by Terese Taylor, The Leaf, Winnipeg
Larry Strachan remembers the first composition he wrote about the birthplace of his parents.
He had been looking for a composition by another Black Canadian classical composer to add to an upcoming performance with a focus on Black History. At the time, he couldn’t find one. So he decided he would write his own.
His thoughts immediately took him to a foundational moment on the island of Grenada, in the eastern Caribbean, and the moment he learned the history of a site close to where his grandmother lived. “I was standing there and trying to process this incredible, terrible event,” he said.
Strachan has written award-winning choral pieces, but this was the first orchestral composition he wrote for string instruments. Lament for the Souls of the Sauteurs is a piece that honours and commemorates the lives of 60 Indigenous Carib people who refused to be captured by the French in 1651. When the slave trade was just starting to be established and enforced in Grenada, all 60 Caribs jumped to their death from the site where Strachan stood. It was a haunting realisation for Strachan, a moment that illustrated the depths of the horrors of the slave trade and its far-reaching effects.
After premiering the “poetic and mournful” piece at a Black History concert, and after Strachan was asked to be a guest conductor for the Manitoba Chamber Orchestra (MCO), the MCO asked to perform Strachan’s Lament with another set of contemporary compositions in March 2021. Then the MCO asked Strachan if he would compose another piece.
Strachan, who lives in Wolseley, would again return to memories of visits to see his family in Grenada, but this time it would focus on the excitement that surrounds its biggest annual festival. That includes guns firing off to start the J’Ouvert parade at 4 am in the morning, the latest soca songs blasting across the island, and the hustle and bustle of movement as the festival gets underway. A thrilling experience, he said, is just riding the bus through the capital city’s downtown, which has one road that is so steep, it’s famous, and a ride he has never forgotten.
“Taking the bus is the best. It’s just insane. The roads are so mountainous drivers have to honk all the time to let people know you are coming around the bend, which is every 2 seconds. The music is blaring, the conversations are hysterical. “Stop here! Stop here!”
To this day, Strachan and his sister still remember the catchy snippets of songs that stuck in their heads from festivals when they were young, especially one from a very young girl who had a hit song.
“I wanted to take the spirit of that song,” he said, “I wanted to really make it about Grenada, about my parents’ experience, when it was celebrated before Lent.”
Strachan’s wife Zilla has family in Trinidad, and the rivalry between Caribbean countries is something they have a lot of fun with. Trinidad is the home to the Caribbean’s largest carnival, and other countries have changed the dates of their celebrations. Grenada’s now nicknamed “Spicemas” is celebrated over 2 weeks in August.
“But we have the better beaches,” laughed Strachan. Grenada is known as the Spice Island, and Strachan also remembers the amazing fruit that was in abundance everywhere. It seemed to him that food and flavour existed everywhere they went, just an arm’s reach away.
Strachan has been able to experience the unique carnival customs from different regions, such as the steel drums on some islands, but brass bands on others. In his piece, he made sure to include musical references to the Jab Jab, a character celebrated every year that highlights the grassroots resistance against slavery. Although there are versions of this character and its legends across the region, said Strachan, “it is the most prevalent in Grenada.”
In a first for the MCO (and to the delight of Strachan’s mother), conductor Anne Manson played a whistle to symbolise the leader of the bands who play music and direct dancers who compete for recognition in each year’s carnival parades. “You will find this piece very joyful,” announced Manson at the world premiere of the composition performed in May.
In 2005 Strachan founded Orchestra without Borders, as well as MUSAIC Chamber Orchestra to bring the works of composers of colour, women, and underrepresented communities to audiences. The most recent Black History Month concert featured pieces about the Maroons, communities of escaped enslaved Africans and Indigenous people who created free communities and fought against slavery, and a new piece written about the Tulsa Massacre in 1921. It also included a composition by the first woman symphony conductor in Europe in almost half a century (who is of Jamaican heritage), and Jenny Pena, a Cuban composer, along with African American and African composers.
Strachan continues to discover new and old composers whose works are beautiful and meaningful. Scott Joplin composed classical works that were lost in the early 1900s, like some of the works by Joseph de Bologne. He was renowned in France, and across Europe in the 1700s, a symphony composer and conductor from the Caribbean island of Guadeloupe, as shown in the recent movie Chevalier.
Whether conducting, which Strachan hopes to do much more of, composing, or promoting important composers and musicians, he holds onto the understanding of the importance of music: its power to commemorate and honour life, and in that power, its hope.