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Artist Profiles

Grand Union Orchestra: Music and Movement

By Published: April 3, 2012
Having interviewed both pianist/hornist Django Bates
Django Bates
Django Bates
b.1960
piano
and bassist Steve Berry
Steve Berry
Steve Berry
b.1957
for a piece on Loose Tubes a couple of years ago, both thought that by the nineties a band as diverse as Loose Tubes had become hard to sustain because the market had narrowed again, a consequence, perhaps, of the rise of Thatcherism in Britain and neo-conservative economics and politics across Europe and North America. Haynes responds with irony: "I often wonder about my own operation. From my own experience, projects seem to rise over a period of three or four years and then peak. Perhaps they lose their steam or perhaps audiences by that point are looking for the next new thing coming. Maybe, I should have tried 'to create a brand,' as they say nowadays, called 'Grand Union' and reinvent it every few years. Obviously, it has been constantly reinvented but it's too easy for people to disparage you on the basis of, 'Oh, not that old thing again!'"

His remarks lack any sense of bitterness. However, as he says, many it seems are just looking for "the next new thing" and much of the music media thrives on that very idea. Yet, only something as highly-developed as Grand Union can take on projects as vast and important as If Paradise. In comparison, much of the music praised in the broadsheets and better music magazines is just a momentary diversion on the road to doomsday. Chris May's excellent and authoritative All About Jazz review of If Paradise put it beautifully: ..."it is impossible to say where one culture stops and another starts. Listening to it is like looking through a kaleidoscope with a headful of the finest charas."

And central to that is a vision of how jazz came into being in the first place. Fancifully perhaps, but intriguingly, Haynes believes that the rich mix of cultures in London's East End today has that same potential to create a new syncretic music with much the same values and virtues of jazz. He explains, "Jazz emerged as this rather hybrid, free spirit because a whole raft of people from different musical and cultural backgrounds were all rubbing up against each other. You had the emancipated slaves and their blues and work songs and, on the other hand, you had the high art from the French and the Spanish and the opera houses. There's that mixture of the formal and informal in jazz. The mix in the East End today is different but potentially as potent. We have all these musical cultures of the Bengali, the Indian, the Chinese, Somali and Turkish communities and god knows what. You can imagine them creating something comparable to jazz a hundred years later. Obviously, I can't do this—I'm just a single creative artist—but what I'm saying is that I would like to see a movement towards this happening. It may well happen."

He pauses, "I don't know. On balance, there are too many things standing in its way and there are not the possibilities that there were in New Orleans of it happening. But who knows?"

Haynes' belief in human potential and the vitality to be drawn from the mixing of cultures has driven Grand Union from the outset. It began life in 1982 with a touring show called Jelly Roll Soul which used both musicians and actors. The orchestra itself came into being two years later in response to a commission from the late, lamented Greater London Council designed to celebrate its "Year Against Racism." That show was The Song Of Many Tongues.

Not everything that Grand Union does is on this kind of scale. Where the orchestra regularly consists of between fifteen and eighteen members, often with additional guests and the occasional symphony orchestra, the Grand Union Band is a more flexible seven-to-ten-piece unit more suited to smaller club or festival gigs. Its musical core remains the same as its larger sibling and its form shifts shape according to the mixture of jazz and traditional musicians playing within it. Its music might be drawn from Bangladesh, Latin America or The Caribbean, or from Portugal or the Far East, and the breadth of its music is remarkable in its own right, as can be heard on Around The World In 80 Minutes (Redgold, 2002).

But it is for its themed, spectacular entertainments that Grand Union is most renowned. The Greater London Council, once a beacon of light in a dismal monetarist world, may be no more. But Grand Union perpetuates and sustains those same values of anti-racism, internationalism and community that are increasingly hard to find in the political landscape of this less than united kingdom.


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