This year’s Brighton Festival features a special music project entitled A Change Is Gonna Come: Music for Human Rights. SJM editor Charlie Anderson spoke to the two composers behind the project: Carleen Anderson and Nikki Yeoh.
I began by asking Carleen Anderson about how the project first came about. “The two organisers at Sounds UK, Polly Eldridge and Maija Handover approached me about being the musical director for a project they wanted to put together which was addressing the civil rights situation, and that they were applying to the Arts Council for a grant.”
Soon pianist and composer Nikki Yeoh was brought on board and she describes what happened, “Polly and Carleen wanted to involve myself, then Polly wanted to commission me to write a piece, and she commissioned Carleen to write a piece as well, about human rights”.
The early discussions also focussed on who else would be a good fit. Carleen, with her years of experience and wealth of contacts recommended a number of people. “I suggested Speech Debelle, who is a wonderful spoken word rapper; jazz saxophonist and rising star Nubya Garcia, and the bassist Renell Shaw, who is probably more well-known for his work with the band Rudimental, but he’s also recorded on my latest album Cage Street Memorial and toured with me to promote that album. He’s a wonderful, bright, young, innovative musician. Nikki Yeoh suggested the drummer Rod Youngs who is on many different projects that he’s worked on with her and several other people. He’s probably most known for his work with Gil Scott-Heron.”
Nikki told me, “It’s exciting because I’ve never played with Carleen before. I have played with Rod Youngs before, and Nubya Garcia used to be my student. But I’ve never played with Renell Shaw and I’m very excited to work with him. And I’ve never worked with Speech Debelle. In fact I’ve never met Speech, she’s the only person that I’ve not met personally, yet. There’s always a good creative energy when you get into a room for the first time and go through stuff.”
A meeting early on helped to focus on the scope of the project, as Nikki explained, “We had a great meeting in Guildford, where Carleen lives, to talk about human rights and how we wanted to explore the music that’s accompanied all of these different protests. There’s so much of it. You could really home in on one area, like you could home in on the Civil Rights Movement and already there’s so much music, so much great music that went along with the Civil Rights Movement. We could just focus on that period but we’ve tried to broaden it out and think about other areas of human protest that needed to be showcased and the music that accompanied those protests.”
For Carleen, writing protest songs is nothing new for her. “I’ve been writing, composing protest music for nearly thirty years. It’s something that was on my radar and something that comes natural to me, so the inspiration was from the fact that there was this part about it that wanted to focus on that. Usually that’s not something that the commercial platform is interested in promoting, so to have a project that comes to you, something that you do automatically, that is very inspirational, and added inspiration to something that I would do anyway.”
I asked Carleen how this latest commission compares with her previous project, the critically acclaimed Cage Street Memorial. “It’s still a storytelling venture, in that A Change Is Gonna Come is based on the storytelling of how things were at a certain time and how they are now. Cage Street Memorial does the same kind of comparison. Also, Cage Street Memorial goes a bit further back in time, from the end of the 19th Century in the USA and culminates in 21st Century Bristol, going from my grandfather’s birth to my son’s current life in 21st Century Bristol and covering that over 100 years time. What we’re doing with A Change Is Gonna Come is primarily the earlier songs of Woody Guthrie’s I Ain’t Got No Home, that was early in the 20th century, but this is a similar time period, and it’s discussing how things once were and how they are now and how they compare. We’re also re-imagining more modern protest songs.”
The project will include performances of the two commissioned pieces, together with arrangements of tunes associated with the struggle for human rights. Nikki stated, “Carleen has been arranging a lot of the work. I’ve arranged a piece by Nina Simone and we have permission from her estate to go ahead and do that. I’ve arranged a piece, Four Women, which is from around the time of the Civil Rights Movement, so I’ve arranged that for the band. There’s going to be a few different covers, not straight covers, but Carleen’s arrangements of them. They’re arrangements of pieces, and a bit of poetry in there as well.”
Nikki was also keen to talk about her commissioned piece and where the inspiration came from. “My piece for this commission is called A Piece for Peace. I was exploring various topics to write about but I just really felt that it’s about the birth of youth and what is peace. Sometimes they might not even know what peace is. They have this yogic ideal of what peace is but not many know about proper peace. It seems like there’s a lack of protest songs because it all seems to be self-orientated, the whole Instagram, Facebook, WhatsApp culture. But the piece is about the birth of youth. Saying that they want to be heard but really they’re only going on marches for selfies and stuff like that. It’s not all the youth, I have to say, but a lot of young people couldn’t care less about standing up for anything other than Instagram likes, from what I can see. I love young people, this isn’t a massive criticism of them, but it just seems to be a general way that our culture is going towards.”
Currently there are plans for A Change Is Gonna Come to be performed at just three concerts across England: London’s Queen Elizabeth Hall, Brighton Festival and finally at Birmingham Town Hall, but there is the possibility that it will be recorded. Carleen told me, “It’s still to be determined because there’s quite a few licensing rights to get through, but it’s been banded about by the BBC, to record it, which would be ideal because of the rights and the artists involved, because they come from different generations and different styles and the music itself comes from different genres and is combined into a modern setting so it would be great if it could be recorded because it’s a one-off thing. It’s hard enough to get the dates together so that we’re all available”
In part this is due to Nikki Yeoh performing, not just in her own projects, but also with Denys Baptiste’s The Last Trane, the critically acclaimed album that has resulted in extensive touring. “It’s a good project to get involved in because I was in it from the beginning when Denys had the ideas, and I remember putting the ideas together as a band. That’s been really cool. We’re going to the St. Lucia Jazz Festival next month so that’s also great. Any chance to travel – I like traveling. We’re actually playing at the Love Supreme Festival in July. That’s gonna be cool cos I’ve never been there. I’ve heard it’s quite a bit of fun. It’s brilliant for Brighton. I’ve been a part-time Brighton resident in a way because my mum’s lived down there for such a long time. It’s always great to come down and play in East Sussex. I love it. I have a link to Brighton, I feel that it’s part of my second home.”
As well as performing at Brighton Festival three years ago with her tribute to Sarah Vaughan, Carleen has also visited Brighton’s BIMM music school to give a vocal workshop, which saw her demonstrating to students the capabilities and potential of their own voices. Carleen is enthusiastic about sharing what she has learnt over the years. “It’s really inspiring to see the young generation. As any music teacher who loves classes, teaching music and sharing music, seeing the young eyes spark when they figure out what it is that they can do. Then there’s this thing where they’re aware of what’s possible. And to share knowledge, especially with the young, for them to be able to take that and do what they will with that, it’s a great experience. And I was very, very fortunate in that I had studied classical music, I have studied with professors who have shared their knowledge with me and gave me the inspiration to want to share with others.”
In terms of future projects, both artists are going to be busy, with Nikki working on a new album and excited about touring with Denys Baptiste. “Like I mentioned, we’re going to St. Lucia. I’ve probably said that way too many times! And then we’re going to do this beautiful gig in Finland as well, in November. I’m also headlining Cleethorpes Jazz Festival in June, which is interesting. I went there with Denys last year and it’s quite surreal because it’s a festival in a place that used to be a holiday camp, properly like Pontins. Do you remember that show Hi De Hi!? It’s a little bit like that.”
Carleen will also be travelling, appearing at the Gibraltar World Music Festival: “It’s based on ‘borders’, that’s the theme of it, featuring artists from around the world who are connected to England and who have come from somewhere else. So, obviously, I’ve come from the States and I’ve been living here for nearly 30 years, and some are coming from Ireland, another from Scotland and others from different parts of Africa, Jamaica and so forth. And each of us are bringing our own music and compositions. And we play them in this orchestra that is led by the award-winning jazz virtuoso vibraphonist Orphy Robinson and that will be starting in June. Following that I’m working on what I call ‘my project after Cage Street Memorial’. Again, it has the same kind of humanitarian type of focus but in a more futuristic-telling.”
A Change Is Gonna Come: Music for Human Rights is at Brighton Dome Concert Hall on Tuesday 22nd May, 2018 as part of Brighton Festival.