How much courage and determination must be required to uproot and relocate to a foreign land in search of a new future? You leave behind a life of familiarity, and – sometimes literally – dip your toes in international waters. This courage is what we should remember when we think of the Windrush generation – a key moment in British history which saw thousands of people emigrating to the UK from the West Indies between 1948 and 1971.
Last year’s infamous scandal – which saw a number of the Windrush generation wrongly detained or deported from the UK, despite being resident for approximately half a century – has shifted the narrative when saying the name ‘Windrush’. But that’s where renowned composer and academic Dr Shirley J. Thompson OBE comes in.
“The scandal has nothing to do with my work,” Shirley asserts. “As a historian, I feel Windrush is an important thing to record. But my music speaks for what I feel for those people; their courage and ingenuity, the way they overcame challenges – I have nothing but admiration.”
“My work…” she states, “is a tribute.”
The tribute we are discussing, The Women of Windrush Tell Their Stories, is notable for several reasons – chiefly because of just who it is that’s paying it. Dr Thompson boasts a remarkable history – in 2004, she was the first woman in Europe to have composed and conducted a symphony in 40 years; while she wrote New Nation Rising, a piece representing London’s thousand-year history, for the Queen’s Golden Jubilee in 2002. Word limit restrictions prevent me from adding more accolades.
Shirley also offers an authentic connection with Windrush, with her parents having emigrated to the UK from Jamaica. She was granted an award from the Arts Council to produce Memories in Mind, her 1992 film on the migration, while she was invited to write a piece to mark Windrush’s 70th anniversary last year – Psalm to Windrush: for the Brave and Ingenious – which was performed at Westminster Abbey.
For Shirley, this period is a treasure trove of meaningful, relatable experiences; hardships and challenges endured for the sake of a new tomorrow. In The Women of Windrush, the third act of the 2019 SOAS Concert Series, we will learn about the lives of a cricketer’s wife, a student nurse, a concert pianist, and a new bride. Told through a combination of music and film, their journeys were certainly not easy.
“In the show, there’s an accompanying film, which shows a typical Windrush woman knocking on doors, trying to find housing, to get a job – and she’s just getting a hand in her face. Stories like this were told to me in a matter-of-fact way: ‘I’d be invited for a job interview, but when I got there, they’d tell me the job was gone’, that sort of thing.”
But the idea is not to gain sympathy, as understandable as that would be in an age where attitudes towards immigrants can be openly hostile. Rather, Shirley feels that the UK has a lot to thank the Windrush generation for. “They came here to explore, and to get a different kind of life. They didn’t necessarily live a better kind of life – the Caribbean is a spectacular place – but they came with hope, and they made a lot of impact.
“Culturally, I’ve always felt that England changed a lot because of West Indian – and especially Jamaican – people. The food, the music, the character of the people. They transformed communities! It was hard for them, but that generation had a very humorous way, a gracious way of living – I hope the humour comes across in the performance!”
Women of the Windrush is an operatic redirection away from the scandal; a production that showcases the rich lives of the often overlooked women of the time. But why did it take a female composer to create a production that fully represents the experiences of women during Windrush?
“I chose to represent women because I wanted to represent my mother, as well as her friends,” Shirley begins. “I’ve grown up only seeing people like myself in stereotypical, demeaning ways, or not represented at all. All of my projects are about trying to bring back some balance of representation; trying to get the voices of people who may not always get a chance to voice their opinions and experiences. I wanted to tell the stories of the men too – my father’s is still to be told – but in this instance, I decided to tell the female story.”
And the key storyteller in the show is the supremely talented British soprano Nadine Benjamin, who portrays all of the women in the show; and for whom Shirley has a great deal of admiration. “I’m so glad I met Nadine before she became famous! She has this quality, this gift; she’s such an intelligent artist. I love working with that voice. Nadine always wants to dig deep into the idea we’re trying to convey, and then embody it.”
It’s no surprise that Shirley spotted a hidden gem in Nadine very early on. Speaking to Shirley is a musical education – you feel that you’re speaking with someone with a deep knowledge of music. Her insights are compelling, particularly if you feel that opera and classical music seem inaccessible. A focus within the Women of Windrush is to make the genres easier to engage with, and Shirley offers some very interesting thoughts on this.
“I can see the power of music in bringing people together – it’s powerful on so many levels. But, the tradition of opera is, to me, very stilted; and I come from a modernist musical tradition, I was taught a very abstract way of writing music. The idea that the ordinary person could listen to a classical piece and enjoy it and understand it in their first hearing was not considered appropriate.”
Shirley’s pushed for an example of the abstract education she refers to. “Once, we studied a piece by the composer La Monte Young – and it involved a butterfly in a jam jar.”
There’s a pause from both interviewer and interviewee. Shirley continues.
“The audience would come into the auditorium, a window would be opened in the room, and then the lid would be taken off the jar. When the butterfly flew out of the window, that would signify the end of the piece.”
“I was schooled with examples such as these in creating concert works. If you study music beyond postgraduate level at the time that I was at art school, it was all about creating concepts, which, to me, seemed decadent and exclusive. What was considered ‘great work’ in contemporary music circles, needed to be esoteric and highly (overly!) complex. I aspired to communicate, challenge and lift the spirits of an audience made up from the general public, that could enjoy a new work on a first hearing.
“However, I’ve learned a great deal from my experience of listening to avant garde contemporary classical music styles, and feel that I have filtered elements of what I have learned to create a more inclusive style. For me, it’s about creating a universal language of music; one that people can identify as classical music that speaks to them.”
In other words, Shirley is leading the way for those around her, taking them into unfamiliar territory in the hopes of inclusion and connection.
Who better to tell the stories of the people that did the same half a century ago?
Get tickets for tonight’s performance of ‘The Women of Windrush Tell Their Stories’ here.