK from time to time. A commission from Tower Hamlets Council to produce something special for the Baishakhi Mela in Weaver’s Fields, Bethnal Green in May 2009 provided an opportunity to devise a particularly ambitious project.

Tower Hamlets wanted us to perform with three artists from Bangladesh – Kala Miah, Meherun Kanak and Sumi – as part of our set. By a lucky chance, we were making one of our periodic visits to Dhaka in April: they came to our shows there, and we were able to meet up with them, experiment and choose a suitable number for each of them. When we got back to London, I had about a week to write the arrangements for the full Grand Union Orchestra, and just a day’s rehearsal with everyone before the performance – quite daunting on an open-air stage, with minimal soundcheck,  in front of an almost entirely South Asian audience of more than 3000!

I love all the numbers they sang, which can be found on the Grand Union website video page – they all have very distinctive styles, and I think the varied arrangments work well. Sumi, who sings Milon Hobe, particularly impressed us with her energy, her paint-stripping vocal style and her willingness to live dangerously, as you can hear in this extract in her duet with Claude. Her own band is actually called the Lalon Band, and specialises in powerful rock versions of Lalon’s songs, fronted by this latter-day Bengali Janis Joplin…

In collaboration with London-based Channel S TV, Terry Braun and his son Alex made a fascinating documentary of the trip, Bangla Jazz, including scenes in rehearsal and culminating in the Mela performances, which can be seen here:


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This entry was posted on July 27, 2012 by in Composition, Music and tagged , , , , .
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