In November 2017, composer and musician, Juwon Ogungbe, worked in collaboration with artists and young people from across Haringey to present two performances celebrating the life and work of Ignatius Sancho (1729-1780), an abolitionist icon and the first Black composer ever to have his music published in Britain. Here, he reflects on the process.
Ignatius Sancho’s music first came to my attention when I was invited by BBC Radio London and the British Library to sing his songs in a concert that was part of a conference that marked the 200th anniversary of the Abolition of Slave Trade Act in 2007.
I liked the songs right from the beginning of the process of preparing for that event as they reminded me of songs in the ballad opera tradition of the 18th century, similar to those in John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera, a production of which I had performed in not too long before that time.
Wearing my hat as a composer, I was inspired by the fact that Sancho was the first composer of Black African heritage to ever get his music published. When I found out more about his life, I discovered he was a trailblazer in more ways than one – he was the first Black person to vote in a British election due to the property he owned in Westminster. He was also rumoured to have been a polymath who wrote a book on music theory and acted on the West End stage in leading roles, among other things.
Apart from his impressive pioneering spirit, I was moved by the fact that Sancho’s life and legacy could serve as template for Black musicians, that we don’t need to look anywhere beyond ourselves for validation to play or compose art music. Ignatius Sancho’s story is timeless and of enduring value in the sense that he picked himself – he didn’t wait to be picked by anyone.
Last year, I performed at a special tribute event for a distinguished Nigerian academic who happens to love classical music. His son asked me to sing operatic arias to an audience of well-heeled, influential Africans and their friends, flown in from different parts of the world. One person in the audience was a trustee on the board of the Bernie Grant Arts Centre in Tottenham, North London. She approached me, suggesting that I might want to have a word with the centre’s management about doing some work there.
This encounter led to a series of meetings with the chairperson of the board and, eventually, the centre’s newly appointed Chief Executive. I drew up a proposal to work on a season of creativity that could be associated with the centre. The first name that came to mind was Ignatius Sancho’s because I felt there was a sort of synergy about new work being created that was inspired by his example in an arts centre that was designed by a leading Black architect (David Adjaye) and named after a leading Black British politician (Bernie Grant).
Ignatius Inspires, the project I had in mind, was to be a season of cross-art-form creative work which would include song recitals, staging of dances to new arrangements of Sancho’s music, spoken word poetry creative responses to Sancho’s published letters and a creative learning composition project in Haringey schools. All of these activities were to be documented and archived on a new website, Afrocentric Creatives.
I applied to Arts Council England to fund the idea and was successful. This was where the hard work began. I had some support from Peter Desmond of Haringey Music Service when I made the Arts Council application and a lot more help from his colleagues, Catty Alberman and Abigail Munson, once we knew the funds were in place to make the project happen.
Haringey Music Service helped tremendously in forging links with schools that participated in the creative learning composition and dance strands of the project. They also drafted in a chamber ensemble from Haringey Young Musicians (HYM) Symphony Orchestra, who accompanied the young dancers in the two showcase performances that were eventually presented at Bernie Grant Arts Centre in mid-November, 2017.
It was easier to find interested participants from the Primary schools than the Secondary ones so I ended up working with six groups of young people on composing – from three Primary schools (Crowland, Earlsmead and Harris Primary Academy, Philip Lane) and one Secondary school group (Woodside High School). Caroline Muraldo, my colleague who led the dance strand, worked with one Primary school group (Earlsmead) and one Secondary school (Park View).
In some cases, I had face-to-face meeting with teachers before starting work on the project but in a few others, I was able to sort things out on the phone or by email before the first session. It was perhaps helpful that Catty Alberman of Haringey Music Service had seen some workshops I ran in schools for Alexandra Palace that were linked to the Royal Opera House‘s live streamed performance of Puccini’s Turandot, only a few months before so she had a good idea of the quality of my work. Caroline Muraldo had also done a lot of dance education work for the music service in the past so the creative learning part of our project was led by experienced practitioners of many years standing.
In the introductory sessions in each school, I sang one or two of Sancho’s songs, accompanying myself. The composition work was developed using a process that included lots of instrumental improvisation based on specific period dance music styles such as habaneras and minuets, backbone scores and small group compositions that were distilled into simple motifs to be stitched together. Two of the Primary schools had specialist music teachers and it was easier to make progress from week to week with their support. On the other hand, some of the most striking musical ideas came from the Primary school that didn’t have a specialist music teacher.
The Secondary school pupils were more self-conscious about using improvisation as a means of generating ideas. They were also wary about performing music that wasn’t pop or rock in public so the Head of Music and her colleague experimented with shifting the project from a Year 9 GCSE Music group to a booster class for their Year 11 students, combined with the more confident Year 9s. Eventually, due to issues of timetabling and availability, the group that performed at the Bernie Grant Arts Centre was a nucleus of keen and engaged Year 9 students.
Each group seemed to be most elated at the point when it was clear that a composition had been completed. The teachers at Woodside High (Ms Danso and Ms Frost) deserve special credit for their creativity in keeping their students engaged with the project. The Primary school groups were generally keen to share their work but making the move from the classroom to Bernie Grant Arts Centre involved getting permission and support from parents. I would like to thank Tom Elvy (Crowland) Ania Hajost and Fiona George (Earlsmead) and Elisabeth Hastings (Harris, Philip Lane) for the effort they must have put into cajoling children and parents to sign the relevant documents so we had fairly large numbers of child performers present at the showcase events.
The compositions were all named after specific locations that the groups had shared memories of visiting. This idea was inspired by Ignatius Sancho’s naming of some country dances after well known locations such as Kew Gardens.
I composed a full ensemble song, Mister Sancho, which was introduced to each group in the fourth week of a process that lasted for six weeks. The school groups with specialist music teachers found the song easier to learn than those that didn’t but we made the most of the song as the finale in each showcase performance. The song also included parts for the chamber ensemble musicians and a young, precocious clarinettist from Woodside High School, who has now joined the ranks of the HYM Symphony Orchestra. I was hoping to have the dance performers present a movement sequence of the song’s lyrics in British Sign Language but maybe that was a little too ambitious.
At the Bernie Grant Arts Centre, the groups seemed to get along very easily with each other and our preparation process in the auditorium was smooth on both days. The Haringey Music Service team were all in attendance at the first performance and very supportive of all that took place. The chamber ensemble musicians met with the dancers for the first time on the first day and we had a good joint rehearsal. The performances were both well received and the children seemed to be very happy with the outcome of the process.
The teachers were also very kind in their feedback to me about the creative process they had been through with the young people.
Each school group was given two evaluation forms – one for the teacher and the other for the pupils. Some of their testimonials are listed below.
The project is still in process – with a film of the two showcase events still being edited at present and regular updates on Afrocentric Creatives. The site will also feature links to radio interviews I did to promote the project on BBC Radio London, Resonance FM and Galaxy FM plus poems written by Nana Asaase, a leading performance poet based in Accra, Ghana, who contributed creative responses to Sancho’s writings. We expect to have the film of the project fully edited and ready by mid-December 2017 when it will be posted on YouTube at www.youtube.com/afrocentriccreatives.
Mister Sancho, our finale song at the showcase performances, begins with the line, Did you know your music could light a fire? Ignatius Sancho’s music certainly lit a small fire in my heart and I hope it has done the same to the hearts of hundreds of young, emerging musicians across the borough of Haringey.
Header photo: Juwon Ogungbe © Nadeem Ali, www.thesweetspace.com
Testimonials from contributors and participants
On behalf of the students and staff from Woodside High School we would like to say thank you for your kindness, hard work and passion for music. It was an enriching experience that we all benefited from. Well done – a great success!
Claire Danso – Head of Music, Woodside High School
Thank you for taking us on such a creative journey. It was great to see this process step by step.
Ania Hajost – Year 4 Class Teacher, Earlsmead Primary School
Thanks very much for last Thursday – the children really enjoyed it.
Elizabeth Hastings – Music Specialist Teacher, Harris Primary Academy, Philip Lane
We just wanted to let you know that we really enjoyed the performance on Thursday evening. We thought the children did really well, the compositions were great and it was so nice to see classroom composition performed in a great setting! The dancing was very impressive and the costumes were wonderful – Caroline must have worked very hard!! Our musicians found it a very beneficial experience. The schools really enjoyed all the workshops that you delivered and it was great to see it all come together in the theatre. Many thanks for all your hard work.
Catty Alberman, Haringey Music Service
- Learning something new, I have also gained confidence in performing in front of my classmates. Also, learning about Sancho was interesting
- I have learnt not to be shy, but to be brave more often. And that will help me with my YouTube channel
- I have learnt to never give up and try to aim for the best! And it does not matter what race/colour you are
- I have learnt that we have to use teamwork
- I have learnt that you always try your best and do not worry about mistakes
- I learnt how to improvise
- It does not have to be perfect
- I have learnt that you take a subject to put on a piece
- I have learnt not to be afraid to perform to people you don’t know
Responses from children of Earlsmead Primary School and Harris Primary Academy, Philip Lane (taken from evaluation survey questionnaires)
About the author
Juwon Ogungbe is a musician, singer, composer and band leader from London, of Nigerian heritage.
Placing African music at the heart of his work, Juwon also incorporates pop, jazz and classical music into his expressive range. Juwon’s concert and music theatre compositions consistently attract interest from theatre and dance practitioners. Commissions include music for the Royal Shakespeare Company, Union Dance, the BBC, LIFT and the Southbank Centre among many others.