Song of Contagion: The Show


Song of Contagion is not about disease itself, but our attitudes towards it; above all it is about the lives of people affected by disease, expressed through music.

Just round the corner from Wilton’s Music Hall in London’s East End, where the show is set, cholera was rampant in Victorian times. The choir sets the scene, tells how eventually the cause was discovered, and the disease eradicated by the construction of the sewage system we still have today. This was largely to the credit of a visionary doctor, John Snow, whose story is told in ballad form. The London story is intercut with scenes from Kolkata where no such steps were taken, and the disease remains endemic. This is narrated by Bengali singers, and a powerful bhangra setting of their song concludes the section, calling for clean water as a universal right.

However, not all diseases are so simply eradicated, by the provision of civic infrastructure. Take, for example, the story of HIV/AIDS…

GUO musicians animate the lines on a graph projected behind them. Strings buzz away over drums and walking bass - the activism of mainly gay men, bringing attention to the disease worldwide; saxophones portray growing public awareness and media attention, and trombones the government's initially reluctant funding for medicine, while a menacing bass drum marks the ever-increasing death rate as the years pass. Then strident trumpets announce a treatment has been found – an expensive one, but the drum beats fade.

Now the Yoruba orissa Eleggua (still venerated in Africa, the Caribbean and South America) appears, summons up a mischievous mosquito,  and they dance along the route that the dengue and Zika viruses probably took from Central Africa across the Caribbean to Brazil. The mosquito also changes form, each accompanied by her own ‘familiar’ (a jazz soloist) in a sequence of songs that begins with a lilting African rhythm, then morphs into merengue and samba. Meanwhile, a journalist tries to get attention for the spread of these diseases, but the editor refuses to run the story until Zika threatens to disrupt the Rio Olympics. The first half ends with a feature for all the drummers based on Eleggua’s song.

Wilton’s itself, a beautiful old music hall, is the inspiration for our treatment of Coronary Heart Disease, which begins the second half. This is very simple and straightforward: the lyrics extol an indulgent lifestyle, promoted and sponsored by the junk food industry, in a parody of Marie Lloyd’s well-known song; but of course in the end “A Liitle Of What You Fancy … does you in”!

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (or ‘shell-shock’) is the theme of the final and most extended section. There are three stories, told individually at first, but then overlapping: a veteran of the Bangladesh/Pakistan war obsessively recalls being cornered in the mountains, while his wife fears for his survival; in Angola, a Portuguese conscript soldier wearied of the relentless jungle warfare attempts suicide, and is attended by a medical orderly; a refugee from the war in Syria tries to console her child, haunted by the loss of her father and husband. The songs interweave, interlock and sometimes clash: the anguish caused by these private histories is, after all, the product of the social and political choices that take us to war. Then instrumental soloists take up their contrasted melodic lines, playing out the drama and the nightmares and flashbacks they live with: a pain beyond words. The singers come back together to remind us that they didn't choose this path, but express the hope that music can play a part in healing and reconciliation.


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