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

24: Bhangra in the Midi

Miraculously, Grand Union’s recent performances in France proved as successful as those in Portugal last month, albeit very different in scale and ambition, though both form part of our ongoing EU-funded project (see Posts 23 and 21). What was delightful, and noticeable in both cases, was the way local audiences – as well as musicians and students taking part – responded so enthusiastically to unfamiliar instruments and musical styles.

In Alès (a former mining town in the Midi region, not far from Avignon, Nîmes and Montpellier) we assembled over the course of three days a band of about 40 players of all ages for National Music Day (June 21st) – still celebrated annually in France, though sadly not longer in the UK. Bands and orchestras played throughout the town, mainly on open-air stages, to audiences of hundreds. The local paper next day singled the GUO performance as one of the highlights – ‘hot enough to melt the tarmac (goudron) on the streets’!

There were five GUO musicians – myself and Gerry Hunt, with Jonathan André, Yousuf Ali Khan, and to our great delight Ken Johnson, a steel pan virtuoso from Trinidad and founder-member of the Grand Union Orchestra who has been living in the South of France now for many years. A grand reunion, indeed!

The music we introduced to the local musicians naturally reflected the traditions the three ‘world musicians’ specialise in – African, Caribbean and South Asian. There were several excellent percussionists and singers taking part, so Jonathan’s West African drumming and chant were warmly embraced, while Ken’s steel drum and fluently melodic playing were invariably the centre of attention. But when it came to Yousuf, it was not just his tabla showmanship that got people going, but also his presentation of bhangra!

In both France and Portugal, among school children and adult audiences alike, Yousuf was able not only to get people singing, but also doing Bollywood style movement and dance routines!

Since this is the ‘mela season’, therefore, when South Asian communities everywhere hold summer festivals in which this traditional Punjabi wedding music plays a strong role, it seems appropriate – if perhaps slightly eccentric! – to celebrate our recent successes with a look at the Grand Union Orchestra’s idiosyncratic take on this powerfully rhythmic music.

Bhangra Brass

Regular readers of these articles will know that I am fascinated by rhythms from different musical cultures and often use them as the basis for big band scores (Post 3, for example, analyses a GUO number based on an African 12/8 rhythm), and Bhangra Brass is an example of this practice; it’s also based on an Indian Rag (see also Posts 2, 4 and 6).

In this case, the materials couldn’t be simpler.

Bhangra is built around the dhol, a large barrel-like drum slung around the neck; played with a heavy beater, the tough skin one end provides a strong bass pattern, while the skin the other end is much tighter, playing high-pitched patterns with a light, flexible stick. Dhol ensembles can play very intricate – and very loud! – interlocking rhythms with improvised calls, breaks and the tihais characteristic of Indian classical music. Here is the pattern in its most basic form – for me, the opening ‘da-da dum’ with its characteristic upbeat really defines the rhythm:


I think of Rag Bhairvi as the most ‘extreme’ minor form of a scale – every possible degree of the scale (ie except the 4th and 5th) that can be flattened is flattened (Ex 1, based on C for clarity)! All the material in this piece is based entirely on these seven notes, with no variation except for a couple of minor examples noted. There is no harmony as such, beyond the characteristic parallel triads a harmonium player might produce, and brash open 4ths or 5ths; instead, what harmony there is derives from counterpoint, with much imitation or canon, and figures answering or colliding with each other in varying combinations. It is also written in the most extreme of European keys – 6 flats.

(Unusually, for what is more or less a jazz big band score, this is a completely composed piece – there is no improvisation, apart from the Indian percussion. Ironically, there is no dhol drum either in this recording! Tabla, mrdangam and drum kit provide the rhythm, although when we perform this piece in the large-scale shows for which it was written, eg Doctor Carnival, a dhol player and often a youth dhol ensemble are featured.)

Bhangra Brass opens with a dramatic unison call to arms (in this case with some ‘sharpened’ notes, explained below);, the drums set up the bhangra feel; and the bass comes in with a riff that runs through the entire piece, with little variation; its very first figure, the four semiquavers, is particularly prominent (note that semiquavers are ‘swung’ throughout):


The brass and sax figures in the first section are very sparse (beginning with 3-bar phrases), unison versions of the figures which appear fully scored in Ex 4. Before this second passage, however, there is a break (bar 17) and a brass/saxes bridge section which lays out the most important melodic elements that are going to be developed later:


Figure (a) is a kind of fanfare in which the rising 5th is crucial, followed by a falling phrase ending on the 4-semiquaver riff figure; (b) is characterised by the open 4ths and 5ths and way the implied 3-beat internal rhythm works against the pulse; (c) has a strong melodic contour, very useful for building the imitative textures; and (d) is a simple, punchy tihai (see Post 8) which ‘straightens out’ the ruling triplet/swung pulse.

The next section (Ex 4) repeats much of the previous material, in a thicker, more homophonic texture, the last two bars extending the imitation of figure (c):


Then comes a canonic version of the fanfare phrase (a), with both parts subsiding onto the unison 4-semiquaver bass riff figure; punctuated by saxophone and brass riffs from the earlier sections, this is then repeated a step higher:


The tension lessons, the volume decreases, and saxes develop phrase (c) in dialogue with a new phrase on the trumpets (which includes the altered 3rd and 6th as in Ex 2); trombones meanwhile contribute an accompanying figure in crotchet triplets, while the bass is built on quaver triplets. This entire short passage, in fact, develops the inherent triplet rhythm of the dhol patterns as though they were an African 12/8 drum rhythm. The last four bars of this passage (Ex 6) show how this works, and how the patterns interlock to create a pulse of their own, implying 6 beats against the previous 4:


This leads to a climax pitting the rising fanfare phrases (a) on brass against the saxes (c), then a final development of the across-the-beat figure (b) and the tihais (d):


The last section is a réprise of the second section (Ex 4) which now gives the Indian percussion – ideally a full dhol ensemble! – an opportunity to strut its stuff.

This project is part of a programme in collaboration with French and Portuguese companies supported by the EUROPEAN CULTURAL FOUNDATION and the EUROPEAN UNION CULTURE FUND


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This entry was posted on June 28, 2013 by in Composition, Music and tagged , , , , .
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