Composition and arranging techniques from Grand Union Orchestra composer/director Tony Haynes

29: Looking Forward, Looking Back…

New Year greetings to all readers and followers of these monthly posts!

2013 turned out to be one of the Grand Union Orchestra’s most successful and prolific years both at home and abroad, and full of promise for the year to come.

The year began with a brand new touring project Trading Roots, bringing together Grand Union’s celebrated world musicians in a single ensemble. Presented in seven different regions across England during the first half of the year, Trading Roots also formed the basis of the launch performances of Grand Union’s European Union-funded project in Portugal and France during the summer (see Post 23 and Post 24). Well received everywhere, it was a particular hit with Portuguese and French audiences, and augurs well for the development of our European programme in the coming year.

The first highlight of the autumn was Music Untamed, an all-day event commissioned by the Hackney Empire Theatre for the first nation-wide Family Arts Festival (see Post 27). This was followed by one the most memorable series of Grand Union shows ever – On the Edge, a spectacular four-day World Jazz Festival at Wilton’s Music Hall, featuring all aspects of my work for the Orchestra and its remarkable range of performers – dance music, song repertoire, jazz soloists and big band writing on successive nights (see Post 28). And how lucky we are to have two such fabulous, atmospheric, classic East London venues on our doorstep to perform in regularly!

Sadly, the euphoria generated by the year’s achievements was tempered by less welcome news, and in July we mourned the untimely death of one of Grand Union’s earliest, highly valued and most influential spirits – Chilean musician and singer Vladimir Vega. An appreciation of his life and work can be found in Post 26, and more of his invaluable contribution to the Grand Union canon in Post 22.

Celebrating Nelson Mandela

In early December I left to take a welcome break in Australia, but as soon as I reached Melbourne, I got a call asking me to take part in a big event hastily but very efficiently organised in Federation Square to celebrate the life of Nelson Mandela, who of course had died a few days before. It took the form of a concert whose centre-piece was a live broadcast from South Africa (projected on the huge screen above the stage) of Mandela’s burial at Qunu, which took place 9pm on the Sunday evening Melbourne time. Not surprisingly, it was an intensely moving occasion, with an enormous crowd dominated by Melbourne’s substantial African diaspora, and featuring all the leading local South African musicians and singers, black and white – a fantastic event to be part of!

The band had been put together by South African expatriate pianist Howard Belling, his son Zvi (a great bass-player, leader and organiser) and daughter Fem (a remarkable singer and dancer), and it was great to meet again musicians I had worked with over the years in Melbourne, but hadn’t seen for a while – but above all Grand Union’s long-serving and much missed drummer Brian Abrahams, who is now based in Australia (see note below).

So, no musical analysis this month, but just a historic recording from the Grand Union archives to celebrate this momentous, once-in-a-lifetime occasion – a version of African Market Place by the great pianist/composer Abdullah Ibrahim (aka Dollar Brand), himself a great supporter of Mandela and tireless crusader against apartheid.


The Australian Grand Union Orchestra

This recording is taken from a live broadcast from the Montsalvat International Jazz Festival in January 1997, my first Grand Union Orchestra venture in Australia. Thanks to the generosity of Montsalvat’s director Sigmund Jorgensen, a great patron of originality in the arts, and the vision of Fotis Kapetopoulos, then running Multicultural Arts Victoria, I was encouraged to assemble a 10-piece band along the lines of the London-based Grand Union, but entirely from local musicians.

Featured on this recording, they included tabla-player Balasri Rasiah, jazz saxophone virtuoso Fiona Burnett, Indian-born bass-player Conrad Henderson and Chilean multi-instrumentalist Rosamel Burgos – heard here playing quena – alongside trombonist Adrian Sherriff (who also plays shakuhachi and mrdangam!) and South African singer Valanga Khoza (who also plays guitar, kora and thumb-pianos), both of whom were taking part in the Mandela concert. Indeed, Valanga, along with Svi, was one of the prime movers of this celebration, organised by Fotis’s successor at MAV, the indefatigable Jill Morgan.

A few years later, with Fotis’s and Jill’s assistance, I reassembled this band for a series of concerts in Melbourne, and between 2002 and 2006 it gradually grew – just like its UK counterpart! – into a 16-piece GU Orchestra for the Melbourne Jazz Festival and Commonwealth Games Festival to full-scale participatory shows with community groups (Thracian Turkish ensemble, Chinese Youth Orchestra, Indian and Greek singers, Indonesian and Vietnamese musicians, brass band…), taking in the Eureka 150 and other Victoria country festivals along the way.

And, although all the other musicians remained local, the irreplaceable mainstay of the rhythm section for all these groups – exactly as he was in the Mandela concert in Federation Square – was Brian Abrahams, brought over from London especially.

Brian Abrahams

Born and brought up in Cape Town, Brian settled in England in 1975. His early UK work was with some of South   Africa’s exiled jazz pioneers like Chris McGregor, Dudu Pukwana and Johnny Dyani, and by 1982 he had founded his own group, District Six, with some younger South African émigrés. His reputation as drummer, composer and bandleader rapidly spread throughout the UK, Europe and the USA; and he became the drummer of choice for touring international jazz soloists putting together groups for the European circuit. One of the most influential drummers in the UK, with a great feeling and imagination for a range of world rhythms as well as more orthodox jazz and swing, his emotionally-charged style is ideal for the Grand Union Orchestra.

Brian first played with the Grand Union Orchestra in 1993, and has been its regular drummer – and a crucial, creative and articulate core presence – ever since. He played a key role in our original explorations with Portuguese musicians which led to The Rhythm of Tides (1996); then major projects like Now Comes the Dragon’s Hour, Doctor Carnival, If Paradise and On Liberation Street; touring to various parts of Europe, and several times to Bangladesh; and of course in the Australian GUO projects described above.

Here are just two examples of Brian’s work with the Grand Union Orchestra, more fully described in Post 3 (In Praise of Eleggua) and Post 16 (Collateral Damage):

Recently, Brian has been spending more time in Australia to help bring up his young son Kade, whose mother now lives in Adelaide. He therefore divides his time between that city and Melbourne – where most of the work is, and where fortunately many of his widely-dispersed, extensive South African family also live – and gradually his unique gifts are beginning to be appreciated by local musicians. He still travels from time to time to Europe, when there is sufficient work to justify a visit; however, for the last two years, he has had to remain in Australia to qualify for full-time residence and an Australian passport.

We naturally miss him as the Grand Union Orchestra’s full-time drummer after all these years, but hope to welcome him back to London some time in 2014. We also miss Brian’s unfailingly positive outlook on life, and I have enormous admiration for his integrity and selfless dedication both to music and his family. Mandela was often described simply as ‘a good man’ – a mantle that fits Brian Abrahams equally comfortably.


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