Song of Contagion: Reviews

"Grand Union Orchestra At Wilton's Music Hall"
All About Jazz
Review by Duncan Heining
June 14, 2017

"Song of Contagion, Grand Union Orchestra's latest show, would be a strange subject indeed for any other ensemble. But for leader/composer Tony Haynes and his comrades, it sits perfectly within the orchestra's progressive dialogue between the musics and diverse histories of this small planet.

Emerging from a conversation between Haynes and epidemiologist Elizabeth Pisani, Song of Contagion is about disease. More importantly, it explores how responses to it are frequently shaped not by need but by social, racial and economic injustices. The Western media's hysterical concern about the Zika Virus resulted from fears that it might affect the 2016 Olympiad. That same media has persistently ignored the far more deadly Dengue virus. Take AIDS or previously Cholera and similar stories unfold.

That this hard-hitting show brought GUO back to Wilton's in London's East End, itself the site of major 19th century Cholera epidemics, seemed rather appropriate. A heavy subject? Of course, it is. Yet, Song of Contagion is serious but never solemn. GUO's music is, as ever, a dynamic collision of musics and rhythms. It is music for movement and dance—and it is music that makes you clench your fist. Bhangra rhythms and the tabla of maestro Yousuf Ali Khan bridged continents on "Song of Cholera" taking the disease from London to Kolkata and other places where it still runs rife. The human voice has a special place in GUO's world and, here, voices from India, Bangladesh, Africa, the Caribbean and Malaysia combined as an aural and visual testament to how we might act together as a species in the face of contagion.

The contrast between the strings, percussion and horns on "Song of HIV" was incredibly effective and affecting. Here, the music built slowly and powerfully with some beautifully plaintive trombone from Vij Prakash set against some fine work from the (very) young string trio of Lily Baker Haynes, Abigail Adams and Jessica Judge. But it was the climax to "Mosquito Songs" that gave the work its musical and moral centre. African chants were picked up first by trumpeter Claude Deppa and with an all-too-brief flute solo from Tony Haynes, Chris Biscoe, Louise Elliott, Tony Kofi. Then it was the drums. With the great South African percussionist and original GUO member Brian Abrahams returning to the fold, this was a kaleidoscope of world rhythms, as congas, kit drums, tabla and African drums crashed together.

The second half of the show built more slowly. A music hall parody seemed perfect for "Song of Broken Hearts" (cardiovascular disease), beautifully and wittily delivered with Davina Wright channelling Marie Lloyd—"A little of what you fancy does you in!" Then different voices told tales of war, displacement and PTSD—"Mind Songs." This was perhaps the most poignant section. Moments of reflection became increasingly intense, as the music again began to take over in the form of a swirling big band section with contributions from Deppa and Paul Shanti Jayasinha on trumpets and Chris Biscoe and Tony Kofi on saxophones. And what amazing charts Haynes had given them! A brief encore and a chance to dance came with the bonus of a cameo each for two of Grand Union's Youth Orchestra graduates—Oliver Ross on baritone and Evan Cryer on trumpet. It was over too soon.

Song of Contagion is definitive Grand Union Orchestra—a feast for the ears and the eyes—and the mind!"

"Grand Union Orchestra's 'Song of Contagion'"
Music Education UK

"Grand Union Orchestra (GUO) has been a fixture on the London music scene for over 30 years. Led by composer and multi-instrumentalist, Tony Haynes, it has at its heart the grandest kind of union – that between people of different cultures – although, of course, its name also references London’s great canal, the source of much coming and going in its own right. The orchestra brings together musicians from all over the capital across a variety of musical genres and styles. It also features a host of singers from across the world and these become the voices – and representatives – of the different kinds of music.

Song of Contagion puts the singers at the front and rightly so since their songs tell the story of this new family show. Performed at the recently refurbished Wilton’s Music Hall in Cable Street, E1, the first song, sung by GUO stalwart, Davina Wright, with vocal backing from Mahamaya Shil and Delwar Hossain Dilu, takes us back 150 years to a time when cholera raged unchecked in London and Kolkata: ‘Turn the corner into Cable Street – a sharp breeze from the river catches you, sometimes the scent of the sea… the street remembers.’

GUO stalwart, Davina Wright © Gaetan Bernede

And so begins an epic performance which not only looks at the history and politics of five diseases but also explores the music of the associated countries and continents. Thus, Song of Cholera moves between the UK and India; Song of HIVbetween the US and Africa; Mosquito Songs (dengue and zika) between Africa, the Caribbean and Brazil; Song of Broken Hearts (cardiovascular disease) worldwide via London and the music of Marie Lloyd and Mind Songs (mental illness) between Asia, Africa and the Middle East.

This last section looks particularly at post-traumatic stress disorder, described in the programme thus:

‘Three singers (Delwar Hossain Dilu, Jonathan André and Maja Rivic) tell their tales, individually at first, then overlapping. A survivor of the Bangladesh/Pakistan war obsessively recalls being hunted down in the mountains; in Angola, a Portuguese conscript soldier wearied of the relentless jungle warfare attempts suicide; a refugee from the war in Syria tries to console her child, haunted by the loss of her father and husband.’

This provides one of many thrilling moments when four jazz soloists – two trumpeters (Claude Deppa and Shanti Jayasinha) and two saxophonists (Chris Biscoe and Tony Kofi) – improvise frenetically over a climax in which all the singers eventually join, culminating in an echo of a medical orderly’s refrain: ‘Horror of war, beyond what words can tell.’

GUO horns with Tony Haynes (left) on trombone © Gaetan Bernede

It’s powerful stuff and comes from a place of passion, integrity and protest. Again and again, the show delivers gut-punching, heart-wrenching messages about ‘politicians’ self-interest, patient activism, media headlines, corporate lobbying and national guilt’. Most of the time, the musical performances match the clarity, scope and ambition of the vision but, occasionally, there are weak moments – the odd tuning issue in the string section and, possibly, an over-reliance on the sheet music. Perhaps this is unfair – after all, classical orchestras use scores – but there was a sense that the piece was not quite ready for performance (admittedly, Music Education UK attended on the opening night) and this was exacerbated by the slightly laissez faire attitude of some of the musicians to being on (and at the side of the) stage – don’t chew gum or check your phones, for example! In a piece of such blistering dramatic possibilities, it would have been good to see GUO take the staging to the next level: scale back the music stands, commit to the visual as well as the aural experience. But these are small niggles in a performance with so much heart. (And to be fair, with funding for music other than classical at an all-time low, perhaps there just aren’t the resources to achieve this.)

GUO does a staggering amount of outreach and runs the Grand Union Youth Orchestra (GUYO), providing young Londoners from all cultures and backgrounds with an opportunity to make music together. Both orchestras are hugely deserving and Tony Haynes should be applauded for his unswerving commitment. Song of Contagion is extraordinary, ambitious, heartfelt, mind-boggling. Thoroughly recommended."

Song of Contagion ran from 13-17 June 2017 at Wilton’s Music Hall and will tour throughout 2018.

Header photo: GUO singers (l-r), Davina Wright, Maja Rivic, Mahamaya Shil, Delwar Hossain Dilu, Tommy Vun Chueng Ng and Jonathan André © Music Education UK

"Those who have the power distort our perception and treatment of disease"
British Medical Journal Blog
Review by Joe Freer
June 16, 2017

"Turn the corner into cable street, and a sharp breeze from the river catches you; Sometimes the scent of the sea, a gust of wind from far off places; distant times Carry their stories into a song. We were here and we felt that gust: a common humanity—the force that binds us together. One mind, one body. We shall remember.

The year is 1831. Cholera, “the Empire’s revenge,” arrives in Britain from India, returning with the colonial forces. The disease continues to kill thousands of people in Britain until 1868, when the sewage system was introduced in London.

A Victorian physician described the disease as “outlandish, unknown, monstrous… its insidious march over whole continents… invested it with a mystery and terror which thoroughly took hold of the public mind…” [1] This account could fittingly describe more recent epidemics too: re-read the description with HIV in mind, or Ebola, or Zika…

But try reading it and thinking of Dengue, or ischaemic heart disease, or mental illness in relation to migration or conflict—and it seems to lose its chilling pertinence. Why?

Song of Contagion is the result of epidemiologist Elizabeth Pisani’s frustration with the ways in which those who have the power (often, “us”) distort our perception and treatment of different diseases (which very often affect “them”). This frustration—not vented by more conference PowerPoint presentations or high-impact journal articles—boiled over into a collaboration with Tony Haynes, a composer and conductor of the Grand Union Orchestra.

The show explores five disease stories in five Acts. It begins with a loud chromatic chorus in Victorian Soho venerating John Snow’s ingenuity: “the modern age is born.” This ecstatic celebration is sharply, suddenly contrasted in a change in the music, when the chorus deserts the stage to give way to a dissonant duet singing in Bengali of “stagnant pools” in Kolkata. Cholera may not seem relevant to readers in the UK, but many living in India—where epidemics continue—still stand “in darkness… waiting for their dawn.”

An oversized PowerPoint slide is projected onto the wall at the back of the stage, depicting a graph showing trends in mortality from AIDS in 1980s America. The score over the next few minutes interprets the graph literally, with the bass and drums beating the intervals of the graph’s X-axis. The various lines on the graph—media attention, public opinion, funding, and the mortality rate—are illustrated by waxing and waning string and brass instruments, hounded by unrelenting strings (representing HIV activists). A trumpet crescendo heralds the arrival of antiretrovirals, but a long, soulful strings solo follows, subtly echoing the jazzy melody and punctuated by a crying trombone: the epidemic is nowhere near over. “This has more to do with you than first appears,” we are told: “silence is consent.”

The show is as about as far from silent consent as is possible—and the repeated refrains throughout to “wipe the sleep from your eyes” are an exhortation to go away and sing the show’s songs as loudly as possible—certainly figuratively, but perhaps literally as well. Pisani thinks that the music itself might be a useful vehicle to elucidate and communicate the factors which shape health policy decisions—and might perhaps make them “more susceptible to planned interference.”

Dengue and Zika are transmitted by the same species of mosquito. One results in millions of infections annually and kills thousands; the other has only ever affected a few thousand people. So why do the media seem to have got it the wrong way round? The third Act combines a Disney-like character of a personified impish mosquito (“Dance with me—you will never catch me,”) with a flustered journalist trying to report on Dengue in the Caribbean, but is being snubbed by an editor (“where’s the drama?”). The journalist only makes headway when the mosquito—accompanied by progressive rhythms which follow its path from East Africa to Brazil—jeopardizes wealthy tourists’ trips to the Rio Olympics.

The fourth section, “Songs of broken hearts,” pays homage to the setting of this show, a Victorian music hall in the East End—and parodies a classic music hall song to explore the ill effects of indulgences promoted by manufacturers of sugary and fatty foods.

The fifth Act features a vocal triumvirate, three characters who have been displaced by conflict. Each has a different story to tell in a different language, a different country, and a different time, but their interlacing personal laments remind us that these stories all have common roots—appealing, again, to our common humanity. When the sorrow becomes too great for the chorus to sing, the orchestra takes over to play out the “pain beyond words.”

Throughout the show the harmonising of instruments, rhythms, musical traditions, and languages from so many different cultures and countries (brought together by musicians from Congo, the Caribbean, Bangladesh, Malaysia, India, and the UK) reflects the collaborative internationalist approach that the show’s stories of global inequality themselves inspire. This has more to do with us than first appears: silence is consent."

(Song of Contagion is being performed at Wilton’s Music Hall in London, UK, from June 13th-17th 2017.)

Joe Freer is the editorial registrar, The BMJ. Clinical fellow, Faculty of Medical Leadership and Management, 2016-17.


[1] Public Health in Relation to Air and Water WT Gairdner

"Review: Song of Contagion"
I, Science Magazine
Review by Emma Lisle
June 24, 2017

"Of all the ways to get people thinking about contagious diseases, using music isn’t something that immediately springs to mind. Yet that was exactly the tactic taken at an event I went to see last week.

Dubbed ‘an alliance of science and music’, Song of Contagion is a musical performance all about attitudes towards infectious diseases, and the lives of people affected by them. The show is the brainchild of musical director Tony Haynes and epidemiologist Elizabeth Pisani, who came up with the idea of ‘hearing’ diseases by matching health statistics with musical compositions.

Performed by the Grand Union Orchestra, a 26-strong group of musicians and singers from all over the world, Song of Contagion aims to question why some disease outbreaks feature all over the headlines, whilst other diseases, which often affect many more people, get brushed under the carpet in Western culture.

It’s safe to say I was unsure of what to expect as I made my way to Wilton’s, a charming Victorian music hall in the heart of central London. The performance, I soon discovered, was made up of five sections, each telling the story of a different disease or health problem. As the lights dimmed, the show began by taking us on a journey to the 19th century, and the banks of the Thames, when cholera raged through the capital. Expressive music accompanied the choir as they told us the story of physician John Snow, who helped to eradicate the disease in London. However, the song was poignantly interwoven with Bengali lyrics and Indian rhythms telling the narrative of Kolkata, where many people still only dream of fresh drinking water today.

As the show continued, a literal musical interpretation of statistical graphs portrayed the story of the rise of AIDS in the USA, the music’s increasing tempo and volume helping to convey growing public awareness and research into the disease. I particularly enjoyed the next section, ‘Mosquito Songs’ – a sequence of African-inspired dance songs, sung as personifications of disease-carrying mosquitoes explaining the journey of Zika and Dengue from Africa to South America.

Later, ‘Song of Broken Hearts’ highlighted the flaws in our modern indulgent lifestyles promoted by the junk food industry. In ‘Mind Song’ we heard the interweaving stories of three veterans affected by post-traumatic stress disorder, their haunting flashbacks represented by instrumental solos. As we reached the finale of the show, the singers came together and sang of their hope that music can play a role in healing and reconciliation in the world.

Before the performance, I was definitely a little skeptical about how a musical show could teach me anything about diseases. However, by the end of the performance, I realised just how effective Elizabeth Pisani’s idea was. It was refreshing to learn about health in a new way, and the performance made me reflect on the way we think about diseases without feeling lectured to – probably why the show was supported by a Wellcome Trust Small Arts Award. More than anything, I loved how much the show was enriched with musical influences from all over the world, and it was evident just how much the singers and musicians loved putting on the show. Song of Contagion was only on for a few nights this time, but I’d definitely recommend getting your hands on a ticket if the show is on again."

Emma Lisle is studying for an MSc Science Communication degree at Imperial College London

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