What the River Brings

PERFORMED on SATURDAY JULY 14th at ST JOHN ON BETHNAL GREEN, What the River Brings proved to be one of Grand Union's most moving and exhilarating participatory shows yet.

Grand Union Orchestra, Grand Union Youth Orchestra
Grand Union Voices, World Choir and Numbi Arts

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What the River Brings celebrates the waves of migration that have shaped East London over the centuries, and continue to do so today. Performed by people from communities who have settled here – descendants of immigrants, or themselves from far-off places - it tells of their experience and the stories of the East End past and present, through music and songs that conjure up the mystery of rivers and the sea, the hope and hardship of journeys, the hazards and hostility faced and overcome.

Great port cities grow around trade, but they are also centres of human traffic – the endless ebb and flow of migrants who contribute not only to economic prosperity, but also to culture and artistic vitality, above all through their music.In What the River Brings, therefore, much of the music is based on traditional songs from around the world, and they give shape to the narrative form.



First we call up Yémanyá or Jémanjá, the Yoruba spirit of rivers and the ocean, still venerated in West Africa, Cuba and Brazil today. 500 years ago European adventurers would pass the shores of these countries before reaching Cape Town, which rapidly became a thriving trading hub, celebrated here in a modern township number African Market Place. The earliest ships were Portuguese: a 15th century prayer of women for the safe return of their menfolk leads into Meu Amor e Marinheiro (a setting of a modern poem which hymns the sailor’s life as a metaphor for political freedom), and the sequence ends with a Portuguese sea-shanty. (links are to audio tracks)

Heading for the Orient, the ships are caught in a violent storm, evoked in Against the Typhoon, an ancient classical showpiece for Chinese harp. The storm fades, and the folk song Hong Hu Shui describes the now calm clear waters. Meanwhile, across the other side of the world and centuries later, another voyage is being prepared: the Empire Windrush setting out for London, bringing Caribbean migrants to help rebuild the UK after the war. Their hopes and good humour are celebrated in a steel band Carnival soca number Feelin’ Nice.

As we’ve learnt recently, the Windrush generation has not always been treated kindly; and Britain has often regarded newcomers with suspicion or hostility. Our first half ends with the story of Battle of Cable Street, when in 1936, Oswald Mosley and his British Union of Fascists attempted to stage a provocative march through the then predominantly Jewish East End. A powerful and courageous alliance of local people stopped the march; but now The Beast is Back, with periodic similar attempts to intimidate the now predominantly Muslim community

A Muslim group opens the second half with a piece built around the Somali song Dadakaan Dawaakayaa. “The people singing here have a loud voice, demanding freedom and the return of their land” – seized from them in decades of colonialism. Next comes the folk song Nau Charia De, describing the daily life of fishermen in Bangladesh, followed by an instrumental version of another Chinese folk tune The Song of Four Seasons, which this time also reaches across the Pacific, to embrace modern American jazz!

If people from any of these countries wanted to come to Britain, however, they would come face-to-face with Mr Never-Smile, the archetypal immigration officer, and told to ‘stand behind the line’.

Whether or not refused entry, their emotions as exiles or refugees would be the same as those expressed 3000 years ago in the Jewish psalm ‘ By the waters of Babylon we sat down and wept.’. But the glorious African rhythms of Twimbe Sana lift our spirits, ending with a reprise of the opening number, a triumphant paean to Yémanyá, who has blessed and watched over our journey.


Trumpets: Kevin Robinson, Evan Cryer-Jenkins, Freddie Abel-Parish, Atl Ongay-Perez
Saxophones: Louise Elliott, Lauren Morgan, Kei Patrick, Oliver Ross
Trombones: Ros Davies, Tony Haynes
Violin: Lily Baker Haynes
Cello: Jessica Judge
Gu zheng (Chinese harp): Zhu Xiao Meng
Oud: Mohamed Maalo Nuur
Tabla: Yousuf Ali Khan, Joshi Shil
African drums: Jonathan André
Congas & percussion: Josh Brandler
Piano: Tony Haynes
Guitar & soprano saxophone: Gerry Hunt
Bass guitar: Andres Lafone
Drums: Carlos Fuentes

Solo singers: Davina Wright, Jaqueline Lwanzo, Jonathan André, Alaur Rahman, Joseph Adelekun

Grand Union Voices, director Naveen Arles BCA
Numbi Somali Arts, artistic director Kinsi Abdulleh
Members of the Grand Union Youth Orchestra

Music composed and arranged by Tony Haynes
Lyrics by Sara Clifford and from traditional sources

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