The Charlotte City Council and Chamber of Commerce missed out on their trip to London in late May. Fortunately, however, another local group stepped forward to represent Charlotte in the United Kingdom during the week of Queen Elizabeth II’s Diamond Jubilee.
The Charlotte Waites, a Renaissance wind band based in University City, was invited to England for a music festival organized by the International Guild of Town Pipers. The festival was June 2-5 in Colchester, a historic town in the bucolic English countryside an hour-and-a-half from London.
Charlotte Waites’ Musical Director John Burns was joined by his wife, Susan Burns, John Trexler and myself. The Burnses live in Radbourne, a University City neighborhood off West W.T. Harris Boulevard.
Here’s a reporter’s notebook from the trip:
The Charlotte Waites were a highly unofficial alternative to the Chamber of Commerce delegation. Instead of glossy brochures and PowerPoint presentations, the Waites brought hurdy-gurdies, dancing puppets and Renaissance flutes.
Burns explained that “waits” – or “waites” – were music groups organized by cities during the Renaissance. They awakened workers in the morning with blasts on rauschpfeifes, sackbuts and shawms, and they provided live music for processions, dances and feasts. This was long before radios, Muzak, cellphones or iPads – back when tweeting was reserved for robins and canaries.
Modern waits musicians play instruments copied from those used during the Renaissance, perform period music composed in the 14th through 18th centuries and dress in bright costumes patterned on historical models.
The Colchester festival included a dozen town bands from England and Holland, along with musicians and scholars from across Europe and Canada. The headliners were the York Waits, based in the English city of York, considered by many to be the world’s premier waits band.
The Charlotte Waites performed several concerts each day, though not in concert halls. Instead, we played in public spaces around the city, from ancient squares to Colchester’s new post-modern performance venue, First Site.
At a special concert during the festival, 100 musicians from all groups packed First Site to play historic fanfares and dances on original instruments; that hasn’t happened in Colchester since the days of King Henry VIII. A recording is now posted on YouTube.
Crowds were large and enthusiastic for the Charlotte Waites’ performances. On occasion, audiences even knew the words and sang along with songs written by Henry VIII and Shakespeare-era composer John Dowland.
Hurdy-gurdy player John Trexler was especially popular. The hurdy-gurdy, an unusual stringed instrument in a large ornate wooden box played with a crank and a wooden keyboard, at its best combines the drone of a bagpipe with the sweet melody of a fiddle.
The Charlotte Waites visit included civic engagement. John Burns presented a letter to Colchester officials from Mayor Anthony Foxx during the official reception in Colchester’s historic Town Hall. Appropriately, a stained-glass window in that building honors Queen Charlotte of Mecklenburg. Surprisingly, Charlotte has no sister city in England. Perhaps, Burns said, Colchester would make a good candidate.
The Queen’s Diamond – or 60th – Jubilee overlapped the music festival, with wall-to-wall jubilee coverage on the “telly” and streets festooned with little plastic Union Jacks. Most of the jubilee activities took place in London, but the whole country got caught up in the excitement.
One night, cities throughout England lit commemorative beacon fires to mark the scary period in 1588 when the Spanish Armada attacked Queen Elizabeth I. Tradition has it that when the English saw the enemy ships, they lit bonfires to spread the warning across the land.
Unfortunately, after a typically rainy English day, the waterlogged wood for Colchester’s historical re-creation took forever to catch fire. After a half-hour of standing in the drizzle watching the logs smolder, someone in the crowd jokingly muttered: “The bloody Spaniards have already conquered us by now!”
On the other hand, some things in Colchester worked very well. For instance, they have come up with a creative way to help those in need.
One evening, as we walked through a downtown area, a homeless man collapsed near us. A group quickly showed up to offer support and emergency medical attention. They were members of SOS, a street-based assistance organization.
Instead of being housed in a brick-and-mortar building, SOS works out of a large bus, and its teams make foot patrols. When an ambulance took quite a long time to arrive, SOS moved the man, who had regained consciousness but was bleeding badly, to its bus, parked nearby, for further assistance.
It’s an interesting concept, helping people where you find them rather than requiring them to come to you.
Trade delegations and high-level political contacts are important, even essential, for our city. But perhaps the most important lesson the Charlotte Waites brought home is the recognition that music and the arts, and simple person-to-person contacts between regular folks, can also build strong bridges of friendship and understanding.
Sadly, this story has a tragic postscript.
Shortly after returning home, John Trexler died in a cycling accident in rural Cabarrus County last weekend. Trexler’s triumphant performances in Colchester, and his many new English and European friends – who now are expressing their shock, sorrow and condolences to his family – became the culminating chapter in his vibrant and inspiring life.