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Creole of the Opera
In the Carnival home straight, while panyards stammer with intense stop start rehearsals and fetes launch all out soca assaults, a quieter revolution, with its own Carnival theme is underway in a chamber music hall of the Port-of-Spain NAPA. It’s the fourth day of a week-long intensive workshop of Act 1 of Jab Molassie, a “music theatre work” for actors, dancers and instrumentalists, in two acts. Commissioned by the Calabash Foundation for the Arts, with music composed by Dominique Le Gendre and libretto penned by UTT music lecturer Caitlyn Kamminga, Jab Molassie will be staged in Trinidad later this year, following a further Act 2 workshop, before embarking on an international tour.
If all this sounds highly ambitious, one should remember that it was Calabash which presented last year’s concert of the works of Paraguayan guitarist/composer Augustin Barrios, featuring Latin America’s leading classical guitarist Berta Rojas and Cuban maestro Paquito D’Rivera. The Barrios concert and the more recent Richard Tangyuk, Liam Teague recital alerted the local audience to the reality that the supposed ‘western’ tradition of classical music has a long-established Creole pedigree, in terms of both composers and performers. Latin American and Creole popular and classical music, have also influenced and shaped the western canon. Guadeloupe’s virtuoso violinist/composer the Chevalier St George was the toast of 18th century Paris; Bizet featured the Cuban Habanera in his opera Carmen and much more recently Jab Molassie composer, Trinidadian Dominique Le Gendre, has presented works at that bastion of English high culture, Covent Garden’s Royal Opera House.
The neat and petite Le Gendre has been living music since her childhood on Long Circular Road, when she’d spend hours listening under the piano of her neighbour Olive Walke, founder of La Petite Musical choir, and her first piano teacher. Her mother’s grandmother, a Polish Jewess who married and settled in Martinique, trained as a concert pianist and during regular visits to her grandparents in Martinique, Le Gendre was exposed to traditional island forms (biguine, mazurka, waltz) along with the jazz they inspired in the hands of composers like pianist Marius Coultier, all of which became part of her “childhood musical vocabulary”. In Trinidad, visits to the family’s Mundo Nuevo country estate introduced her to Creole and Spanish speaking villagers, parang musicians and agricultural rituals like dancing cocoa –”all part of our rhythm of life.”
At Bishop Anstey, she played in the junior steelband, began guitar lessons aged nine and subsequently played guitar with the Assumption church choir. As a teenager she worked with the Banyan Collective, which then operated from its performance space in the Laird family house in Belmont. After A levels, she went to Paris to study music and composition, with the ambition of “writing music for films.” She soon discovered “There were a lot of gaps in my musical education coming from Trinidad” so switching from musicology to guitar, she invested the next eight years “practising six to twelve hours daily to catch up.” While perfecting her solfège (theory, sight reading, singing in pitch, ear training) Le Gendre was encouraged by her Spanish classical guitar teacher and “spiritual music father”, Ramon de Herera to cherish her Creole heritage: “You’re a Caribbean person, don’t try to be a European. Come to the music as you are.”
The advice now seems superfluous, as Le Gendre’s approach is reminiscent of that of Leo Brouwer, the Cuban guitarist/composer/conductor who was equally at home conducting his national symphony orchestra, improvising on Rodrigo’s Concerto de Aranguez, a Villalobos prelude, a Beatles’ hit or taking flight with the early Afro-Cuban jazz super group Irakere. Like Brouwer, Le Gendre is a risk taker, although for her: “It doesn’t seem like a risk to me, it’s what I do.” The facility to move easily between genres (Jazz, opera, classical, popular, folk), seems characteristic of the best Creole composers (maybe because they’re not hidebound by tradition) and musicians. It’s rare for a classically trained western musician to be able to improvise, just as many North American jazz players (bar Gillespie et al) come unstuck when they attempt to jam with their Creole counterparts, particularly when dealing with Cuban polyrhythms.
Amongst her influences she cites Bach, Bartok, Ravel, Debussy, Stravinsky, Flamenco and most surprisingly–Joni Mitchell, “a key figure along with Mingus and Wayne Shorter in my sense of painting pictures with words and music.” Mitchell, for Le Gendre, is a fellow risk taker; at one point the American used the Burundi drummers on a composition, long before World fusion was a catch phrase in marketing. Before and after completing her studies Le Gendre’s focus was and still is composing. “I don’t play anything well, I’m crap,” she concedes disarmingly before explaining why: “I spend all my time writing.” She began at 15, composing for school plays and calypso competitions and while in France she wrote music for documentaries, made by friends at film school. When another London-based friend, Tobagonian puppeteer Jean Pearce wrote a children’s play and asked her to write the music, she crossed the Channel, taking up further offers in Fringe theatre.
A long period of drama, Fringe theatre and radio drama then followed, culminating in her collaboration with BBC radio producer Clive Brill, to whom she was introduced by compatriot Frances Ann Solomon. Brill was “into doing different things with music” and obviously recognized a kindred spirit. From 1996 through to 2000, the two worked on a hugely ambitious audio project: The Complete Archangel Shakespeare –no less than the radio adaptation of the complete, unabridged 38 plays of the Bard of Avon. Responsible for the music score, sourcing musicians and conducting recording sessions Le Gendre recalls “I had more or less complete freedom.” Leading British actors like Sir John Gielgud and Joseph Fiennes featured in the nine plays a year produced annually to complete the project.
Her next endeavour, the 20-minute Rio Manzanares Suite, marked her decision to “concentrate on pure music.” This time she collaborated with her old friend Celia Reggiani, with whom she’d trained. The duo spent a year in Reggiani’s Paris studio producing the parang-inspired suite for cuatro, guitar, strings, clarinet, bassoon, percussion, flute and harp. With Reggiani’s background in World Music and jazz and Le Gendre’s propensity for risk, it’s not surprising that the suite “takes the theme and blows it open.” The suite was performed at the prestigious Purcell Room in London in 2005 and paved the way for Le Gendre’s transition into the world of Opera. Realising she wanted to “write more for voice”, she was happy to get a call from compatriot Felix Cross, Artistic Director of Nitro Theatre, part of the Royal Opera House’s new creative wing ROH2. Cross invited her to participate in a new festival, Nitro at the Opera, a one-day free festival featuring arias by black composers. Le Gendre’s 15-minute Bird of Night, with a libretto adapted from an Antillean folktale about a girl with magical powers, was a huge success. “The Opera House was invaded by people who’d never set foot there before.”
Following this success, Elaine Padmore, Royal Opera House Artistic Director, invited Le Gendre to become a ROH Associate Artiste and commissioned her to write a full-length opera based on Bird of Night. Working with librettist Paul Bentley and dramaturge Russian director Irena Brown, Le Gendre premiered Bird in 2006 at the ROH’s studio Linbury Theatre. Bird’s success led to another commission for a Chamber piece for the ROH Chamber soloists. Le Gendre’s suite, based on Derek Walcott’s Tales of the Islands sequence of sonnets, was performed at Queen’s Hall in 2006. Next came a collaboration with Peter Manning, leader of his eponymous Chamber Orchestra, who suggested Le Gendre set Irish poet Seamus Heaney’s Burial at Thebes to music, with Walcott directing. This time Le Gendre admits “I wasn’t entirely satisfied. It was a difficult project and I wrote it too quickly without the necessary time or vision of how it should sound.” The premiere at the Globe Theatre was slated by the press and once again Le Gendre encountered more of the “this is not opera” prejudice Bird of Night had elicited from the reactionary few.
Le Gendre remained unfazed, realising this resistance to change and innovation is “what afflicts lots of contemporary music and opera.” Maybe it’s her Creole sensibility that enables her to cut loose from the reverential approach of some classical music aficionados, who are content to nod at familiar museum pieces. For her the creative rush comes from making her own tradition in her own time and spaces: “We have to define ourselves our culture, not ossify it. It’s a living breathing organism which spawns many children.” Since this minor setback Le Gendre has been busy with “loads of opera”, four to twenty minute song cycles, Chamber Music and more theatre work with Britain’s leading black theatre company Talawa. Besides composing music for London-based Trini playwright Mustapha Matura’s Rum and Coca Cola, her latest project, two years in progress, sounds distinctly like another new departure from the woman who uses bamboo beaten with tassa sticks as voice accompaniment.
“Estuaries” involves the entire community of England’s border town Berwick-upon-Tweed, collaborating with musicians to “create music inspired by estuaries and built environment.” After eco music, it sounds as though the Creole in the Opera is about to launch enviro-music. One wonders whether Calabash might not (in collaboration with the Ministry of Arts and Multiculture) commission a further enviro-music piece, which will take Le Gendre and her audiences to Mt Pelee in Martinique and to the mighty rivers of Guyana, the rainforests of Trinidad.
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