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

41: A Thousand and One Tides

Mil e Uma Marés at the Luisa Todi Auditorium in Setúbal – yet another memorable night in Grand Union history! Following Soie et Charbon in Alès in September and Undream’d Shores at London’s Hackney Empire in November, it was the last in an extraordinary trilogy of large-scale, spectacular shows exploring the legacy of migration in present-day Europe, and it brought the series of performances in our EU-funded two-year project to a gloriously fitting close.

The progress of the project has been chronicled in previous Posts, together with recordings, videos and examples of the music and lyrics. Post 30 describes the genesis of Undream’d Shores and the ethos behind the whole collaboration; Post 23, Post 24 and Post 40 our initial visits to Portugal and France to develop these shows; and Post 37  and Post 38 the final performances in Alès and London. Here are some extracts from the show in Portugal (the London show is currently being edited):

Mil e Uma Marés had the advantage of being developed over 18 months, thanks to our close partnership with the Festival da Música de Setúbal (see Post 23). Most of the performers – including 25 percussionists from local schools and 16 players from the Conservatório – had featured in our two previous shows for the Festival itself; while both the GUO musicians from London (Claude Deppa, Louise Elliott, Yousuf Ali Khan, Andrés Lafone, Carlos Fuentes and myself) and from Lisbon (Liana, Mingo Rangel, Fernando Molina and António Dias) were the same. Two musicians from the French show – Françoise Malaizé (steel pan/soprano saxophone) and Guy Covelli (mandolin/quena/guitar/voice) – also joined us, with Lajja Sambhavnath, three of her Kathak dance students and the batuque group Rinka Finka (eight ladies representing a feisty singing/drumming tradition from Cabo Verde) added for good measure.

With this wonderfully varied collection of international performers, Mil e Uma Marés created a vivid musical picture of Portugal today – a voyage through a world first revealed and explored by the Portuguese navigators over 500 years ago.

Grand Union Orchestra and Portugal

Mil e Uma Marés also celebrated 25 years of Grand Union’s work in Portugal and with Portuguese musicians. Similarly chronicled in previous posts, this seems an appropriate time to summarise a little of its history.

The first stage of my long relationship with the country, its culture and history is described in a note at the end of Post 10. Then in 1990 I returned to Lisbon for the first time in about 15 years, after visiting Malacca and Macau and meeting Timorese refugees in Australia. I had in mind a project which somehow expressed modern Europe in relation to its colonial past, and that this could be seen more dramatically through Portuguese eyes. The result was a touring show with European, African and Asian musicians from Portugal and the UK – The Rhythm of Tides (Por Mares do Imaginário). The background to this, and a short profile of the poet Manuel Alegre, is described more fully in a note at the end of Post 9.

Emigration, the sea and the land

Although the dominant theme of Grand Union’s current work (including Undream’d Shores) is immigration, the most striking feature of Portugal’s history is emigration. It was the first European country to establish a worldwide empire and the last to relinquish it; it is also the smallest, and one of the hardest to make a living in. Acquiring and maintaining colonies requires considerable manpower; and, with the prospect of wealth they could not expect to achieve by working at home, men were quick to enlist in naval expeditions. The result was a continual depletion of the male workforce from the land – and a corresponding further decrease in productivity.

This characterises the whole of Portugal’s history, but most dramatically the final stages of empire. It is beautifully caught in Manuel Alegre’s poem Depois o Bosque se Fez Barco (Post 9): ‘your country once was a land of trees’, but began its decline ‘when forests were turned into ships’, and ‘the ship became a plough to harvest a crop that you did not sow…’. The parallel with the ruinous wars in which Portugal struggled to hang on to its African territories in Mozambique, Angola and Guiné, not to mention East Timor, is tragically obvious; and when the Revolution came in 1974, compulsory national service, conscription of young men into the army, was four years!

The Rhythm of Tides also tries to capture the traumatic experience of those young conscript soldiers, first through another starkly simple Alegre poem (Post 33), before giving up on words completely to depict the horror of war (Post 8). It also gives voice to the spirit of Africa, from which ultimately comes resolution and reconciliation (Post 10).

Unsurprisingly, images of the sea and a sailor’s life – escape, freedom, adventure – are also a staple of Portuguese literature and music. Once again, however, Alegre turns these to different use in poems like Meu Amor é Marinheiro (Post 23), an allegory of political liberty masquerading as an artless love-song.

In the end, although it was the army that spearheaded the Revolution, it was also fuelled by disaffection among agricultural workers on the large hereditary estates. Land reform, and conferring ownership of the latifundia on those who work the land, was its significant achievement. Fifty years later, though, Portugal’s economic and social revival seems increasingly fragile, as in much of Europe; and it too is, paradoxically, seeing a rise in immigration – from Eastern Europe as well as its former colonies.

Traditional music

These contrasts – the tension between the agrarian and maritime natures of Portugal – are also expressed in folk songs, and I made a kind of collage of three of these (plus a quotation from an English song about a worried lover waiting for her sailor to come home safely!) for The Rhythm of Tides.  I would draw attention to the absolutely parallel thirds and fifths that characterise so much Portuguese folk music; otherwise, for once, here is musical composition so simple and transparent it requires no further explanation!

I offer it here as a tribute to all the wonderful people we have encountered, who have inspired or worked with us, during 25 years of fascinating exploration of the Portuguese world and its culture.




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