Matthew Herbert’s notes for the Brexit Big Band’s performance at London’s Barbican on 23 October 2017
This show was originally designed to tour Europe as a kind of ‘goodbye and thank you’ party and we’ve done a few shows abroad already, but it’s been repurposed a little for tonight. It is part of a much bigger protect that started when Theresa May triggered Article 50 and will culminate in an album released in March 2019 when the UK is due to leave the EU.
The proiect itself is attempting to live, rather than just talk about some of the values that I have always taken to be critical to our collective wellbeing and survival: the warmth of compassion, the fizz of collaborative creativity, the prioritising of tolerance and love over hate and violence.
Since the Brexit campaign began, these values seem to be increasingly under vicious attack from a variety of powerful, mainly male, voices. Shortly after the result was announced it became clear to me that I had to do something musically that sought to keep the line of cultural communication open with the citizens and institutions of European countries that had not only welcomed me so generously over the years, but changed my life and that of so many people I know, for good.
The process of making the record then, is a giant collaboration with foreign big band musicians and choirs. We will take a few key musicians to as many European countries as we can, to work with a big band and as many local singers as we can get to each of the sessions. We will then spend a day in workshops and rehearsals, a day recording new music and finally a concert.
The resulting album will be made up of all these different recordings eventually hoping to capture the work of over 2000 musicians and singers. In some ways it hopes to be the exact opposite of Brexit. To that end we have also set up the Brexit Sound Swap to allow anyone to collect and exchange noises with others for free. Some of those sounds are in the show tonight.
As for the Westminster politics of Brexit, it all seems incredibly bleak at the moment. I have no confidence in this government. I’ve also no tolerance for the hypocrisy of unaccountable billionaire press barons who don’t live in this country, who don’t pay tax here, telling provocative, divisive stories about what it means to be British that are rarely true, kind or necessary.
I’m fed up reading about who this country’s chief diplomat has insulted this time. it’s hard to look at the mechanics of leaving the EU at the moment and think that it’s going well for the UK or indeed that the government is representing the broad spectrum of opinion within the population rather than small factions of the Comervative establishment.
It’s hard not to see them as out of control, out of their depth,and out of ideas. There is no clear viable vision articulated by the government as to what this country stands for either today or in March 2019. The ill-judged referendum proposed by David Cameron was the wrong question at the wrong time and as a consequence it created the wrong answer. It is the wrong answer in this context because there was never any plan. There is still no plan. There are legitimate reasons to leave the EU, but you don’t dismantle people’s lives without first working out how to put them back together again. You don’t rewrite the rules of British governance without first publishing researched studies on the impact of such decisions. You don’t trigger Article 50 and then call an election. You don’t ignore the narrowness of the result of the referendum, or the lives of the EU nationals who have been living and working here for many years. It’s a disgraceful mess and considering the amount of money it’s costing each of us, we deserve to be listened to.
This concert then is the start of our own plan. It doesn’t matter if you voted leave or remain, it’s a plan that tolerates dissent, but prioritises collaboration. It’s a plan that prioritises joy over misery. It’s a plan that tries to show that so much good in the world comes from opening your door a little wider rather than adding another lock. As part of this plan maybe we could measure the success of a nation not just on the metrics of a failing economic system, but on how many new things it learned today, or how many people met someone from another culture for the first time, or how many people could aftord a holiday from their wages, or how many people walked instead of drove, or how many women were promoted at work, or how much extra time people spent with their family that week, or played an instrument, or tried a new flavour in their food, or visited an elderly person living on their own.
The failings or otherwise of the EU is rarely at the top of the priorities list of many British citizens. The many repercussions from the current, profoundly exploitative and violent, white-men-first hegemony on the other hand…
Amongst all of this Brexit noise is the greatest threat we have ever faced as humans, that of climate change. At a point when we should be pulling together, we are choosing to set ourselves apart. In his book Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari argues that the human imagination and its ability to tell stories was right at the forefront of our evolutionary processes. Tonight is supposed to be a celebration of the capacity of music to remind us that we are bound together by something profound, something invisible.
Whether we like it or not.
So we may as well stand and sing ourselves a better future.
And if you want to sing along with Shelley’s words:
Men of England, wherefore plough
For the lords who lay ye low?
Wherefore weave with tail and care
The rich robes your tyrants wear?
women of england!
men of england!
Wherefore feed and clothe and save
From the cradle to the grave
Those ungrateful drones who would
Drain your sweat-nay, drink your blood?
Wherefore, Bees of England, forge
Many a weapon, chain, and scourge,
That these stingless drones may spoil
The forced produce of your toil?
Have ye leisure, comfort, calm,
Shelter, food, love’s gentle balm?
Or what is if ye buy so dear
With your pain and with your fear?
The seed ye saw, another reaps;
The wealth ye find, another keeps;
The robes ye weave, another wears;
The arms ye forge, another bears.
Sow seed-but let no tyrant reap:
Find wealth-let no imposter heap:
Weave robes-let not the idle wear:
Forge arms-in your detence to bear.
Shrink to your cellars, holes, and cells-
In hall ye deck another dwells.
Why shake the chains ye wrought? Ye see
The steel ye tempered glance on ye.
With plough and spade and hoe and loom
Trace your grave and build your tomb
And weave your winding-sheet-till fair
England be your Sepulchre.