Venice to hear reggae version of Robert Burns song

IT is the anti-slavery song penned by Robert Burns six years after he almost took a job as “a poor negro driver” at a sugar plantation in Jamaica.

A Robert Burns song will feature at the Venice Biennale. Picture: Getty
A Robert Burns song will feature at the Venice Biennale. Picture: Getty

Now a reggae version of The Slave’s Lament is to feature in Scotland’s official show at the world’s biggest celebration of the visual arts, the Venice Biennale.

More than 220 years after it was written, an audio-visual recreation of the song will be created inside a 16th century Venetian palace.

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One of Scotland’s leading artists has brought together a group of classical musicians and a London-born reggae singer for the piece, which will explore Scotland’s links with the slave trade, including an era when Scots once owned almost a third of all slaves in Jamaica.

The reworking of The Slave’s Lament will be part of a solo show being masterminded by Glasgow School of Art graduate Graham Fagen, who says he has been intrigued by the lyrics of the song since he learnt it as a schoolboy growing up in Burns’ native Ayrshire.

Fagen will be taking over four rooms of the Palazzo Fontana, which overlooks the city’s Grand Canal, for his solo show, which will feature new sculptures and drawings, as well as the audio-visual representation of The Slave’s Lament and a neon welcome sign carrying the message “Come into the garden and forget about the war.”

Burns wrote The Slave’s Lament in 1792, the year in which 519 petitions for the abolition of the slave trade were presented to the House of Commons. It was finally made illegal throughout the British Empire in 1807.

However in 1896, when he was facing financial ruin, Burns had accepted the offer of a job as a plantation book-keeper, which would have seen him overseeing the work of slaves. He only changed his mind at the eleventh hour after suddenly finding success as a poet.

For his new version of The Slave’s Lament, Fagen is joining forces with Glasgow-based composer Sally Beamish, musicians of the Scottish Ensemble, which is also based in the city and London-born reggae singer Ghetto Priest, who performs with the Asian Dub Foundation. Also involved in the 14-minute piece, which will be played on a continuous loop throughout the building, is music producer Adrian Sherwood, whose past collaborations include Lee Scratch Perry, Primal Scream and Depeche Mode.

He said: “I remember discovering The Slave’s Lament when I was at school. I grew up in Irvine and every January we would have to recite off by heart a Burns poem or song.

“You would be flicking through a Burns book and would find songs that were a bit more interesting than the ones you were asked to learn. The Slave’s Lament was a song I always stopped at and wondered what it was all about. I never really found out more about it until about 15 years ago when I read a biography of Burns.

“When I was growing up I caught the tail end of the punk movement and the Jamaican reggae that came with that. I was going to gigs and buying reggae records.

“I grew up with this idle curiosity why my cultural heritage felt slightly alien and distant and was curious why the cultural polar opposite of Burns, this Jamaican reggae, meant so much more to me and my peer group growing up in a council housing scheme.

“When I discovered that Burns himself had booked his passage to go to Jamaica it just kind of jumped out at me that when I was being taught my cultural heritage at school, no-one told me that he was going to go to Jamaica to work on a plantation.

“What I’ve been trying to achieve with The Slave’s Lament was to have some kind of element of classical composition, that had a knowledge of Scottish folk tradition, and put it within the culture of Jamaican reggae to see if they sit together or there is some kind of culture clash.”

Ms Beamish said: ““I am extremely excited to be collaborating with Graham Fagen on such a significant moment in his career. Our collaboration highlights the impact Scottish folk song has had on both of us – and I am honoured to take part in this extraordinary opportunity with so many inspirational artists and musicians.”

Fagen, a former war artist in Kosovo, is staging Scotland’s seventh contribution to the Venice Biennale, which runs from May-November, under a collaboration with the Angus arts centre Hospitalfield.

Fagen, 48, who has been preparing his show for more than a year, hand-picked the palace in the Cannaregio district from a choice of 12 buildings during a recce to the city last year.

He added: “It’s a fantastic, classic Venetian building with that history and heritage of trade, as well as a hub of shared cultural thinking and ideas. For me that was present in the building itself. It’s given me the context for the work I’m making.”