Tony Haynes, composer/director of the Grand Union Orchestra, tells the inside story of his music for the orchestra, its musicians and colourful history.
Reflecting on the horrific murder of George Floyd, the protests and civic unrest that it unleashed worldwide, I remembered a powerful piece, Worksong, from the Grand Union Orchestra canon a few years ago. The lyrics are printed in full at the end of this Post; reading them, you’ll readily understand its relevance.
Worksong comes from Freedom Calls, GUO’s third touring show. Its theme was to be racial injustice, segregation and political oppression, but it also abounded in joyous, upbeat celebratory music and songs! And like much of the Grand Union repertoire, it turned out to be uncannily prescient…
To create the show, I asked several writers with personal experience of the events we were bringing to life to provide lyrics They were John Matshikiza, South African actor, writer and anti-apartheid campaigner; Valerie Bloom, Caribbean poet and children’s author; and Vladimir Vega, Chilean folkloric musician and political activist jailed by Pinochet. The cultural background of the performers (all British) was equally varied, many also having first-hand experience of these events: they too contributed material, including some glorious West African chants.
The work toured the whole UK for two years, attracted diverse and enthusiastic audiences from the Isle of Wight to Orkney, and was broadcast live by the BBC from Sadler’s Wells in London. The recording was then remixed and released as the Grand Union Orchestra’s second CD, following the Song of Many Tongues.
But perhaps the most remarkable thing is that all this happened in 1988 – over 30 years ago!
(As is my usual practice, I’m providing a short analysis in musical notation; it’s not necessary to read this, though, but simply follow the recording as it progresses!)
Worksong is based on a variation of the Mississippi delta 12-bar blues, merged with the call and response element of chain gang songs. The chord sequence is repeated several times, with vocal interjections and percussion adding a rhythmic counterpoint that grows incrementally with each verse, until bass guitar and drums are added…
Here is the first verse, sung by African-American Dave Clarke, also a fine bass-player (the bass drum is played by South African Claude Deppa, cracking it like an overseer’s whip, with vocal responses from Ghanaian drummer Sarah Laryea):
A new, higher voice – Chilean Vladimir Vega – joins in for the second verse, with more percussion added (representing working tools and implements!) and more vocal interjections. This process continues twice more, making four verses in all, until the bass guitar and drums join in. Here are all the male voices finally together, with the bass guitar line that is about to join them:At this point, a new musical voice is also added – a tenor saxophone (Australian Louise Elliott) which dominates the final two repetitions, improvising against the male voice chorus (verses 1 and 2 réprised). This is interrupted by a bridge, “it’s time for the millenium”, which leads to the final section with powerful brass stabs and riffs over a repeated four-bar harmonic sequence derived from the ‘blues’ chords. This becomes the backing for a slowly unfolding but increasingly intense final verse or coda, sung by Josefina Cupido (whose father fought in the Spanish Civil War), in which the vocal line – built from melodic phases derived from the male voice chorus – gradually rises higher and higher:
Freedom Calls was premièred at the Queen’s Hall in Edinburgh during the Festival in 1988. Under the headline “Grand Union of many talents”, Anthony Troon, revered music critic of The Scotsman, wrote of the performance “Nobody has quite managed to pin down what the Grand Union Orchestra does – but it does it brilliantly…Its exhilarating and liberating din moves between jazz, choral music, marches, street chants, pub rants, borne along upon a boiling tidal wave of rhythmic drama.”
Partly because of its prophetic resonance – but mainly because it is such strong music! – the Freedom Calls CD has just been reissued, dedicated to the support of, and in solidarity with, the Black Lives Matter movement.
It begins with a stirring version of the rallying song of the Paris Commune Ça Ira (described fully in Post 21), and one of the most memorable moments in Grand Union history came when we were invited to take part in the French celebrations of the bicentenary of the Revolution in 1989. It was simply magical: we played the entire show in the idyllic setting of the beach in Boulogne, with the sun setting slowly behind us, casting a brilliant red and gold glow across the English Channel…
Another powerful song from Freedom Calls is Can’t Chain Up Me Mind. The lyrics are by Valerie Bloom, in Caribbean dialect, and speak for themselves. The rhythm of the verses is a kind of blend of reggae and ska (with the bass doubling the vocal line), and the choruses samba and calypso! It’s sung here by African-Caribbean Jonathan André, with a baritone sax solo from Ghanaian-born Tony Kofi:
Vladimir Vega‘s contribution to Freedom Calls was Santiago de Chile (see Post 26) in which he evokes the ghostly calm in the streets of Chile’s capital on the night (the other 9/11, 1974!), when the democratic government of Salvador Allende was overthrown in the coup that installed General Pinochet as dictator. Sadly Vladimir died in 2013; he is commemorated in Post 26, which also tells the story of this song, and his hopes for his country’s future.
He is also well to the fore, together with Ghanaian singer/drummer Sarah Laryea, not only in Freedom Calls, but also in this moving – and utterly contemporary – take on the Civil Rights movement, The Ballad of William L. Moore and Hymn for the Homelands (see Post 67), from The Song of Many Tongues.