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Denys Baptiste at the London Jazz Festival

The Queen Elizabeth Hall is packed for Denys Baptiste and his London Jazz Festival gig - not even one seat left unsold. His latest release by Dune, ‘Let Freedom Ring!,’ proves captivating for audiences of the most diverse backgrounds (the majority of which of African or Caribbean origin) here to celebrate the 40th anniversary of Dr Martin Luther King’s speech ‘I Have A Dream’.

Pupils from various primary/secondary schools in the capital also attend the concert, as part of Baptiste’s commitment to ‘in-school’ educational projects, focusing on the teaching of Dr King in relation to the ‘Let Freedom Ring!’ project.

The stage layout includes a screen behind the musicians, showing archive images of the African-American’s struggle for freedom and equality dating back to the slave trade and its aftermath: powerful B&W shots of people forced into the cotton plantations (from the early days of the Nineteenth century) act as symbolic opening and closing of the act. Reminders of why and from where the struggle for civil rights originated, and at the same time strong evidence of why the quest for freedom and civil-rights must continue (as a necessary, ongoing process.)

The ‘Let Freedom Ring!’ suite unravels for two hours, accompanied by on-screen projections of documented images starting from the first years with Dr King to the Black Panther/Black Power movement and onwards.

During the concert, the projected footage widens to encompass a wider angle on the civil rights movement. Worldwide uproars for freedom are shown, ending up with the present Iraqi conflict, where an image of George Bush is powerfully superimposed on images of the Ku-Klux-Klan and of petrol extraction, an extraordinary anti-war message to which the audience applauds passionately.

During the ‘Let Freedom Ring!’ suite, with its free improvisational patterns, a frantic series of fast-edited images of capitalistic exploitation (Third world hunger vs. First world over-abundance) overwhelm the audience. The last suite, ‘Free At Last,’ shows superimposed images of Margaret Thatcher and Nelson Mandela, as well as superimposed images of Richard Nixon and Gandhi.

At the end Dr King’s funeral is portrayed, and then again images of cotton harvesting. The musicians leave the stage with the audience singing ‘free at last, free at last, thank god almighty we are free at last’ (the quotation of Dr Martin Luther King’s speech as included in the suite.) Then, lights go off, and a burst of applause and cries fill the darkness.

The recorded voice of Booker Prize recipient Ben Okri is added to the performance, and his words typed on screen (the spoken word empowering the political message conveyed through music.) The ensemble is very cohesive and the Caribbean percussive quotations are enhanced by the live performance. Among the string insertions, the violin solos literally captivate the audience. Live images of the musicians are from time to time edited into the projected documentary on screen: the musician is therefore paralleled to the activist, the musician is in actual terms the modern activist.

A very political and musically engaging concert, with a crescendo of pathos and amazing dialoguing between the stage and the audience, who freely and passionately participates throughout.

Additional Info

  • Artist / Group Name: Denys Baptiste
  • Concert Date: 11/14/2003
  • Venue: Queen Elizabeth Hall
  • City State Country: London, UK
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