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.

Grand Union Orchestra – a brief history

The beginning

Grand Union started life as a small- to mid-scale music theatre touring company with Jelly Roll Soul (2 black actor-musicians, 3 white musician-actors) in 1982. This was closely followed by The Lost Chord, and then the Company’s iconic and seminal show Strange Migration, which made three 10-week tours and established Grand Union’s reputation for pioneering cross-cultural work with authentic performers, establishing irrevocably the direction the Company would take, and the principles for which it is renowned and respected.

Strange Migration featured eight performers, three of whom were from a non-European background – Sarah Laryea, a charismatic drummer and dancer from Ghana; Tunukwa, a singer of Caribbean/North American parentage and civil rights activist; and Vladimir Vega, a Chilean multi-instrumentalist (of Andean folk instruments), exile and victim of the Pinochet régime.

The commitment to maintaining a company of performers – there has always been a high percentage of women musicians too – from a variety of cultural backgrounds has never wavered. The policy of exploring creatively the many traditions of world music they represent has remained equally constant; and we always endeavour to represent the experience of the performers themselves on stage, making the work all the more moving and giving it its authenticity. Unsurprisingly, political and social issues, historical and contemporary themes relating to conflict, persecution, migration and exile therefore resurface again and again in our work – participatory as well as professional.

Birth of the Orchestra

The Grand Union Orchestra was born in autumn 1984 with The Song of Many Tongues, in response to a commission from the GLC for its Year against Racism. At that stage 16-strong – with the addition of Latin American and Caribbean musicians – the core membership of Grand Union grew rapidly as Indian and Bangladeshi musicians, and then Chinese, were added; now virtually every major musical culture world-wide is represented in the Company. The Orchestra became Grand Union’s flagship, touring continually across the whole of the UK and abroad for the next 25 years with a succession of themed shows written by Tony Haynes, including A Book of Numbers, Freedom Calls, The Rhythm of Tides, Now Comes the Dragon’s Hour and If Paradise.

All these shows are best described as a branch of ‘lyric theatre’ – their structure is held together by songs or choruses related to the overall theme, forming the basis of the drama which is played out by the instrumental ensemble, jazz soloists and players from non-Western musical cultures. At the same time, Grand Union has generated a number of smaller ensembles, bringing together for example specifically Caribbean and Latin musicians (Spirit of Carnival), Gypsy musicians or South Asian (Rag, Tal and Bollywood), sometimes in combination with Chinese (Bengal Tiger, Shanghai Dragon).

Workshops and bigger projects

The work expanded rapidly in another direction, too. With such an unusual core of musicians, from the earliest days we were called on to run ‘multicultural workshops’ – in schools, job centres, community centres, prisons all around the country. Then in 1986, for the first time, both the show-giving and workshop sides came together when we produced our first intergenerational cross-cultural spectacular, Threads, in Manchester. Taking as its subject the triangular trade in slaves, cotton and fabrics, the singular feature of this show that audiences remarked on was its ‘authenticity’ – the fact that nineteenth-century events came more vividly to life because they were portrayed by present-day African- and Asian-descended performers.

This unleashed a whole torrent of large-scale, intergenerational, cross-cultural participatory shows across the whole country – If Music Could…, Songlines, Dancing in the Flames, Doctor Carnival, On Liberation Street – which have become a hall-mark of Grand Union’s work, involving an extraordinary variety of individual performers and ensembles including South Asian groups, African drummers, steel bands, youth jazz orchestras, gospel choirs etc. Doctor Carnival, for example – supported by a £100,000 grant from the Arts Council’s Opera and Music Theatre Touring department – was presented over a period of four years (2001-05) in ten big venues nationwide: Kings Lynn (Corn Exchange), Nottingham (Albert Hall), Loughborough (Town Hall), Folkestone (Lees Cliff Hall), Sunderland (Empire Theatre), Leicester (de Montfort Hall), Birmingham (Symphony Hall), Leeds (Town Hall), Orkney (Pickaquoy Centre), London (Hackney Empire Theatre). While the structure of the show remained constant, it was produced anew in each region depending on the local demographic.

Expanding abroad – and at home

These three interlinked strands of work – professional touring, workshops for young people and intergenerational participatory projects – still characterise Grand Union’s work 25 years later. As our reputation grew, we extended our work abroad, both through touring and producing collaborative work along the lines described above in places as diverse as Paris, Lisbon, Dhaka and Melbourne. Work at home has also continued to evolve, most notably through setting up our own Grand Union Youth Orchestra in 2007, featuring young musicians whose instrumental diversity outstrips even that of the parent orchestra.

And GUYO is a reminder of another commitment that has never wavered – our commitment to the area where we have always been based, and where most of our musicians live: East London.

The Grand Union Orchestra official website  www.grandunion.org.uk features a variety of audio and video clips

For a short introduction to GUO, go to http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mQvkbf2seOY

For a longer documentary, go to http://blip.tv/grand-union/grand-union-at-spitalfields-2687757

For a detailed independent appreciation, go to www.allaboutjazz.com/php/article.php?id=41575

One comment on “Grand Union Orchestra – a brief history

  1. Pingback: 22: 30 Years of Strange Migration | ONLINE COMPOSITION MASTERCLASS

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: