On Monday, a brand new collaboration premiered at the newly reopened Queen Elizabeth Hall (Southbank Centre) – a fitting location for a fresh and innovative project produced by SoundUK. Nubya Garcia (saxophone), Speech Debelle (rap vocals), Nikki Yeoh (piano and keys) and Carleen Anderson (vocals) came together for the first of three live performances in London, Brighton and Birmingham of their interpretations of protest music through the ages, alongside Rod Youngs (drums) and Renell Shaw (bass).
Yeoh, Garcia, Youngs and Shaw opened the set with Coltrane’s ‘Alabama’, written about the KKK’s bomb attack on the 16th Street Baptist Church, which killed four African American girls. Introducing the show with an instrumental number with such an immersive quality set the tone. Not an obvious choice - one often assumes protest songs within this genre - but the trembling piano, ominous walking bass and weary saxophone were as much a cry of mourning as any lamenting lyric, not to mention Youngs’ explosive rolls and snare hits evoking the devastation at the scene to which this piece plays tribute, echoing Elvin Jones’ closing solo in the original.
The show was introduced by the voice of Anderson, as a radio DJ, a post that was shared by her and Debelle throughout the show which helped punctuate the narrative of the progression of and variation of protest music.
The set varied in subject matter - from that of gender division, in ‘The Joke’ by Brandi Carlile, to homelessness, in Anderson and Yeoh’s duet: ‘Ain’t Got No Home’ by Woody Guthrie. This beautiful, gospel interpretation ebbed and flowed between uplifting major verses and minor instrumental passages, which was just as spellbinding as Anderson, who showcased the full extent of her range, adding to the sincerity of her lyrical interpretation.
The second set after the interval opened with the high-energy ‘It’s Bigger Than Hip Hop’ by Dead Prez, lead by Debelle, who explained that this song was chosen with the intent to highlight the importance of hip hop in the continuation of protest music. Debelle did the piece more than justice - hearing it in the voice of a British female when a large proportion of hip hop is still performed by American males was exhilarating - this and her captivating power on stage surely made everyone want to jump up and join her. In a way the only unfortunate thing about it was the fact that we were sat in a concert hall...
They of course performed the title track of the project, by Sam Cooke, written about his personal experience of racial segregation in America, with lyrics modified by Anderson as a response - ‘When Is A Change Gonna Come?’. This was an uplifting, funky rendition in contrast with the slow-paced, orchestral original, with Anderson using a spacey harmoniser in the intro, before Youngs’ reggae grooves. Garcia’s jagged, punchy solo in this piece was testament to her unique style that earned her the Jazz FM breakthrough act of the year award: she plays with an almost percussive feel - once again, making us wish we were standing rather than seated!
Yeoh’s interpretation of Nina SImone’s ‘Four Women’ was another breathtaking highlight of the show, taking the repeated, circular piano motif from the original and obscuring its harmonic direction, resulting in an even darker, more mysterious version than the original. Yeoh extended the powerful outcry of ‘Peaches!’ at the end of the piece by attacking the piano: sitting on it and playing clashed notes through whatever means possible without a shred of fear.
Overall, a truly special evening of mind-blowing creativity and sensitivity. The collection not only comprised of raw, pioneering interpretations of classic, politically motivated music, but demonstrated the versatility of each musician. Debelle with her countless characters and ernest delivery of such powerful words, and Anderson’s astounding abilities breach boundaries of time and genre, as well as her enchanting use of the harmoniser (we were lucky enough to have multiple Carleen Andersons that night). Nikki Yeoh, not only playing the grand piano and keyboards at the same time, but soloing on her vocoder. She and Shaw (bassist) also rapped at certain points within the set. Nubya Garcia is someone everyone should see live: she gives you so much more than just saxophone when she performs; her presence and movement in conjunction with her immaculate playing is a extraordinary manifestation of her rhythmic sensitivity. Youngs’ ability, as Yeoh rightly pointed out, to play just about every single groove there is under the sun was the icing on the cake of this dynamic performance.
In the UK, we are fortunate to have more access than ever to information which enables us to find our voice, and to have a wider choice of platforms through which to express this. A Change Is Gonna Come: Music For Human Rights shows how that voice can be used in the most positive sense, both artistically and socially. This is an inspiration to all who wish to continue the story of protest music, and bring it into a much needed contemporary context. If you are in Birmingham next week we urge you to go to the final performance from this sensational combo at the Town Hall on Tuesday 29 May.