Tony Haynes, composer/creative director of the Grand Union Orchestra, tells the inside story of his music for the orchestra, its musicians and colourful history.
After the Second World War, Britain began to grant independence to its various colonies across the globe. In 1947, India was divided into separate nations; one of them, Pakistan, was itself divided, into East and West. In 1971, civil unrest which had simmered for years boiled over, and East Pakistan sought independence as a separate nation – Bangladesh.
This 28-minute film was produced to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence (March 26th 1971). It tells the story of the build-up to this event and the war that followed, through the eyes and voices of people involved or caught up in its aftermath, entirely in music and song, by British and Bengali composers, writers and performers. It does this by combining excerpts from over two decades of live performances by the Grand Union Orchestra (in London, Leeds and Dhaka) to form a single narrative.
Thanks largely to my long and valued friendship with tabla maestro Yousuf Ali Khan, singer Lucy Rahman and hence association with other artists and the Bengali community in East London, dramatising aspects of Bengali culture and history have formed a significant part of my music for the Orchestra for over 25 years.
But it’s also the universal story that attracts me: conflict may have been resolved in Bangladesh, but religious or ideological differences, and the suppression of language and culture, continue to be a major cause of war the world over. My intention, therefore, is not simply to memorialise these events for the Bengali diaspora, but to bring them vividly to life for the general public.
Here I provide context for each of the individual pieces, with links to the longer pieces they are taken from or the shows they were written for. I’ve also described some of them in detail in previous blogs, and/or analysed the musical elements from which they are constructed; links to these Posts are also given. You can also play the whole sequence via this Playlist
The sequence begins with an excerpt from a concert at Rich Mix in Shoreditch (East London) celebrating the 100th anniversary of the birth of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, known as the ‘father of the nation’, in March 2020. The song is by Sheikh Luthfur Rahman, a well-known musician and activist in the cause of independence; he is also the father of Lucy Rahman, one of the Grand Union Orchestra’s leading singers. The Bengali title is Rokte Amar Abar, and it is full of foreboding, contrasted with hope and joyful memories:
BLOOD WILL FLOW – https://youtu.be/YUWfa3WgFTg
The songs that follow I wrote for GUO shows. The first comes from The Mother, The River – an episode from On Liberation Street, commissioned to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the end of World War Two. It is one of a number of pieces about conflict a generation later, the early 1970s (including Pinochet’s coup in Chile and the Portuguese colonial wars) which you can see in full here. The setting is simple: every night a mother goes down to the river with a candle, praying for the safe return of her sons from the war; she recalls the various stages of the war, and here she is remembering the events leading up to it (the tenor saxophone soloist is Louise Elliott, the singer Lucy Rahman):
PROTEST, RESISTANCE – https://youtu.be/YydeSi-IdAY
The next song describes graphically the plight of guerillas holed up in the mountains, surrounded by hostile forces, and the trauma endured by their families, as a soldier’s wife back home imagines his inevitable fate. The Bengali title is Chaeridike Aj (‘everything is burning, everywhere is on fire’), described in Post 20 and which can be heard in full here. It comes from a GUO show and CD called If Paradise, which contrasts religious beliefs, the conflict they can ignite, and the common humanity nonetheless shared by Jews, Christians and Muslims.
THE FREEDOM FIGHTER – https://youtu.be/WBNF-ecg1f4
In this song, a young UK-born Bengali asks his father why he talks so much about red soil (lal mati), and why he can’t adapt to a new life in a new land (notun jiban, notun desh). The father eventually reveals that this is his memory of fighting in the war – the blood spilt that still stains the land – which he has always refused to speak about. Richard Scott (singing in English) is the father, Akash Sultan (singing in Bengali) his son. It includes an astonishing improvised duet between Sultan and Shanti Jayasinha (slide trumpet):
RED SOIL – https://youtu.be/0VmUsdOEkeY
The next piece is actually a continuation of Red Soil; the whole piece can be heard here and is described fully in Post 50. It comes from Undream’d Shores at the Hackney Empire, which is about migration, and performed by musicians and singers – both professional and amateur – most of whom are themselves migrants or from migrant-descended families (ie having ‘lived experience’, in current arts-speak!). Red Soil is framed by a song by the famous 19th century baul poet/singer Lalon Shah, whose message is that we all share a common humanity, regardless of caste, colour or faith. This version is instrumental, featuring also the GU Youth Orchestra, in a kind of bhangra style:
LALON KI JAT – https://youtu.be/7R6YFsup8L0
Next is the concluding section of the Mother The River, which is described in Post 38 and can be heard in full here, from a production at the West Yorkshire Playhouse (Leeds) with schools performers. The mother is finally reconciled to the loss of her sons; she asks the river to bear witness to those who sacrificed their lives and remember their names for generations to come:
WHAT THE RIVER SEES – https://youtu.be/binwT5c7xO0
Luthfur Rahman appropriately has the last word: his song Lanchito Nepirito joyfully proclaims that in spite of repression and subjugation, freedom and truth will always conquer in the end:
FREEDOM AND JUSTICE PREVAIL – https://youtu.be/G_e3Ca9LqOc
To pick up the upbeat mood and conclude on a celebratory note, the film finishes with an exuberant version – which I set to an African 12/8 rhythm! – of another of Lalon’s songs. It comes from a festive performance at a Brick Lane Mela in East London. It is described in Post 14 and can be heard in full here, featuring Sumi, a brilliant young singer from Bangladesh:
MILON HOBE – https://youtu.be/2IHmjktXp7k
You will not be surprised to learn that there is also a great metaphorical significance to this Post: during the course of pandemic, the Grand Union has increasingly made its own declarations of the virtue of independence for creative artists and artist-led Companies.
My last few Posts, culminating in the most recent – Post 78 – have continually argued the crucial importance of their contribution to shaping cultural recovery. It’s a model deserving of support, and this project is a good example: it could only have been created by such a company.
Hence the title of the current GUO programme: NEW SHOOTS SPRING FROM HIDDEN ROOTS, for which we have to thank the poet Robert Graves:
“New beginnings and new shoots
Spring again from hidden roots”
…and that will be the theme of my next post!