Jamaican royal

By Howard Campbell Observer senior writer

Thursday, October 04, 2012

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SHIRLEY Thompson was the proverbial face-in-the-crowd while chilling recently at fashionable Café Blue in St Andrew. For one admirer, the British composer is akin to a pop star.

"I really thank you for your work. It's very important," the middle-aged man gushed.

One of Britain's esteemed composers, Thompson is used to compliments. When it comes from Jamaicans, she said, it is even more satisfying.

"I think he recognises I'm telling a different story, stories that haven't been told," she told the Jamaica Observer.

A first-generation Briton whose parents are Jamaican, Thompson was in Jamaica last month with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra (RPO) which did shows in Kingston and Mandeville.

She has collaborated with the world-famous orchestra for the last 12 years. Her signature piece is the acclaimed New Nation Rising: A 21st Century Symphony which she composed in 2003.

The five-movement symphony has become a staple of the RPO repertoire. Thompson, a former producer of historical programmes at the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), used her expertise in that field to compose a symphony looking at London's transformation over the last four centuries.

She goes back to her roots for classical interpretations of Jamaican pop standards such as Marley's Redemption Song and Concrete Jungle, or Marcia Griffiths' Dreamland which the RPO performed at their September 13 concert in Mandeville.

"It's all groundbreaking, more people are doing it now (putting a classical spin to reggae songs) but I've been doing this for 15 years," she said.

Since her parents returned permanently to Jamaica 10 years ago, Thompson visits the country regularly. In the last 15 years, she has been involved with charity events for children's homes.

Shirley Thompson was born in the mid-1960s in the east London district of Stratford, then an area with a large Asian immigrant population. Her father, from St Catherine and her mother, originally from Portland, immigrated to England early that decade but ensured their children were familiar with Jamaican culture.

While her father was known to whistle Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto, Thompson remembers listening to his ska, blue beat and rock steady collection. In the 1970s, she was into Marley and roots-reggae.

But since she started playing the violin at age 11, Thompson's music of choice has been the classics. She led her hometown Newham Youth Symphony Orchestra at age 17 and majored in music at the University of Liverpool.

In her 20s, Thompson composed several pieces. The best known of her early work was Visions, based on the philosophy of former Grenada Prime Minister Maurice Bishop. She says her work has always been driven by strong black figures.

"I write about people and things that inspire me, especially heroic themes about African people," Thompson stressed.

Some of her current work is based on two men of colour who figure significantly in modern history. Point of Change was inspired by Barack Obama, the first black President of the United States, while Mandela Tales is about the life of South African giant, Nelson Mandela.

Point of Change is scheduled to open this year, while Mandela Tales debuts in Cape Town, South Africa in February.




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