The Wire – February 2018

Breaking the chains: Elaine Mitchener on the British Empire’s legacy of cruelty

Chris Bohn

A Q&A with Elaine Mitchener about her performance piece Sweet Tooth – a visceral, overwhelming indictment of the role sugar and the slave trade played in building the British Empire.


A Q&A with Elaine Mitchener about her performance piece Sweet Tooth – a visceral, overwhelming indictment of the role sugar and the slave trade played in building the British Empire

As its name implies, Elaine Mitchener’s Sweet Tooth began life as an investigation of the links between the British sugar industry and the slave trade upon which the empire’s wealth was originally made. Commissioned by Liverpool’s Bluecoat arts centre, the Stuart Hall Foundation and the International Slavery Museum, Elaine Mitchener Projects premiered the work at Bluecoat in November 2017, and have just given its first London performance proper at Bloomsbury St George’s Church, a place resonating with slave history, ranging from the church’s benefactors who profited from their enforced and unpaid labour force, to the church’s role in the eventual abolition of slavery in the British Empire in 1833.

Described by Mitchener as a cross-disciplinary music piece, Sweet Tooth is a visceral projection of slavery as the cruellest manifestation of the British Empire as exemplary capitalist money machine, constructed from West Africans abducted, bought and sold and chained and transported in filthy, overcrowded holds of sailing ships across the ocean to work in sugar plantations in its colonies in the West Indies. Over its 50 minute duration, Elaine Mitchener Projects – Mitchener on vocals and movement, Jason Yarde on saxophones, Sylvia Hallett on violin and accordion, and Mark Sanders on drums and percussion, plus diverse objects and actions played out by all four – variously transform St George’s Church into the ship’s stinking hold, slave market place, plantation row, whipping ground and more. During its six chapters, entitled “Universal Slide”, “Bound”, “Scold’s Bridle”, “Names”, “Scramble” and “The Mill”, the four performers switch between playing imprisoned labourers and guardians moving through and around and surrounding the audience, who are left nervous, always uncertain what’s about to happen. At its core is Mitchener’s performance enacting the terror through which plantation owners and their lackeys control their slave labour force. Sweet Tooth is at once harrowing and overwhelming. Born in London of Jamaican parents, Mitchener herself confesses to having exactly the kind of sweet tooth sugar addiction the trade nurtured and exploited.

Elaine Mitchener: The thing with Sweet Tooth is, there were always more slaves on the plantation than there were overseers, but fear is the thing that keeps people in their place. And if someone does revolt, if someone does fight back, then they’re made an example of in an horrific way, so when you read those accounts of insubordination, of pregnant women being whipped until their babies come out and then forced to continue working… You see all that, but as angry as you are, you are afraid. The overseers have the whips, the guns, the power. That’s why even in the actual crossing from Africa to the Caribbean a lot of slaves chose to kill themselves. Horrific things happened on those ships, to those who survived the passage to places unknown, not knowing what was going to happen to them… My heritage is mixed. My parents come from the Caribbean so our heritage is mixed. But I do know that my family comes from very strong survivors, I come from that…

So, once you had amassed all this information, how did you start translating it into a musical piece? You could have taken the more straightforward route of drama or melodrama…

First of all, I thought of Sweet Tooth being a sound piece. I always had this very strong sense of sound, and the sound of the mechanism of slavery. What it would be if you are captured and you are tied up and chained next to someone, perhaps from a warring tribe different than yours, and you don’t even share the same language. Just because you’re both from a West African country that doesn’t necessarily mean you’re best friends, and you’re pushed together into this situation, and I was thinking about sounds, smells, unfamiliar voices, unfamiliar music. Everything is unfamiliar and scary and violent and messy. I thought yes this could be visual, but I could never get anywhere near it. Even soundwise you can’t get near it. You can only hint at things and allow the imagination to fill in the rest. I wanted to kind of lift those accounts I’d been reading, those descriptions, liberate them from the page and then find ways of representing them as soundworlds so that the listener/observer is placed in that situation.

I was thinking about fear and claustrophobia and the feeling of being uncomfortable all the time, of never having a moment where you can rest and relax. And even when you can, there’s always something else that can change at any moment. So I worked with those ideas, worked on trying to get to physically how people felt, how to express these feelings musically. There are moments when it’s just right, and moments when it’s just not there. But you kind of know when it’s right, and I think the reaction of the audience is always so telling for me. By the end of the piece it’s usually subdued because I don’t think they realise how absorbed they have been in what’s a very intimate piece. I wanted it to be an account of an individual, caught up collectively in a group, but getting across your individual experience of it…

You mean a way of rehumanising individuals from the experience of being dehumanised, of being torn away from your family, your culture, your language? Of becoming an unnamed chattel?

That’s the thing that’s going to keep you going. The vocalisations at the beginning of the piece articulate that this is what we’ve come to, this is us, this is humanity, this is what we’re doing, this is what we’ve done, this is what we continue to do. These screams, these shouts you are hearing are for what’s happening then, for what’s happening now, and there are no words… People can identify with the sound of fear, the sound of a scream, or a laugh, or anguish, because those feelings don’t have words. They’re sounds older than us, these are ancient sounds. These groans and moans are what we all do, we all share these sounds and fears.

Elaine Mitchener (centre) with Jason Yarde (saxophone) and Syvia Hallett (violin) performing Sweet Tooth

Sweet Tooth for the most part denies the audience the comforting familiarity of song.

It’s more visceral, more immediate, and that’s what I was aiming for, yeah. I could have put it into song but then it would have placed it in a particular period. There are references to three songs. One’s in the chapter called “Scold’s Bridle”, when I’m working with Sylvia Hallett – song as kind of like a recollection of something I might have heard on the ship being played with people walking above deck. It’s not my song but the song of someone else that I would have had to learn because I had been asked to sing and play it, or Sylvia had been asked to play it as entertainment.

You have to absorb these things. And then you can subvert them. Which is what happens. So I played with that idea as well in the piece that you’ll see. There’s a piece called “Invocation”, which I’d taken from a brilliant poet and writer on music called Kamau Brathwaite – he’s from Barbados, lived in Jamaica, a brilliant scholar, he lives in America now, and I think he must be in his eighties. He wrote a book that sounds like a pamphlet called The Folk Culture Of The Slaves In Jamaica [1971]. And there’s an American Folkways recording of people singing these songs calling up ancestral spirits, or singing work songs. The one I use in Sweet Tooth, I was looking for something, it’s very hard to pronounce, but that doesn’t matter, really, it’s basically about a girl who dies, but she’s greeting the spirits, all the ancestral spirits calling her, and she’s not afraid to be greeted. For me, it’s a song of resistance, of carrying the soul of this person that I bring, that I carry, that I was taught, that carries me through the experience of what I am going into, in this new world.

It’s not sentimental, it’s not about death. It’s beyond death, it’s about strength, resilience, it’s ancient, something carried on, and I was so glad to come across that. It’s so simple, we present it in two different ways in different parts of the piece. Early on and very late on, and there’s another one that I have incorporated called “Guinea Corn”, which is like a call and response, and it’s about the guinea corn: you see it, you want it, you mould it, you plant it, you weed it, you hoe it, you top it, you cut it, you dry it, you thrash it, you parch it, you grind it, you turn it, then you eat it, so it’s that whole thing.

Sweet Tooth is really demanding. It’s demanding for me to do and to experience. We’re all really exhausted by the end of it, but we can’t really do it any other way. I realised that when we R&D’d it that it needed something that allowed us some kind of relief, and for the audience as well. It’s not about this being a light entertainment moment, but there were moments when even slaves were allowed to dance, make music in their own time. Yes it was a time that was allotted to them, but they made the most of it, used it in subversive ways as well. I really enjoy singing “Guinea Corn” because it starts off as, you know, oh, the merry slaves kind of feel, but actually, hang on a minute… It becomes darker as it goes on.

From left: Jason Yarde, Mark Sanders, Sylvia Hallett

Is the plantation owner Simon Taylor’s diary section of Sweet Tooth just as subversive for revealing the fears and paranoia underlying the barbarism of slavery?

Well, the song leads very nicely into the diary section. I did want it to lead into this diary of a close colleague and friend of Admiral Nelson giving his account of running his plantation. But what I play on there is the paranoia and fear that he started to feel, and the tables start to turn, because basically this can’t continue forever. He fears for his own life, he fears revolts. And there were major revolts in other parts of the island and on other islands. Yet he never thought he was doing the wrong thing. If you were going to run a plantation with slaves, you’d have to feel it’s your god-given right to do it, that it’s what you have been put on this Earth to do. Their fear is of an uprising, or crops failure when you’d lose all your money. It was quite ironic that in his time, the plantation owner was as well known as George Washington. Now there’s nothing left of him in Jamaica, no monument, just a crumbling headstone, which I saw a photo of, just of this grave somewhere covered in weeds and you can barely make out the lettering, and there are these Red Stripe cans tossed around it, which I think is quite apt really. It made me laugh and I thought, yeah, he’s lucky he got that.

Before the Sweet Tooth premiere at Liverpool’s Bluecoat centre in November, there was a conference, and Catherine Hall – who is the widow of Stuart Hall – gave a keynote speech. Catherine is an eminent historian who has dedicated her life to studying Georgian Britain, and it’s her painstaking work that has opened up our awareness of Britain and the slave trade, because she’s been doing it for years. She talked about historical denial and the damage done by it. Histories of Britain usually tell you nothing about the slave trade. People think that only good things happened in the British Empire. The sense of historical denial needs to be challenged and things need to be readdressed.

Better to forget that the British Empire’s wealth was built on slavery, colonial exploitation etc.

Same in America, and don’t even talk about Australia and what happened to aboriginal people there. And South America is a whole other thing. One of the last places to abolish slavery was Brazil, and that was one of the first places to establish its wealth from slavery. People need to know their history. I think Sweet Tooth, it was my way of me getting to know my history as well, in a way that I could kind of digest it. You asked me how I approached it. Because I’m a musician I had to figure out sound, and I was also working with movement and I was really lucky to work with [choreographer] Dam Van Huynh, we have been working a very long time together and he really challenged me…

You mean he pushed you to where you wanted the piece to be?

Yeah, the physical side of things, definitely, and he said it can be pushed even more. He said that this is not about making people feel comfortable, it has to go… he’s Vietnamese-American, right? He himself was a refugee. He’s seen things in lots of different ways, so when we were talking about Sweet Tooth, he said remember what was done, remember what happened, how brutal it was, how degrading it was, how vicious it was, you can’t be gentle with yourself, you really can’t…

That’s why Sweet Tooth hurts: It goes beyond music and song. The physicality of all your performances looks like it’s really hurting the four of you to do it, to get the truth across.

It does hurt, but as someone performing the work, you can’t be so overcome by it, or you can’t continue doing it. There’s something that has to hold you back so that you can continue to express what has to be expressed. It’s really, really hard, and there’s a lot of preparation that has to be done beforehand. The breaking down can come afterwards!

Even so, I can’t even get close to the pain these people felt. What I do is nowhere near… I don’t know whether you saw [the Steve McQueen film] 12 Years A Slave… It’s a very strange film because it does what it needs to do. It’s very beautiful but it’s also harrowing. I guess because Steve McQueen is a visual artist, he really makes you feel those contrasts, he almost makes you feel the heat and colours of the Mississippi, and there are moments… I can only describe it… Years and years ago a friend of mine died, we were all in our twenties, and I had to sing at his funeral, and that was tough. I remember afterwards going down the road and I saw people around me going shopping, and that kind of balanced me. Life still goes on, and I just thought, there’s that thing in this film, there’s this beauty even amidst all this brutality. Even slaves must have looked and saw the sun and the beauty of the surroundings at some point, just taking a second to remind themselves of their humanity, that they’re people, enjoying the smell of the crop or the cotton that they were picking as their hands were bleeding while picking it. Maybe that did influence me a little bit, but I didn’t feel greatly influenced by it. There were moments that felt like aggressive porn, not sexual, it was so brutal, it was almost pornographic. I guess that’s what films do. But how hard do you have to be? I could have taken Sweet Tooth to that point of extreme performance art, cutting myself or whatever but you don’t have to do that…

Sweet Tooth bypasses the aggressive porn effect by balancing expressions of cruelty, the physicality of individual experiences as enacted by all four performers, with bureaucratic documentation, listing slaves according to their worth, and so on…

I feel this is an important piece to do, it needed to be done and I couldn’t rest until I did it. But there were moments I almost didn’t want anything to do with it. I thought I don’t know it, I don’t want to know it, I don’t like it, I was really against it. I think it was the stress of having to deliver the piece, and I did speak to Dam about it, because I was worried that I couldn’t complete it. But I felt I had to, to honour those million… the estimate is that over one million enslaved Africans were sold over that period, there were more enslaved Africans in Jamaica than there were in America, and I’m only talking about Jamaica because my family were from there…

What I’ve found from presenting the work that the conversations it has provoked, I couldn’t ask for anything more than people to start talking and reflecting. It’s not about cheers and whoops, it’s not that kind of piece, if it needs people to think, then I feel the job has been done and we can start to heal. I don’t know, it’s a difficult piece, I’m a bit nervous about coming back to it, but I want to present it honestly, I want to honour all those unnamed people. Names are really hard because it’s not their names they’re forced to go under… I don’t have any words left, I don’t know what to say. Yet I still have to have some faith in human nature, that things can change, that things can improve. And this is what art, music is supposed to do. Yes, there is a place for music as entertainment, we know that, that’s always going to happen, and there are people who are brilliant at doing it. I’m not one of those people, but I think that if you feel passionate about something, an idea, you feel politicised by something, you’ve got to express a thought, you use your work to do it. That’s what you do, don’t piss about, you know.

People say that Sweet Tooth is about the sugar trade and slavery, but I don’t come out with a bowl of sugar and start handing it around. There are really simple things that could have been done, and I did toy with the idea of giving people something sweet to suck on at the beginning to help them get through it, or they might need it afterwards. But then I thought no, we’re not going to have any sugary substances here, real simple things that we could have done. I thought it’s not my way to take the simple route, like here’s the baddie. I just took accounts… there’s so much material, and there’s always something new, new research coming through, and so many people taking different approaches to this material. And, you know, reading bell hooks’ Ain’t I A Woman [1981], she’s such a strong feminist who talked about enslaved African women at a time when slavery was often only talked about from the man’s point of view, the emasculation of enslaved African black men, but never what happened to African women. It’s not a new book, but since then – I mean her books focused on what happened in America but since then there have been lots of other stories… stories about women in the Caribbean, ill-treated, discriminated against, forced to wet nurse their owners’ babies, the mortality rate of women, of infants… They kept bringing in new slaves, because people died, women were not considered a good commodity, but then later on people thought, hang on a minute we can work them as hard as the men and they can have children, so maybe we should buy more women. People talk about equality – well in slavery women were as equal as the men! There were no concessions! Maybe if you had a child they might give you a couple of days off, and then you were back in the field or whatever backbreaking task you had to do. The older women would have to look after the children’s upbringing, the older women were also the cooks. Well, they were invalided and old but they must have had some kind of status and still have some value. They were still part of the stable or inventory, along with the tables and chairs, otherwise they would have been left to die.

During “Guinea Corn”, I was struggling to try and get the right soundworld. Jason, Sylvia and Mark are brilliant, absolutely brilliant, and they have come on this journey with me totally one hundred percent. I said, we are the machinery, we are the machine, there are moments when we are the people working a machine, and then we are the machinery, or we are the people being mangled in that machine, right? Or this machinery is breaking, and you have to make the decision who or what you are in that moment, and how you are going to reflect that, basically. It’s those things that, if I were a more conventional composer, I would somehow find a way to notate it, but actually sometimes you just can’t. You just have to say this is what it is, this is who you are, and in the act of improvisation it somehow comes through. And you can hear it because we’re all so connected musically that we know what’s going on. It’s a collective thing, we are all parts of that machine, or one part’s broken and the other three have to compensate for that.

Sweet Tooth Premiere (Nov 2017) from Elaine Mitchener on Vimeo.

Sweet Tooth trailer

Why did you choose to divide Sweet Tooth into the six chapters titled “Universal Slide”, “Sound”, “Scold’s Bridle”, “Names”, “Scramble” and “The Mill”?

I did break it up into these chapters, and I talked about my ideas for them with Sylvia, Jason and Mark. I didn’t tell them: I want you to play something like this. We would discuss my soundworld ideas, and then we would try things out because we are improvising through it. but I’ve always got this structure, it’s a structured improvisation, and it needs to be that way in order to make it work. The structure is, it’s in six chapters, and then within those there are certain things which need to happen in order to move the work forward. But there are certain elements, like Mark would use these tiny cymbals, which would sound like droplets of water on the bass drum, and I would say that’s it, I wanted this to sound like bits of wood being knocked together below the sea. It’s almost as though we’re being buried at sea and you can hear these bits of wood and sloshes of sea like a floating motion where something really heavy is going to knock against you. I will describe something, say certain things, and then we would try something out. One day I was very stressed, something’s not right, and I thought, I can’t hear their voices. I’d gone with it thinking their instrument was their voice, but I thought, Sylvia vocalises, Jason and Mark make sounds, and I said to Sylvia, I want a sound of anguish from you as you play, please use your voice, but I didn’t say what to do or how to do it. I just knew she would get the right thing, and Jason also introduced his voice while playing, and it was just like, wow, because the human comes through it. Also, they’re all parents, and Sylvia’s a grandparent now, and I said, you need to play as though this is what’s happened to you, you’ve lost your families and you’ll never see them again. You need to do that.

We cannot talk about these subjects from a distance, we cannot be arm’s length about it, I’ve just been answering similar questions about Sweet Tooth with someone else, and I said that a historian can afford to be at arm’s length. But for me, I had to find a way to relate it to my experience, how would I feel if this happened to me, if the very closest people to me had been taken and sold. Or if it’s me who has been sold off.

What’s the significance of presenting the London premiere of Sweet Tooth at St George’s Church in Bloomsbury?

It had to happen there. St George’s Church has very strong links with the abolitionist movement, Haile Selassie gave a speech there. Eddie Davison’s memorial service was held there, the guy who established the East India company, he worshipped there. The altar of the church came from a plantation in Antigua, that whole church is resonating with these mixed congregations. The space just reeks of all this history, just resonates with it, and this just had to go there.

The London premiere of Sweet Tooth was performed at St George’s Church, Bloomsbury on 22 February, followed by a performance at Southampton John Hansard Gallery/Nuffield Theatre on 23 February.

Research list compiled by Elaine Mitchener

Reading list:

Solar Throat Slashed by Aime Cesaire

Black Ivory: Slavery In The British Empire by James Walvin

Slavery And The Culture Of Taste by Simon Gikandi

The Cartographer Tries To Map A Way To Zion by Kei Miller

Testing The Chains: Resistance To Slavery In The British West Indies by Michael Craton

The Slave Ship: A Human History by Marcus Rediker

Sylvia Wynter: On Being Human As Praxis by Katherine McKittrick

Slavery And Revolution blog by Dr Christer Petley, the historical consultant for Sweet Tooth

Cambridge by Caryl Phillips

Interesting Narrative Of The Life of Olaudah Equiano by Paul Edwards

History Of The Voice: Development Of Nation Language In Anglophone Caribbean Poetry by Edward K Brathwaite

Folk Culture Of The Slaves In Jamaica by Edward K Brathwaite

Art And Emancipation In Jamaica: Isaac Mendes Belisario And His Worlds by Tim Barringer et al

Ain’t I A Woman: Black Women And Feminism by bell hooks

Rock It Come Over: The Folk Music Of Jamaica: With Special Reference To Kumina And The Work Of Mrs Imogene ‘Queenie’ Kennedy by Olive Lewin

Mastery, Tyranny, And Desire: Thomas Thistlewood And His Slaves In The Anglo-Jamaican World by Trevor Burnard

More Than Producers And Reproducers: Jamaican Slave Women’s Dance And Song In The 1770s–1830s by Henrice Altink

Sugar Changed The World blog by Marc Aronson and Marina Budhos

Slavery & Abolition: A Journal Of Slave And Post-Slave Studies edited by Gad Heumann

The Souls Of Black Folk by W E B Du Bois

Songs Of Sorrow Lucy McKim Garrison And “Slave Songs Of The United States” by Samuel Charters

Play list

Various Folk Music Of Jamaica Recorded By Edward Seaga (Folkways)

Kim So Hee “Le Pansori, L’art Coréen Du Récit Chanté” from Pansori Choonhyang-ga

Kumina Drummers in Portland Jamaica

Burning Spear Hail HIM (Tammi)

O’Jays’ “Ship Ahoy” from Ship Ahoy (Philadelphia International)

Watch list

Brukkin Dance Falmouth Jamaica. March, 2011

Jamaican Traditional Wake (Nine Night)

Born In Flames directed by Lizzie Borden

5 March 2018

SWEET TOOTH: Interview with Elaine Mitchener – 5 March 2018

9 March 2018

The Blue Moment – 23 February 2018