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In Calm and Storm

John Hardy's
'Blue Letters from Tanganyika -
reviewed by

'... colorful, filmic, and open to pleasurable listening ...'

John Hardy: Blue Letters from Tanganyika. © 2009 Ffin Records AB

Forty years after his mother, twenty-six-year-old Anne Ritchie, returned from east Africa, film, TV and theatre composer John Hardy dug out her faded blue airmail letters home and translated them into a four movement, eighteen-minute piece for orchestra capturing the color and drama of her time in Tanganyika (re-named Tanzania in 1964).

In 1953 with an annual salary of thirty pounds and a (Universities Mission to Central Africa) brief to oversee every school in an area the size of England, Ritchie trekked on foot and dugout canoe across trackless and frequently wild country. Her letters to Britain of the 1950s described a scarcely-known foreign world -- with schools so poorly equipped they had 'children doing arithmetic on their bare arms'.

Composer John Hardy's Blue Letters from Tanganyika was a commission by the BBC National Orchestra of Wales for which Hardy says he took 'some of them (his mother's letters) to use as the basis for a sort of tone poem'.

The first movement represents her arriving at the lake; a dangerous and rough journey -- at one point she apparently walked unknowingly through an area patrolled by lions. Hardy's second movement (a scherzo) re-imagines journeying over the lake in calm and storm.

Listen -- Twilight On The Lake
(track 7, 1:30-2:27) © 2009 Ffin Records

Movement three is intended to describe the peacefulness of long, dark, equatorial African nights and by the fourth movement Anne Ritchie's safari is resumed.

It seems the dugout experience she described was on crocodile-infested Lake Malawi, the southernmost freshwater expanse in the East-Africa Rift Valley system, situated between Malawi, Mozambique, and Tanzania.

In addition to its colourful fish and snail life Anne would have encountered hippopotamuses, monkeys, and African Fish Eagles which feed off the aquatic population. The On Safari overland became a catalogue of surprise and adventure. In capturing her daring odyssey Blue Letters ... is descriptive rather than programmatic.

Listen -- On Safari
(track 4, 0:00-0:27) © 2009 Ffin Records

To start the CD Ffin Records has included a sequence of soundbytes (35 seconds, 40 seconds, 30 seconds and 26 seconds, respectively), one from each movement; whereupon the full performance begins. In total the playing time amounts to 19 minutes, 27 seconds.

Following the initial success of Hardy's piece gauged from audience votes, radio broadcasts and five live performances Ffin Records released the music in May 2009.

The tiny Cardiff-based company resisted competitors' interest -- viz, Universal Classics and Jazz, Hyperion, EMI Classics and Naxos, whose spokeswoman noted 'the music would appeal to a Classic FM audience.'

Ffin Records' manager Ed Scolding said 'we know the music best -- so we can help everyone experience this extraordinary music in the fullest possible way'.

Perhaps so but Ffin cannot hope to reach the audience accessed through the global networks of EMI, Naxos and others. A shame, for Hardy's suite is colorful, filmic, and open to pleasurable listening at a single sitting.

Listen -- Arrival At The Lake
(track 2, 0:00-0:42) © 2009 Ffin Records

Hardy says (the music) 'is deliberately simple and unchallenging. Five note scales, rounds, repeated antiphonal song-structures and bouncy syncopated rhythms associated with South and East African traditions -- these are the basic building blocks.'

Sam J Ntiro (1923-1993), a former minister of culture (under President Nyerere), neo-primitive artist and Hardy's Tanzanian godfather instilled in his godson an understanding of the rich possibilities inherent within African art.

Triple BAFTA Cymru winner, Hardy is widely recognized for his work in film, television, theatre, dance, visual arts and allied forms of collaboration. He has written original music for over two hundred productions. Part of the sale proceeds will be donated to charities supporting work around the area of Tanzania described in Ritchie's letters.

Copyright © 27 May 2009 Howard Smith,
Masterton, New Zealand





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