The Windrush Suite by Renell Shaw
(Streamed by the Vortex Jazz Club. 22 June 2020. Review by Alison Bentley)
The Windrush Suite was streamed to mark the second National Windrush Day, remembering the 1948 arrival of UK of around 498 people from the Caribbean on the Endeavour Windrush ship, “from carpenters and teachers to singers and musicians”. Bassist Dave Holland introduced the gig: Vortex manager Kathianne Hingwan had commissioned the suite as “as a musical portrait of their experiences”.
The instruments were recorded and filmed separately, then put together to give a live feel – a feat of sound engineering from Coco Shaw. Each of the four pieces focused on a different aspect of those experiences. They combined recorded interviews with some who remembered coming to the UK, with music both written and improvised. The Vision They Had introduced multi-instrumentalist Renell Shaw playing sparse piano chords to accompany old photos of the Windrush generation. We heard that for some, their vision was to make money for a few years and then go back- but the wages were too low, and “you’ll never get a top job”. The music seemed cinematic, as romantic piano arpeggios meshed with a rocking backbeat from Samson Jatto and Shaw now on electric bass. Ayanna Witter-Johnson’s richly-toned cello was deeply resonant. “We did what we could to survive,” said a female interviewee. Orphy Robinson soloed on vibes with inventiveness and heart, bending the harmony over a smooth groove – I wanted to see more of him while he was playing. “You only let go as much as you want to, “ another interviewee told us, which led us neatly on to the next piece.
Bacchanal focused on resistance (“We had enough,” rapped Shaw) and carnival. The urgent groove (Shaw on bass duties too) seemed to blend Afrobeat with Soca rhythms, Jatto’s drumming complex and strong. Distant backing vocals (Nandi and Delycia Belgrave) harmonised like ancestral voices; images of Shaw writing the music splashed onscreen. There was early footage of the Notting Hill Carnival – which not everyone appreciated, we were told. Taurean Antoine-Chagar soloed on sax with sweet thoughtfulness and an Archie Shepp-like tone on bari. Robinson on marimba added extra-luscious textures and darker harmonies.
One of the suite’s most beautiful moments was in Out of Many – Nandi’s sublime many-layered, gospel-edged vocal lines created serenity, as out of many voices came one piece of music. Witter-Johnson built her minimalist part in bursts across the beat. A reggae feel developed behind a stirring Haile Selassie speech. (“Out of Many One People” is the Jamaican national motto.)
Purgatory was the shortest, quietest piece, as Shaw’s pensive bass, Jatto’s cymbal rushes and Delycia Belgrave’s galvanising tap dancing brought joy out of dark memories. The Revd Dr Io Smith spoke about how some childminders treated the Windrush children badly – some were even sent back to the Caribbean for their education. “The reasons for protest are the same I was doing almost 40 years ago – the cycle seems to be repeated,” she warned.
Journalist and broadcaster Kevin LeGendre reminded us in his commentary: “The decision of the British government to deport members of the Windrush generation in 2017 was nothing less than shameful.” But he concluded, “There could be no better way to fight back than through music.”
Congratulations to Renell Shaw and the musicians for playing such superb music on difficult but important themes – and to the Vortex and PRS for Music Foundation for commissioning it.