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

42: The Isle is Full of Noises (UdS)

Caliban-quoteLiving in Britain today, we are continually aware of how migration has shaped British culture and identity throughout history, and continues to do so. Migrants contribute their trades, their skills and their arts to our society; and nowhere is their influence stronger than in music – the myriad musical styles, range of instruments and above all skilled performers that flourish on our doorsteps. This is wonderfully evoked in these extracts from Undream’d Shores, first performed by the Grand Union Orchestra at the Hackney Empire in November 2014 (described further below):

While Undream’d Shores was being developed, we were bombarded almost daily with statistics demonstrating how the UK population was becoming increasingly mixed – not really because of current immigration, but more the result of growing numbers of children born into migrant-descended families. At the same time, figures were emerging demonstrating how narrow is the audience for the mainstream arts – in effect that the majority of opera-goers or attenders of classical music concerts, for example, were overwhelmingly older, relatively well off and almost exclusively white.

So how well catered-for is the rest of Britain’s rapidly changing demographic, and what kind of work and opportunities are being offered to audiences and participants from migrant communities, and the families of former migrants, who in another generationwill represent nearly half the country’s population ? And most importantly of all, what new work is being created that engages them and expresses their identity – work which could only be imagined because we live in a country shaped by migration?

To investigate further, Grand Union set up a programme of live events and discussions under the title The Isle is Full of Noises; but before looking at that in more detail, let’s return to Undream’d Shores, which of course is a significant example of the work I’m talking about…

Undream’d Shores – the short version!

This video is severely edited, and inevitably in just over 20 minutes cannot possibly fully communicate the full flavour of a show that lasts nearly 2 hours; nor, of course, can it convey the thrill and immediacy of the live performance. However, it is faithful to the structure of the show, and contains most of its principal elements. Many of the individual numbers have already been discussed and illustrated in previous Posts (to which they are linked), and others will feature in future Posts.

It begins with Strange Migration, which recurs throughout the show to structure the narrative (but not in this version) – a verse (which changes) and a 3-voice chorus (which does not). This is fully described in Post 39. The West African Yoruba orissa Eleggua, guardian of the crossroads, intervenes; he is a constant presence, and his chants are often reprised with variations. (Post 3 features an exciting instrumental version of these.) This leads into the first big number I Live in the City, set to words by New York schoolchildren (full version Post 27).

This innocent and optimistic expression of city life is set against a harsher reality evoked in the English folk-song The Four-Loom Weaver. Poverty in 19th century Lancashire lives on in 21st century Asia, hence the introduction of the Bengali singer. Next, Riding the Iron Tiger reminds us that the fate of many migrants is to work for slave-wages on relentless production lines (Post 35 gives the music and lyrics).

The sea is the central image for the following section, beginning with Carta ao Mar (see Post 40). Then comes Shanghai Crabs, a true story of how this highly prized delicacy, unable to survive in its polluted river at home, travels the world and finds the Thames a congenial environment to flourish! Yémanyá now appears, the Yoruba orissa of rivers and seas, of sailors and fishermen (still venerated in Cuba and Brazil), and her chants (Post 34) form the basis of the next number, which also features typical African 12/8 drum rhythms.

Eleggua then returns in the guise of Mr Never-Smile, guardian of boundaries and eternal immigration officer. This malign autocrat meets resistance in the big instrumental jazz ensemble which follows, which in turn melts into the gloriously joyous Twimbe Sana, a plangent Anatolian folk-song and jagged East European dance.

Red Soil is a dialogue across generations, between a father who came from Bangladesh after the war of independence and his son who was born in Britain. It begins with a song by the Bengali poet-singer Lalon Shah, features an improvised duet on Rag Charukeshi, and finishes with a bhangra version of the original song (see also Post 38). If You Should Fall affirms the sea’s power to heal, and Eleggua finally releases the shackles in an upbeat Afro-Cuban celebration based on his ever-present chants.

The Isle is Full of Noises

Subtitled ‘how artists can reflect and respond creatively to Britain’s rapidly changing demographic’, this two-week programme across many of East London’s best-known venues aims to demonstrate exactly that!

It begins with a series of performances showcasing the amazing variety of music and musicians flourishing in East London today. It is hosted by all Grand Union’s core musicians and singers, and features an impressive array of local performers – young and old, amateur and professional – including the World Choir which made its debut in Undream’d Shores and the long-established GU Youth Orchestra. These live events then serve to illustrate a debate in the Open Forum that concludes the programme, bringing together artists and companies from different artistic disciplines who share Grand Union’s views.

Full details of the whole The Isle is Full of Noises programme can be found here; the background to the project can be found here; and more information about Undream’d Shores and other related projects on Grand Union’s recently revamped – and very impressive! – new website.


Table of links to Posts referred to above:

39: Strange Migration

03:  Eleggua               

27: I Live in the City   

35: Riding the Iron Tiger

40: Carta ao Mar         

34: Jemanja                

38: Lalon Ki Jat          

Undream’d Shores – video of extracts


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