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.

80: Now we are 80!

Foreword: when I originally wrote this Post, I was reluctant to admit that I was just a few days short of my 8oth birthday, so I wrote this allusive, enigmatic, coded piece instead! Now, however, the genie is out of the bottle: London Jazz News, quite unknown to me, assembled a collection of birthday greetings from musicians in the Grand Union Orchestra, and others involved in our work over the years. I hadn’t expected it, didn’t ask for it, and was all the more deeply touched by it for that! In fact, I am quite proud, and you can read these tributes here. Forget me, though: it also demonstrate the warmth, generosity and empathy of artists, and underlines yet again why art is so important to the healing of our society (Post 78). For myself, I resolve never to be coy about my age again! And now to the Post and why the title…

I was encouraged to start writing this regular Blog exactly ten years ago, and this is the 80th Post!

I am no fan of blogs on the whole, so I wanted it to be useful and practical. The original intention was to provide insight into my own composition techniques – tips, if you like, for younger creative musicians – which of course also incorporate lessons I myself have learnt working with musicians from a variety of musical cultures worldwide in the Grand Union Orchestra.

It inevitably expanded: first into including profiles of these artists, and their contribution to the Company’s development; these were interwoven with anecdotes from the Orchestra’s colourful history; it then broadened into explaining my own principles as a creative artist.

Their ‘lived experience’ deeply influences the content of Grand Union Orchestra shows; this authenticity helps create its emotional impact; and to attain what I call ‘artistic truth’, the form it takes has to embrace and reconcile all these – the classic unities of style and idea, of form and content.

From time to time it reaches back well into the past, but the ten-year period my Blog covers has itself been immensely rich. It includes:

  •  A BBC Radio 3 commission The Golden Road, The Unforgiving Sea, combining GUO with the BBC Concert Orchestra, following the Arabian and European trading routes (2011)
  • A musical portrait of the East End’s mercantile identity What the River Sings for BBC Music Nation, part of the 2012 Cultural Festival (2012)
  • A project supported by the EU Culture Fund, Work & Progress, with partners in rural France and maritime Portugal, contrasting local trades and industries (2013-2015)
  • Our best ever Hackney Empire spectacular Undream’d Shores in London and Leeds, about migration past and present (2014/15)
  • A show about disease and epidemics, Song of Contagion, (which turned out to be uncannily prophetic!) (2017)
  • Large-scale performances with schools musicians at the Fairfield Halls, Royal Albert Hall and Hackney Empire (2018/19)
  • Shows commemorating the 70th anniversary of the arrival of the Empire Windrush Uncharted Crossings (2018)
  • Concerts and a film celebrating the Bangladesh Declaration of Independence (2020/21)…
  • …and a veritable cornucopia of work with young musicians, including seven Residential  Summer Schools.

People and Places

Even from this list, it is easy to see what subjects excite or fascinate me, and that collaboration with a huge diversity (let’s use the word properly for once!) of artists is essential to animate them. Bear in mind too that the Grand Union Orchestra canon now stretches back nearly 40 years! However, in this celebratory Post I want to get away from discussing historical, social or political themes, and the musical techniques used to express them. I shall focus instead on people and places who have provided inspiration and opportunity to create this body of work.

An ideal place to start is this Post describing a recent visit to one of my favourite cities that both evokes the past and provides a general context for much of the work that followed:

Post 62  O canto e as Armas / Music and War: Lisbon past and present.

This is how it all began…

Summer 1964: a fledgling entrepreneur, Neville Roberts, pitches up in Oxford, looking for a student jazz band for a club he’s opening in the Algarve. So we set off in drummer Bertie’s battered Morris Oxford Traveller, his wife Christine as singer, their two-year old son Simeon Hank, and my best friend Tony, his double-bass strapped to the roof.

After four days on the road through France and Spain, when we arrived in Albufeira (still a sleepy fishing village at that time), we discovered that the Club – Sete e Meia, or – had not actually been finished! We were given a traditional house in the fish market, just opposite (nasty images alert!) where the fishermen nailed up their catch of octopus each day. The go-between with the local craftsmen was a charming Brazilian singer/guitarist called Bira, a dead ringer for João Gilberto, and one of my first tasks was to go to Lisbon with him to buy a piano for the club. (The piano shop on the Rua do Alecrim, just past the Opera House, has long gone, but the delightful tile shop is still there!)

The afternoon we arrived in Lisbon, I watched a white-suited President Admiral Américo Tomás ride in pomp in an open-top limousine down the Avenida da Liberdade to less than enthusiastic crowd. However. at night, the Avenue was totally  transformed into a riot of clubs and restaurants, with entertainment seemingly provided entirely by Brazilian musicians and dancers!

We got back to Albufeira to find more musicians had arrived – a fado group, students from Lisbon, including an aristocratic Portuguese guitar player Nuno, and led by Fernando, a typically impassioned tenor, disciple of the great Alfredo Marceneiro. Under the stern but benign manager Rogério, locals provided the staff, and the Club opened.

Our band was desperate to learn authentic bossa nova from Bira, then all the rage; but his real hero was Nat King Cole! So we eventually negotiated a compromise, trading Desafinado for Nature Boy, or The Girl from Ipanema for Tenderly. Repertoire became a little more complicated when Cliff Richard (who had recently bought a vineyard nearby) dropped in; he had a fondness for Frank Sinatra and the Broadway songbook.

So began my life-long love of Portugal, its history and culture – a voyage of discovery all of its own.


The Inspiration of Portugal

It was ten years before I went back, in 1975, a year after the Revolution; but then not again until 1990 (when the Grand Union had become well established). My interest had been rekindled by meeting (mainly in Australia) East Timorese exiles and support/solidarity groups, as I was planning a show (Songlines) centred on events around the Pacific Rim. I also visited Macao and Malacca around the same time. Then I was lucky enough to get a Go-And-See grant from Portugal 600 (run by a devoted Lusophile, Michael Collins) and the Gulbenkian Foundation.


I imagined that there would by now be a large number of Africans from the former colonies living and working in Portugal, much as post-war migrants to the UK came from British colonies slowly gaining their independence; and I assumed that these migrants would be enriching Portuguese culture in the same way. I was not disappointed – Lisbon’s night-life was now dominated by African bands, and the styles were very varied, from the commercial dance music and mornas of Cabo Verde, through the South American-tinged music of Angola and Mozambique to traditional songs and instruments from Guiné-Bissau.

Unsurprisingly, then, Portugal has figured heavily in my work for the Grand Union Orchestra in a huge number of different ways. Here are the best and most informative of other Posts that help fill in the story:

Post 23 Meu Amor é Marinheiro: collaborative projects for the Setúbal Music Festival

Post 33 As Colunas de Madrugada: revolution, the end of Empire – and an usual poetic form!

Post 40 Carta ao Mar: Saudade, the art of fado and celebrating a 25th anniversary

Post 41 Mil e Uma Marés / A Thousand and One Tides: partners in the Grand Union EU-funded project

Post 10 Cano: recruiting musicians from Lisbon’s African diaspora, Sadjo Djolô and the kora

Post 18 Mexe Mexe: meeting another incomparable singer-guitarist, Mingo Rangel


Other lives

Inevitably, the last ten years have occasionally been tinged with sadness, as members of the Company and others to whom I owe a debt of gratitude have died. Here are the Posts in which their passing is mourned and their lives celebrated:

Vladimir Vega – Chilean exile, heart-stopping singer and folk musician, one of the first and life-long Grand Union stalwarts (Post 26) 

Alan Dossor – theatre director of great generosity and rare dramatic and political acuity, with whom I worked for six years (Nottingham Playhouse, Liverpool Everyman) (Post 55)

Rick Taylor – trombone-player, as big-hearted in his encouragement as in his imperious sound, unbelievably imaginative and sensitive improviser (Post 68)

Cengiz Saner – brilliant actor, mime, dancer, director who took charge of all GUO large-scale shows, up to and including Undream’d Shores (Post 44)  

Gillian Hanna – one of the finest actors of her generation, author and translator, Grand Union founder-board member (Post 69)

John Cumming – writer, lyricist, lighting designer, producer and entrepreneur, one of four co-founders of the Grand Union company (Post 73)


Looking Ahead

There is another, even more significant, anniversary yet to come:


We have extravagant plans for this remarkable event, and would welcome your support to make this occasion the sensational celebration it deserves to be! If you would like to contribute or get involved, please email mail@grandunion.org.uk



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