BT River of Music festival - an inside view

As athletes from around the world flew into Heathrow airport two weeks ago, so too did hundreds of musicians. The musicians were not here to compete, but to work together for the BT River of Music festival. This massive musical celebration of every Olympic nation happened across 6 stages in central London (one for each continent) on 21 and 22 July.

Several months ago live music producers Serious asked me if I was available to work at the event; THSH have a longstanding relationship with Serious, who tour many of the best jazz and world music artists in the UK as well as running the London Jazz Festival, and I’ve had the pleasure of working with them at Cheltenham Jazz Festival for several years, so the answer was easy.

Fitting over 1500 musicians from all 204 Olympic countries into around 80 performance slots over two days is not so easy, because it means forging many new collaborations as musicians who have never met before share the stage. For that reason Serious assigned a person to each ensemble to look after them during their time in London, and that was my job.

I was fortunate to work with the Bamboo Pearl Orchestra from Asia through two days of intensive rehearsals and their festival performance on Saturday 21st. The band are a new 14-piece ensemble made from members of two separate bands, Sambasunda from Indonesia and the Cambodian Space Project, as well as UK-resident musicians from Malaysia, Laos, Thailand and Brunei, a British rhythm section and two Thai dancers. It’s fair to say I was a little apprehensive about this large group before meeting them! Thankfully the link between them all was the band’s manager Katerina, who had everything under control.

Day One – rehearsals

On meeting the some of the band at their hotel to escort them to the rehearsal studio I learnt that one of them had lost the luggage containing all his instruments on the flight, but through some persistence with the airline it had been recovered – first crisis aborted! As we piled into the car I tried my best to get everyone chatting and it was not long before conversation began to flow about travelling in Indonesia, the perils of touring, visiting London, and gigs around the world. On arrival at the rehearsal studio in Putney there were plenty of first introductions and warm greetings for long lost friends. As the rehearsal started I could see that musical director Colin Bass had been busy sharing charts and videos of prior rehearsals over Facebook, and this enabled the group to rehearse as a band despite only meeting half an hour before. As the first notes of ‘Bulan Sapasi’ trickled out and were joined by accordion and drums, with the voice of Rita Tila floating above, the collaboration began to take shape.

Over the next few hours in the studio under the railway arches more musicians arrived one by one, and trains rumbled overhead every few minutes, often providing an atmospheric ending to a song. The two vocalists, Channthy and Rita, began to teach each other their songs and a jews harp loaned between bands found a home in one of the tunes. Gradually the set came together, ranging from psychedelic number ‘Lady Boy’ to the folksy ‘Travellers Song’ and inflections of blues, samba, prog-rock and much more.

Day Two – more rehearsals, mostly

A rockier start to the second day of rehearsals as the band’s transfer to the studio was delayed by a fire alarm at the hotel. Meanwhile more new faces arrived at the rehearsal, including singer/songwriter Phousa from Oxford (originally from Laos), and our Thai dancers. When Rita arrived it became clear that she was not well, and eventually a decision was taken to take her to A&E at Charing Cross Hospital. We spent many hours in the hospital seeing doctors, having x-rays and blood tests. At about 7pm the doctors confirmed they wanted to keep her in overnight and possibly undertake an operation. Rita coped remarkably well considering she was thousands of miles from home and her understanding of English was limited. It must have been an overwhelming experience, particularly when visiting hours meant I had to leave at 8pm and the doctor said she may not be well enough for her flight home two days later. In the meantime, Katerina and the rest of the band had been for a soundcheck on stage and were worrying about how they could do the performance if Rita was not well enough to sing. A fraught night followed, but miraculously the following morning we received news that she had been discharged! No-one could quite believe it. They had not been able to operate overnight so despatched her with some antibiotics on the promise that she would go to hospital in Indonesia.

Day Three – the gig!

On arrival at the slightly muddy Asia Stage in Battersea Park, the band were shown to their dressing rooms (later joined by Rita) and I set about ticking jobs off my list – arranging meal tickets, sorting out CD sales, copying the set list for camera crew etc. As I sat catching my breath, beautiful sounds from across Asia were drifting around backstage from last minute rehearsals in dressing rooms, and people trooped past to the stage in incredibly ornate traditional dress. Things were running a little late so we hovered waiting for our call to the stage and then suddenly it was all go to get the band on and line-checked in the 30 minute turnaround time.

Before we knew it, the compere Hardeep Singh Kohli was announcing the group, so I ran round to the front of the stage to catch the start of the set. Rita made an emotional speech at the end of the first song, fighting back tears as she thanked everyone for helping her in hospital, which elicited sympathetic cheers from the crowd. The songs flew past but mindful of the tight schedule (and what happened to Bruce Springsteen!), Colin was forced to cut the set down as they played, and then suddenly it was all over. We made our way offstage and all that was left to do was take photos, exchange contact details, and arrange transport back to the hotel. As we said our goodbyes it was hard to believe that our now close-knit group was parting after only three days, and that everyone was heading back to their respective corners of the world.

The most amazing thing about BT River of Music is not just the creation of a great 55 minute show, but the collaborations and possibilities it creates for the future – I have my fingers crossed it won’t be long until the Bamboo Pearl Orchestra returns.

Emily Jones, THSH Programme Coordinator