Tête à Tête Festival: Wallen

The wedding of Errollyn and Byron Wallen's aunt and uncle The wedding of Errollyn and Byron Wallen's aunt and uncle
Posted: Fri Aug 7 2009

Among the highlights of the eclectic Tête à Tête Festival is Errollyn Wallen's family-inspired show. She tells Time Out about how she and her brother turned blood into music

There is a bit of buzz in Hammersmith at the moment, as the third Tête à Tête festival is in full flow at the Riverside Studios. Entitled 'A Kick Up the Aria', director Bill Bankes-Jones's alternative opera/music theatre series is, once again, a veritable cornucopia of bite-size shows and works in progress.

With over 30 shows to choose from, the only problem is deciding which three to see each day. One that stands out is 'Wallen', a collaboration between siblings Errollyn and Byron Wallen - the classical composer/songwriter and her jazz trumpeter brother.

'Wallen' is deeply personal work that the pair have undertaken. It began with family photographs (which will be projected in the show), and resulted in songs and music connected with their lives and those of their relatives. Errollyn will be playing the piano and singing, accompanied by her brother on trumpet and shells.

Errollyn explains how their early life was quite exotic. 'I was born in Belize and Byron was born here. We grew up in London, mostly with my father's brother and his wife, who was a white East End cockney. Because my mum and dad went off to live in New York, we would be between these two places and, latterly, Belize as well. So, we realised quite slowly that our childhood was quite different to a lot of black immigrants we knew.'

After looking through family photographs they decided to make a show that would use the images as a trigger rather than as a narrative. 'The show evolved very naturally to do with our responses to the memory of childhood and imagining what was happening in these characters' lives.'

One of the photographs is of a wedding party on the steps of Paddington Registry Office. It is from the 1950s and, as Errollyn reveals, tells a poignant story: 'My aunt's mother refused to come to that wedding because my uncle's black. Her brother and her sister are there, but the rest are all my uncle's friends.' Did she find it difficult growing up in 1970s London? 'No, it has always been my home. When I was younger I always thought of myself as English. I realised that we had footholds in these other countries and we just accepted it as a natural part of our lives; we were unusual growing up in Tottenham, to have parents that lived in New York - in this mythical, glamorous place which we would go over to every year. Later I went to boarding school in Sussex, so I've always enjoyed it here.'

To have one gifted, successful musician in a family is unusual, but two… How did it all begin? 'My dad bought a piano when he was living in London,' explains Errollyn. 'He was a talented singer and he bought it so he could write songs. But I never heard him play it. It wasn't until four years later I remember being sent to piano lessons, but I can't remember learning it; it's as if I always knew how to play.'

Given her prowess on the instrument, she must have put in the hours. She chortles at the recollection. 'Music was just something I did, but clearly I was doing it all the time. My memory is of being asked to stop playing by my parents. I remember kids knocking the door and saying, “Come out and play,” and I would say, “No, I'm playing the piano.” I loved it.'

It was Errollyn who encouraged Byron to take up music. He began playing the euphonium in the Boys' Brigade before his sister introduced him to baroque trumpet. He has played the instrument, albeit in a different genre, ever since. She is clearly very proud of him: 'It has been wonderful having a brother in jazz; it's opened a new world for me.' Then she confesses, 'I like the feeling when I go to a gig and I hear them whisper, “It's Byron Wallen's sister!” '

As a black, female, British composer, does she believe she is an ambassador for one or all of these groups? 'No, I don't think anyone can make a stand for anybody else, but I am aware that there are stories that aren't being told. For instance, the way people think that black music is rap music. Since I was little, I found classical music for myself. I was never worried about fitting in, I just loved this sound I heard so much and I just went towards it. Sometimes I get dismayed when I see young people squashing their own temperament to try and fit in with their peers.'

With the emphasis on honesty as the heart of 'Wallen', Errollyn has clearly prospered by working with someone she trusts so implicitly. 'Oh yes,' she laughs, 'but he is still my little brother, so he makes me mad. We still have arguments but he has been wonderful - there was a time when I thought I couldn't do it and he said making this show will bring us closer together. We have always admired each other's musicianship. Music for us has been our way of creating our own home.'

'Wallen' is on Aug 13 &14, 2009. The Tête à Tête Opera Festival continues until Aug 16. www.tete-a-tete.org.uk