Song of Contagion: The Show

“Turn the corner into Cable Street – a sharp breeze from the river catches you, sometimes the scent of the sea…”

Welcoming you to this classic Victorian music hall, a singer evokes the East End of over 150 years ago, cholera is raging unchecked, ”the street remembers”. The cause is unknown; wild theories abound. Meanwhile Indian voices, accompanied by sitar and tabla, describe an equally virulent epidemic gripping Kolkata, in West Bengal.

Eventually the River Thames becomes so foetid that a ‘Big Stink’ closes Parliament, and the government is forced to respond. The scientist John Snow discovers the disease is water-borne; fresh water and effective drainage are the answer. So, in spite of opposition from the water corporations, London’s sewage system – still in operation! – is constructed. No such steps are taken in Kolkata, and millions continue to die from the disease. Indian voices rise in a clamour for fresh water, but continue to go unheard.

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.

Meanwhile, the music changes: millions of families are found to be living with the disease in Africa, but can’t all be treated until medication is cheaper. Against an African rhythm now, the strings, saxophones and trombones again get busy – tracking the graph! – and the trumpets mellow as the price falls. In some parts of the world, the disease is now at least treatable, thanks to public awareness and action, but much remains to be done; as the singers remind us in their closing chorus, “easy to turn our backs now - but silence is consent”.

Often only when the media take up the cause is the extent of a disease taken seriously and addressed; but they are capricious, and need a story – preferably a sensational one. So this one is told by a mosquito…

This mosquito, aedes aegypti, begins to dance over a lilting rhythm from central Africa, where dengue fever is endemic and has been killing tens of thousands for years. However “it’s not going to play if it’s too far away – get lost, I’ve got papers to sell!” is a newspaper editor’s cynical response. Next, with soca and steel pans, she spreads the disease to the Caribbean, but “if the rum is still flowing and tourists keep going, where’s the drama?” the editor says.

Trying a different tack, she sambas off to Brazil, where “…Zika may spoil the Olympics: there’s babies being born with small heads”“now you’re talking!” the editor said. Crossing borders once again, she brings the first half to a close dancing off to an exuberant big-band number in an infectious (!) typical West African 12/8 rhythm, featuring drums and percussion from all over Africa, the Caribbean and Latin-America.

As the audience comes back into the Hall after the interval they hear the sound of a heart beating, and the graphic wave familiar from so many A&E dramas fills the screen. This is a portent of CHD – Coronary Heart Disease.

Against this pulse, performers press sweets on the audience, muttering fragments of old music hall songs – “when my sugar walks down the street…”, “I’ll be your sweetheart…”, “a little of what you fancy does you good…”. A ghost of Wilton’s past – an old music hall comedian.– appears and takes up these songs, extolling an indulgent lifestyle, promoted and sponsored by the junk food industry. His patter is extremely compelling – “you’ll want the sweetest candy I’m selling” – but the heartbeat on the screen begins to stutter, the band becomes ragged and the pulse erratic “a little … of what you fancy … does you ... in.”  An eerie silence, the ghost disappears, we are queasily back in Wilton’s present.

Three dramatic stories now follow, vividly brought to life in a series of flashbacks. This is the experience of people suffering from ‘shell-shock’, or Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

A survivor of the Bangladesh/Pakistan war obsessively recalls being hunted down in the mountains “jolche shorbanash / everything is burning”, and his family fear for their future; in Angola, a Portuguese conscript soldier wearied of the relentless jungle warfare “as colunas partiam a madrugada / the platoons set off every morning” 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.

Their stories are interwoven and increasingly interlocked, and then (with the music they are sung to) taken up by four jazz soloists – two trumpets and two saxophones – with the other musicians providing a eloquent instrumental commentary. Similarly overlapping and colliding with increasing frequency, the music builds to a powerful climax, in which all the singers eventually join and give voice. This culminates in an echo of the medical orderly’s refrain – “Horror of war, beyond what words can tell, or a picture-graph…”

The nightmares dissolve into a poignant but affirmative epilogue – “If music could bind up the silent wound, we would do that; if music could, we would…” Each of the five singers ponders why society offers only grudging support to those caught up in conflict (even when fighting for their country), and generally none to innocent victims, and the limited power of artists to intervene.

Finally, the singer who introduced the evening asks the audience, about to leave Wilton’s and step back into Cable Street, to reflect on what it has heard and seen (and what happened in this street only 80 years ago...). Are the reforms initiated by John Snow 150 years ago still in place? Is our country's infrastructure strong enough to withstand the ravages of the modern world? Or are those drains beneath the street beginning to crumble…?

(Phrases in italics are excerpts from some of the lyrics in the show.)

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