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Musical Review Something of a damp squib

A musical celebration of the Windrush generation failed to ignite, says PETER MASON

Windrush: A Celebration
Barbican Hall, London

DESPITE a handful of high points, including cameos from king and queen of calypso Mighty Sparrow and Calypso Rose, mostly what we got at this Barbican celebration was an atmosphere of subdued and sometimes angry contemplation.

Many in the audience were clearly keen to cut loose and enjoy themselves but the pace and demeanour of the show rarely gave them that opportunity.

Partly this was due to the discordant, jazz-tinged nature of much of the material curated by British-Trinidadian poet Anthony Joseph, whose own words set to music were integrated into the evening’s entertainment.

Partly, too, there was just too much on the menu, with a phalanx of solo artists wandering on and off stage to deliver pieces so disparate that the show could hardly get into any kind of rhythm or focus.

And while the videos and images projected behind the stage were eye-catching and thought-provoking, too often they concentrated on the trials and tribulations of black life in Britain, as opposed to its joys and achievements.

But the chief fly in the ointment was the 10-piece band, led by Jason Yarde, which dominated almost to the exclusion of everything else.

As if to emphasise this, Yarde’s musicians were  sectioned off above the main body of the stage, leaving the lonely and sometimes visibly uncomfortable performers to roam around the acres of space in front, physically and emotionally shut off from the music behind.

Offerings from the likes of Cleveland Watkiss, Brother Resistance and Gaika were bookended, and even interrupted, with off-putting jazzy doodlings, serving only to further break down any growing buzz of excitement.

Arrangements would peter out with no discernible ending and the band’s rendering of its Windrush Suite, specially commissioned for the evening, finished with seconds of compete silence, during which no-one quite knew whether to clap or to wait for more.

Yet the 25-minute suite was a highlight, and should have been showcased in the main body of proceedings rather than at the end, by which time  — with the show over-running into well over three hours —  a large proportion of the audience had drifted off.

By then many had, in all probability, seen what they had come to see — a last, fleeting glimpse of Sparrow and Rose, two legends of Caribbean music who, by dint of age and infirmity, may never perform together in Britain again.

Unlike Sparrow, who is more frail but retains his honeyed, irresistible tones, the power in Rose’s voice has dissipated, though she makes up for it by maintaining her proud, cheeky stage presence. With two songs each, one either side of the interval (Congo Man and London Bridge from Sparrow, Calypso Queen and Calypso Blues from Rose), they demonstrated that great artists can rise above any obstacles put before them.

Only the supremely assured cellist and vocalist Ayanna Witter-Johnson came anywhere close to their level of stagecraft, with a riveting rendition of Roxanne that briefly nudged the audience’s mood right up the scale. It’s a shame that this show struggled to reach similar heights for much of the rest of the night.

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