Why do some diseases hit the headlines and attract billions in funding while others languish almost unnoticed, even though they affect many more people? That’s the question explored by Song of Contagion, a new musical performance by the exuberantly multi-ethnic Grand Union Orchestra, which will light up Wilton’s Music Hall in June. It’s a collaboration between Grand Union musical director Tony Haynes and epidemiologist Elizabeth Pisani.
“Turn the corner into Cable Street – a sharp breeze from the river catches you, sometimes the scent of the sea…the street remembers”
So begins the show, in the atmospheric setting of a classic Victorian music hall, taking you to the very heart of East London, when the Thames was alive with human waste and cholera raged. The music booms as Londoners died by the thousands and the city’s powerful water companies resist change. Eventually MPs were driven from the Houses of Parliament by the stink of the river: that’s when they voted through funding for proper drains in London. The result: cholera disappeared from the UK entirely; in our show the British music fades. But the Indian voices and instruments, which describe an equally virulent epidemic gripping West Bengal, sound on. Without adequate investment in sanitation, cholera continues to kill Indians to this day.
In another song, buzzing stings illustrate how gay men in the United Sates ramped up pressure on researchers and drug companies to find cures for AIDS. The drums of death rise until the trumpets announce HIV treatment, then the drum-beat slows. African drums keep beating, though. It takes a while for global activism to make drugs affordable there. Later, with lilting Central Africa rhythms giving way to Brazilian Samba, we look at why Zika grabs headlines while sister disease dengue languishes in obscurity. Next, Dr Sugar, a character that may once have trodden the boards of music halls such as Wilton’s, is used to investigate how the heart’s rhythms can be sent off kilter by food industry lobbyists. Finally, we ponder what war can do to mental health. If you’re a soldier, you might be diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and treated. If you’re a villager in a conflict zone, you’ll probable have to grit your teeth and just move on.
All of this with cheeky lyrics, rousing Big Band orchestration or touching solos. You’ll get more of a flavour of the show (including the joyous bulk of it) from Tony’s more detailed description, and you can check out Grand Union’s inimitable style in this one-minute dash through the company’s last spectacular show at another East London icon, the Hackney Empire.
Learn more about how the show came about by reading some of our work-in-progress posts. There have been workshops, discussions, arguments, dinners, lyric sessions, disagreements, brainstorms, revelations — all generously supported by the Wellcome Trust (well, not the dinners).
Song of Contagion will lift the roof of Wilton’s Music Hall from June 12-17th, 2017. You can book your tickets now.