Friday 20 December 2013

The city of rebellious delight: songs of protest in East London

Bryant and May's Matches - advertisement
I should have been Christmas shopping but ‘The city of rebellious delight’ was too tempting. As part of Spitalfields Music’s Winter Festival two local choirs, Women Sing East and the Tubthumping Chorus, joined forces to produce an alternative, more humanist take on the Christmas message in the packed out Bishopsgate Institute on Saturday14 December 2013.

For just over an hour on Saturday lunchtime the two groups sang protest songs. Women Sing East has been running for twelve years, and has strong links with Spitalfields Music especially with the festival’s outreach programme. Directed by Laka D they are always worth a visit. For this concert they joined forces with one of the Bishopsgate Institute's resident choirs, the Tubthumping Chorus led by Gitika Partington, and together they ‘defiantly’ explored songs of protest taken from the archives of the Institute's library (set up in 1885). This included folk and union songs, football chants, political marching songs, and songs from the largest protests in British history.

In an appropriate gesture, given the nature of the subject material, the choirs differentiated themselves by dressing in either red or green, in clothes that represented their personalities rather than formal concert attire. However even without that the two choirs had quite different styles and different choices of music. Women Sing East was accompanied by piano, double bass, and drums lending them a slick stage-musical atmosphere, while the Tubthumping Chorus was largely unaccompanied and had a rawer, out and about, quality. Both were equally animated and matched in vocal skill.

Taking it in turns in a light-hearted ‘debate’ Women Sing East got off in rip-roaring style with ‘I am Determined’ a traditional African-American hymn followed by Tubthumping Chorus enthusiastically singing Billy Bragg’s version of the left wing anthem ‘The Internationale’. Laka D’s arrangement of ‘Garden of Grace’ by Seth Lakeman was somewhere between stage and gospel while ‘Unison in Harmony’ by Coope, Boyes, and Simpson was more in the tradition of ‘Man of constant sorrow’. Coope, Boyes, and Simpson publish their music on the NoMasters label, a collective based in the North of England, set up to provide somewhere for writers and musicians who are interested in struggles and change within communities. Several other of the songs in the concert also had ties to this group.

‘The mountain song’ – which was not in the programme notes but after a bit of research I think was ‘You can’t kill the spirit’ written by Naomi Littlebear Morena – was very emotive and affected the performers and audience alike. This song was an anthem for the protest at Greenham Common but still has relevance today.
Ray Hearne also publishes via NoMasters. This version of ‘Things to say’ was arranged by Val Regan and similarly to ‘You can’t kill he spirit’ could apply to not only this coal and steel industry of South Yorkshire but to all groups who voices need to be heard.

Women Sing East sang ‘Poverty knock’ in memory of the women and children at the Bryant and May match factory in 1888. Now an expensive gated housing development on the A12 in the East End of London, 125 years ago the match factory was the scene of a society changing strike. The women, helped by Annie Bessant came out in strike against their routine fourteen-hour work days, poor pay, fines, and the severe health complications of working with white phosphorus. Their determination and the intervention of Annie Bessant meant that their demands were largely met and, in the longer term, to the banning of child labour in dangerous trades and to the banning of the use of white phosphorus. In a quirky touch the performers used boxes of matches as shakers to accompany themselves, and in the middle included spoken quotes from women involved in the strike. 

‘If I had a hammer’ by Pete Seeger had the audience clapping along to Gitika’s arrangement.  ‘Shipbuilding’, an arrangement of Elvis Costello and Clive Langer’s song written during the Falklands war, looks at the contrasting horror and prosperity brought to areas like Clydeside and Liverpool during the conflict. Prosperity due to the return of work to shipyards and the horror of sons and family members being killed on these same ships.

These were followed by a couple of more global songs: ‘Ndodemnyama’ a traditional South African song directed by their trainee music director, Namvula Rennie, and ‘Pride’ using Nelson Mandela’s favourite arrangement of the U2 song originally performed by the Sowetto Gospel Choir in honour of his recent death.

The final song of this rousing concert was ‘We shall overcome’ by Pete Seeger sung jointly by both choirs. Originally a gospel hymn, this song became an anthem for the African-American Civil Rights Movement in the 20th century and in 1963 was sung by 300,000 people at a demonstration in Washington. In 1968 Martin Luther King, Jr. recited the words in his final sermon before his assassination. After a build up in tension, when heard in contrast to the accompanied verses, the a capella verse towards the end was very powerful and the song provided a fitting finale.

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