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.

86: Unforgotten Voyages

The question of slavery, and particularly the culpability of those who profited from it for 500 years, has been very much in the news recently. To a great extent, this has been down to the Editor of The Guardian newspaper, Katharine Viner, revealing her paper’s historic links to, and benefit from, the Transatlantic Slave Trade. This unleashed a series of deeply moving and instructive articles and a vigorous correspondence which centred largely on the question of reparations.

These were couched more or less entirely in material terms. But we can surely do better than that? Reparations can be made which are not only financial. Shame and contrition can be expressed in a way which is not just apology and a bit of cash: we can be more positive and practical, and it may be of wider lasting benefit.

For example, we can: assert respect for lost African culture of the past; salute the indomitable spirit of those who kept their religion and customs alive in the ‘new world’; celebrate the music and traditions that survive and flourish in the African diaspora today; acknowledge its influence and impact on European culture; and attempt some measure of reconciliation through artistic collaboration and co-creation.

I also believe it’s better to speak of ‘precolonising the curriculum’ in schools – trying to imagine and describe what was lost in lands colonised by Europe in past centuries – rather than ‘decolonising the curriculum’, which in effect means little more than ‘deglorifying’ the British Empire in history lessons (though that’s important too!).

For example, the upcoming 75th anniversary of the arrival of the Empire Windrush at Tilbury Docks in 1948, with its ‘cargo’ of Caribbean workers seeking a better life, and ready to help rebuild post-War London, provides a heaven-sent opportunity to highlight and debate these uncomfortable questions – but in an upbeat and joyous spirit!

A ‘case study’

The Guardian was originally a Manchester-based newspaper, and carried that name in its title until about 1960. It was serendipitous, therefore, that one of the most powerful responses to Viner’s original challenge came from the current Mayor, Andy Burnham: “Manchester too is confronting its historical links to slavery”. This reminded me of a seminal ‘Damascus’ moment in the Grand Union’s own history…

In 1986, the fledgling Grand Union Orchestra was commissioned by a Manchester consortium – which included Contact Theatre, the Green Room, Band On The Wall, City Education Service and Northern Arts – to devise a ‘multicultural project’. That autumn, eight of us, of diverse cultural heritage, set out to identify and recruit participants.

By the time rehearsals began, we had on board: Nigerian drummers who sang Yoruba chants; a band run by Debbie Mensah, daughter of the Ghanaian highlife king E.T.Mensah; a Pakistani qawwali singer and Indian tabla player; women’s choir; primary school-teachers’ steel band; student samba batucada group; two youth jazz orchestras; and a top-class local rhythm section.

What artists do, and why art matters

Key to bringing the project together was the Caribbean writer Valerie Bloom. 

Val had come over from the Caribbean 6 or 7 years earlier, and her warm and generous personality made her an invaluable link and arbiter between Manchester’s varied, energetic but sometimes fractious African and Caribbean communities, who were a central aspect of the show. Steel pans and West African drums made up two sides of the ‘triangle’, complemented by a group of South Asian musicians and singers, that lay at the heart of the show – the trade in slaves, cotton, fabric and clothing.

With these performers, the content of the show virtually decided itself: the historic triangular trade of slaves, cotton and clothing between Africa, the Caribbean and Manchester; conditions in the Lancashire mills; and the competing textile industry of South Asia. The title chosen was “Threads”, and work began assembling and rehearsing material.

Val also got quickly to the idea that those exploited at all points of the triangular trade – whether slaves, cotton-pickers, weavers or garment-makers – were women, whether in Africa, the Caribbean, South Asia or England’s northern mill towns; and in the present day as much as in the past. So she produced powerful lyrics for a big chorus “We Are The Women” that brought together singers from all these cultural backgrounds and occupations – one of the most memorable and moving episodes in the show.

Threads included much traditional music – like the Caribbean worksong “Pick a Bale o‘ Cotton”, and English folk song “The Four-Loom Weaver”, performed by a Pakistani singer against an Indian Raga! There were also the African chants, from which I fashioned big band arrangements (see below), as well as new songs and other original music.

The legacy of Threads

When people saw Threads – first performed (in promenade and in the round) in an unheated sports hall in the Abraham Moss Centre in February! – I wondered why they found the show so moving. I asked a senior producer from Granada TV, and she replied “Why, it’s so authentic! You can picture nineteenth-century events so much more vividly because they’re portrayed by present-day African- or Asian-descended performers.” This has remained a feature of Grand Union’s work – especially its participatory shows – ever since.

The show proved very popular: after Abraham Moss, it was performed in Manchester Town Hall and Wythenshaw Forum, then revived for three performances in that year’s Manchester Festival in July.

This tale highlights the value of art in helping build a civilised society. Sadly, work of this kind Is regarded as of little consequence in today’s hostile environment for culture and the arts, and it is virtually impossible to forge collaborations for such projects these days and raise funding for them.


Some music

The next major Grand Union touring show after Threads was Freedom Calls, premiered at the Queens Hall in Edinburgh fo the 1988 Festival, and then toured nationally. (There was also a memorable performance on Boulogne beach in 1989 for the bicentenary of the French Revolution!) Valerie Bloom contributed lyrics for three numbers – No More Apartheid, Thank God I’m Free (sung here delightfully by Ghanaian Sarah Laryea) and Can’t Chain Up Me Mind, a defiant anti-slavery song. South African writer and actor John Matshikiza’s contribution was a savage tirade against 500 years (and counting) of Black exploitation:

See a complete account of this song, the words and an analysis of the music in Post 74

Through Unforgotten Voyages, you will also make the acquaintance of Yoruba orissas/orishas/orixas on both sides of the Atlantic – Eleggua, his Cuban manifestation and modern devotees; and Yémanyá with her Brazilian sister Jémanjá and her followers, as well as some remarkable drummers from the West coast of Africa today.

My Blog Post Uncharted Crossings is also recommended reading…


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