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

36: By the Waters of Babylon (UdS)

This month we celebrate two remarkable events, and look forward to a third To begin with, the first ever Grand Union Orchestra residential Summer School (see here and Post 32 for more information) was a phenomenal success! In the picturesque setting of Oundle School, and making the most of its remarkable facilities (and excellent food!), nearly 50 young musicians immersed themselves in three days of intensive music-making, and – I hope and believe! – learnt a great deal more about world music, improvisation and their own creative potential. (Post 34 describes some of the material developed).

Participants came not only from London and the East of England, but even (five of them) from Portugal, and worked under the expert guidance of eight of GUO’s most experienced world musicians, together with tutors from Essex, Cambridgeshire and even the south of France. The feedback has been tremendous – “My son said it was the most enjoyable music experience he has had ever” was one of the more measured comments! – so it is certainly an experience Grand Union will repeat.

Next, the first Sunday in September marks the 30th anniversary of the début of the Grand Union Orchestra, an iconic event and one of the true turning-points in GU history. 1984 was the final year of the Ken Livingstone-led Greater London Council, abolished by Margaret Thatcher’s government. Every year, the GLC decided on a theme of social or cultural significance; 1984 was designated ‘Year against Racism’, and Grand Union – then beginning to blaze the trail of cross-cultural music-making that has become its trademark – was commissioned to produce a new work to commemorate the year.

The event was produced Maggie Pinhorn, director of the equally trail-blazing Alternative Arts (then based in Seven Dials) on an open-air stage in the portico of St Paul’s Church in the Covent Garden Piazza to an enormous and exuberant crowd. The work was called The Song of Many Tongues, and we toured it and recorded it the following year – it was the first GUO album, and the only one of our recordings to be recorded in a studio, rather than live.

Finally, in November the Grand Union Orchestra premières its latest work Undream’d Shores at the Hackney Empire (see here and Post 30 for more details). Since this touches on similar themes – migration, exile, xenophobia – and since racism still appears to be endemic in our society 30 years later (albeit often more subtly expressed), it seemed appropriate to revive at least one number from that landmark show.

By the Waters of Babylon is one of my simplest but most affecting songs, set to words adapted from Psalm 137 in the Old Testament (common incidentally to the religion of Christians, Jews and Muslims alike). Here it is: BtWoB-1   BtWoB-2 It really needs no detailed analysis. The song is sung first by the incomparable Gail Anne Dorsey, with a commentary from the trombones. I don’t know why I decided on the crude glissando effects (it seems to suggest mockery or irony), but their harmony deliberately emphasises notes which are ‘extensions’ of the minor triads of the accompaniment. It’s also worth noting that the song is constructed rather unusually in 3-bar phrases, and the chord sequence is created from triads that simply rise by a degree of the underlying C minor scale every three bars; this in turn gives an unusual E flat minor as the third change in the sequence.

The rhythm has a vaguely Caribbean feel, without imitating exactly reggae or ska, and studio effects characteristic of the recordings of the period pepper Rick Taylor’s fine trombone solo that follows the vocal section – with a key-change to E flat minor! (Perhaps the dominance of trombones is an unconscious tribute to musicians like Rico Rodrigues and Don Drummond, and perhaps also the word ‘Babylon’ suggested all this in the first place…)

The rhythm section and soloist build up a strong head of steam, dying down into a transition passage which brings the music back to the original key, and a réprise of the song (now with the trombone figures growling an octave lower). The track ends with voices, trombones and flugelhorn echoing figures from the melody.


Gail Anne Dorsey went on to develop a career as an impressive singer-songwriter in her own right, later finding fame also as David Bowie’s regular bass-player. (Hear her also on I Live in the City, Post 27, with Courtney Pine.)

Rick Taylor, one of the very best, richest-toned and most inventive trombonists of his generation, was a stalwart member of the GUO for a further ten years. Another fine example of his genius as a soloist is Ça Ira, Post 21.)

Other musicians featured in the first performance and on this recording – Claude Deppa, Louise Elliott, Gerry Hunt, Dave Adams, Ros Davies, Andy Grappy, Ken Johnston, Carlos Fuentes – are still regular members of the Grand Union Orchestra, and will be performing in Undream’d Shores.

With the commercialisation of the Covent Garden Piazza, Alternative Arts moved its HQ to Spitalfields. Maggie Pinhorm remains a true and trusted friend of Grand Union, and we’ve worked with her on many different projects involving the local communities, most memorably commemorating the 70th and 75th anniversaries of the 1936 Battle of Cable Street.

The Song of Many Tongues (originally available only as a cassette tape) is being reissued on CD to celebrate the Grand Union Orchestra’s 30th anniversary. I Live in the City is the  other track from that album that will also reappear in Undream’d Shores, together with Riding the Iron Tiger (see also Post 35)


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