The Matthew Herbert Brexit Big Band @ The Barbican

From destroying The Daily Mail to setting Article 50 to music, The Matthew Herbert Brexit Big Band turn referendum blues into a show-stopping extravaganza.

27 October 2017

The Monitors

If somebody had told me two years ago that not only would the UK be about to leave the EU, but that one of the most articulate protests would be made by setting the words of Article 50 to a symphony of sliding whistles and party horns, I’d probably only believe them if they told me Matthew Herbert was involved.

For most of us in the UK, last year probably featured two mornings that you woke up, looked at your phone, and screamed in horror. The second being Donald Trump’s victory over Hillary Clinton, and the first being June 24th 2016, seeing the final tally of votes from the previous day’s referendum. It didn’t seem real.

Struggling to think of something – anything – we could do to stop this, most Londoners did what any sensible Londoner would do, which is run to the nearest pub. Watering holes across the city drew sprawling crowds with signs proclaiming “DRINK OUR RIOJA AND EAT OUR CAMEMBERT WHILE SUPPLIES LAST” and so forth. Sometimes all you really can do is get a bit pissed and fantasise that it’s possible to do anything about your fate. I live within walking distance of Boris Johnson’s house, so naturally many suggested a good old-fashioned flaming bag of dog poo through the letterbox.

It’s been more than a year since – and still the question remains. What can we do? People with the legal know-how – like Gina Miller – are doing the dirty work. But for the rest of us, is there anything we can do? I’ve floated the idea of a cross-UK soundsystem and hiring a London Routemaster to make a Roman-style protest on Boris’s doorstep, but don’t have the heart (or the legal backup) for either. Political protest is an important artform, but it’s hard not to wonder if protest songs ever can accomplish much when they are, well, just music.

If you’re Matthew Herbert, the answer is The Matthew Herbert Brexit Big Band, an “extended goodbye and thank you party”, which he describes as “something between a political rally, a Broadway musical and a rave.” As you do. Herbert and his Brexit Band have already performed on the continent, and played the UK for the first time on Monday at the Barbican – featuring 110 singers and nearly 20 musicians. The musical collaboration will evolve over the coming months (or years, as the case may be), and will culminate with the release of an album in 2019 the day Britain leaves the EU. By the time he’s finished, Herbert hopes to have involved more than 1,000 amateur and professional performers from every single country in the EU in the album’s creation.

Intellectually, The Matthew Herbert Brexit Big Band is designed to bring musicians together “to live, rather than just talk about, some of the values that I have always taken to be critical wellbeing and survival: the warmth of compassion, the fizz of collaborative creativity, the prioritising of tolerance and love over hate and violence”, as Herbert put it himself in the printed programme.

Practically, this featured a choir of 100 people synchronously tearing up copies of the Daily Mail, the Ordnance Survey being used as sheet music, Hejira’s Rahel Debebe-Dessalegne singing the words of Article 50 to a symphonic rattle of instruments, and the entire audience given an A4 sheet of paper and instructed to create a shower of paper airplanes for the finale, each containing a message for the people of Europe. Plus opening performances by London musicians Cosmo Sheldrake and Fran Lobo, and a medley of dance tracks from Europe chosen by the London DJ Brexit Ensemble (which included Monitors favourites FEMME and The Cyclist).

The party horns, newspapers and airplanes were definitely the high notes, but for most of the show the Brexit Band – a jazz ensemble of brass, piano, double bass and drums – treated us to a Herbert-composed array of show-tunes. True to the Broadway format, these ranged from mourning swansongs to outraged cacophonies to comedic shoeshine taps, ranging all the emotions sparked by the Brexit vote.

There were tear-jerkers as well as crowd-pleasers. Debebe-Dessalegne singing “It’s winter now but you have no coat, if your parents put you on a crowded boat… you’re welcome here”, a reference to migrants crossing the Med, left many reaching for the tissues.

Herbert, for his part, played more the role of curator and conductor, roving throughout the stage resembling a cross between Vincent Price and Maceo Parker. He made sure to treat us to his idiosyncratic glitch at times – sampling the first tear of the Daily Mail and remixing it like a record scratch – but mostly he just let the musicians just do their thing. Which was nice really – and very much in keeping with the spirit of the project.

“It doesn’t matter if you voted leave or remain, it’s a plan that tolerates dissent but prioritises collaboration,” Herbert explained. “In some ways it hopes to be the exact opposite of Brexit.”

Though to be honest, many of the evening’s most surreal and comedic moments seemed to be the ones that best captured the spirit of Brexit. When a good portion of the paper airplanes hurled by the audience just spun around and dinged right back into our faces, this seemed to pretty succinctly illustrate the insanity of the nationwide act of self-harm that is Brexit.

The Matthew Herbert Brexit Big Band will continue on with this “extended farewell party” across Europe until 2019 – visiting every nation, involving over 1000 people – and I hope the rest of Europe will be as sad as we Londoners were when he left us with all he could say: “The only word left is goodbye.”

Zoe Cormier