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

50: Red Soil (UdS)

‘British identity’ has long been a hot topic of discussion and argument, intensified in recent years as Britain’s membership of the European Union is being questioned and ‘multiculturalism’ viciously savaged. What exactly is this identity, and what are the ‘British values’ you are expected to uphold ? How do you qualify as truly ‘British’ (patriotic, indeed) if part of you still thrills to the music, dance and art of a non-British culture, delights in another language, adheres to a non-Christian religion, or – worst of all – supports the cricket team (irony of ironies!) of one of the former British colonies?

Human stories reflecting the experience of people straddling cultures have long been woven into Grand Union’s work, and it’s a theme I naturally returned to in Undream’d Shores. One of the most universal is the relationship between parents born and brought up overseas and their children born in Britain. Based in the heart of East London, where this experience is common to perhaps 50% of families, Grand Union has strong connections with the Bengali community, and abounds in wonderful musicians and singers from Bangladesh. So to dramatise such a relationship, I chose this as the particular ‘location’ for the story, and asked the young actor/writer/director Saikat Ahamed to write the lyrics (in both English and Bengali).

This was both appropriate and poignant. Saikat’s father Masud was a doctor who came to the UK after the Bangladesh war of independence in the 1970s and worked as a GP in Birmingham. He is also a celebrated poet, and provided me with evocative lyrics for several Grand Union shows, notably Now Comes the Dragon’s Hour and If Paradise. Saikat and I discussed possible scenarios, and after much drafting and redrafting, the result of our collaboration was Red Soil.

In reality, of course, ‘British culture’ is now (as it always has been) an amalgam of all the cultures that comprise Britain today, not just the preserve of one class or ethnic group. It is progressive, continuously evolving and provides an incredibly rich palette of colour and sound. So for this piece I was able to draw on Bengali baul song, Indian ragas, South Asian instruments and even bhangra to help focus the narrative. However, I also took significant dramatic licence: the (Bangladeshi) father is sung by an English singer in English, while paradoxically the English-born son’s role is sung by a Bengali singer in Bengali…

After an alap or free atmospheric introduction on Rag Bhairvi (see Ex 3 below) featuring sarangi (Ketan Kerai), the choir sings Lalon Ki Jat, by the legendary Bengali poet-singer Lalon Shah. In this song, Lalon questions our obsession with caste and religion: we come into the world, he says, free of physical mutilations, without ornaments, symbols or forms of dress to distinguish us, and leave it similarly unadorned; what matters is our humanity. This song frames the whole piece, returning at the end in instrumental form:


Over the end of the chorus, the father and son introduce themselves and hint at the cause of their mutual irritation. The words ‘red soil’ or ‘mati lal’ are set throughout to a rising fourth figure (generally D to G or A to D, according to the contrasting registers of the two singers):


Lalon’s song, sung simply over a D drone, is based on the classic Rag Bhairvi. To Western ears this is the most ‘extreme’ of all minor scales (the Phrygian mode in European music), with every possible note flattened and all intervals minor (except the fourth and fifth, which remain unchanged throughout). This is transformed subtly as the story unfolds into Rag Mishra Bhairav (by sharpening the third) and Rag Charukeshi (sharpening the second too). Each of these variations also has its own harmonies and bass-lines, and it’s worth noting that the auxiliary chord in the first two is E flat (a half-tone higher), but C (a whole tone lower) in the last one (3c):


The tabla-players pick up the rhythm into a fast forward pulse against a propulsive bass riff, and the father begins his part of the narrative continuing in Rag Bhairvi (Ex 3a) with its associated harmonies and the new bass line. Then the music brightens up into Rag Mishra Bhairav (Ex 3b) when his son replies:


The music then darkens again, returning to Rag Bhairvi but now driven by an assertive bass-line and a rhythm reminiscent of bhangra (which often uses this raga), as the father begins to confront his demons  (his melodic line here is derived from the Lalon song):


The following duet resumes the more ‘major’-sounding Rag Bhairav (Ex 3b) and the exchanges become more intense. Note the increasing use of tihais (a classic musical device described in Post 8) and the rising fourth phrase on ‘red soil’ and ‘mati lal’:


This leads to the most upbeat, joyful section of the piece. Based in the ‘major’ key of Rag Charukeshi (Ex 3c), the son affirms the positive nature of their life in England, launching into an exuberant baul-style improvisation with Shanti Paul Jayasinha, whose extraordinary slide trumpet allows him to emulate all the melodic inflections (gamak) of South Asian classical music, but with more than a nod to Western jazz! Their duet ends with a typical tihai on the words ‘camno mati lal hoeche?’ (‘how did the red soil come about?’) before the father finally reveals what is haunting him:


Reaction to this revelation – his experience of the Bangladesh war of independence in the early 1970s – is entirely instrumental, with the story behind it played out (as so often in my GUO compositions) solely the musicians. Against a relentless (now authentic) bhangra rhythm driven by the all-powerful dhol drum (Ketan Kerai again!), the GU Youth Orchestra musicians take up the original Lalon Ki Jat song (Ex 1), counterpointed by the full might of the GUO brass and saxes. After a brief lull, it becomes increasingly dissonant: one passage is a canon in two keys (effectively D minor and F minor) simultaneously; and the GUO imitation gradually advances, losing a crotchet beat before each repetition:


Having taunted his father into revealing unwanted memories, a brief exhausted exchange between father and son closes the story.

You can read more about Saikat Ahamed here

The complete video of Undream’d Shores is available from the Grand Union shop.




One comment on “50: Red Soil (UdS)

  1. Dr. Sidrah Muntaha
    May 1, 2016

    Wonderfully written!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: