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Artist Profiles

Grand Union Orchestra: Music and Movement

By Published: April 3, 2012
Since 1982, nearly thirty different shows have been performed by the orchestra or band. Less than a handful are available on CD but each one—The Rhythm Of Tides (1997), Now Comes the Dragon's Hour (2002), Freedom Calls (1988) and now If Paradise (all on Redgold)—is a rare jewel in its own right. There are moments on each one that glisten and sparkle like nothing you've ever really heard before and there's an epic, almost operatic grandeur to the way voices and instruments are combined.

Take just one piece. Halfway through Rhythm Of Tides, Grand Union's allegorical tale of Portugal and its voyages of discovery and colonization, comes the funky, soulful "Rivermouth." It is quite simple in structure. The stringed pipa of Chinese instrumentalist Wen Xin Zhao takes us first to Macao and the furthest reaches of Portugal's Eastern empire, but is connected to the West first through Louise Elliott's flute and Brenda Rattray's voice and then through subtle brass and woodwinds to the fine rhythm section of bassist Keith Morris and drummer Brian Abrahams, and to Portugal itself through the voice of guitarist/singer Mingo. It's a classic example of GUO's ability to create music that defines the place and time of its subject matter without resort to artifice. Eat your heart out Giacomo Puccini! But then, these musicians unite, through their own histories, these different countries and cultures.

"The Notes Of Perfume," from If Paradise, offers another such moment with the sexual tension generated here between the voices of Lucy Rahman and Akash Sultan, echoed by the dancing interplay of Louise Elliott's flute and Yousuf Ali Khan's tabla. Not jazz enough? How about the East-meets-West funk of "The Song Of Separation" or the more traditional big band swing of "Collateral Damage"? This is a band of virtuosos musicians whether from jazz like trumpeter Claude Deppa, or saxophonists Tony Kofi, Phil Todd
Phil Todd
, Chris Biscoe
Chris Biscoe
Chris Biscoe
or Louise Elliott, or from the musics of the Far East like sitarist Baluji Shrivastav, percussionist Yousuf Ali Khan or gu zheng (Chinese harp) player Zhu Xiao Meng. How many bands can move with such ease and certainty across so vast a musical landscape and still play the blues with the authority of "The Perfumes Of Paradise Blues"?

Migration and movement recur as themes in the musical world of Grand Union. A recent performance premiered two such works in The Golden Road and The Unforgiving Sea, which explored the histories of the legendary Silk Road and of the seafaring empires of Europe. Featuring the BBC's Concert Orchestra, a recording already exists which may one day see the light of day, but the vitality and theatricality of the event cries out for a DVD. Until then, perhaps The Rhythm Of Tides—with its focus on Portugal, its colonies and colonial wars—best illustrates how music, lyrics and history intersect in a Grand Union project.

The Rhythm Of Tides had a remarkably long gestation, beginning with Haynes' first visit to Portugal, then under the Salazar dictatorship, as a working musician in the late sixties. He got to hear Fado and bossa nova courtesy of some students from Lisbon and through a Brazilian guitarist-singer called Ubirajara. Returning in 1975, shortly after the revolution, Haynes met a people now actively engaged in restoring democracy to their country, and then, whilst on a trip to Darwin in Australia, he came into contact with its exile community from East Timor, itself once a Portuguese colony. With the help of a bursary, Haynes returned to Lisbon and discovered something intriguing both politically and musically.

Grand Union Orchestra Now Comes the Dragons Hour"In Lisbon in the sixties, Brazilians dominated its musical life but I had this hunch that after the collapse of the empire, there would be lots of African musicians and I wasn't wrong [laughs]. There were musicians from Angola, Cape Verde, Guinea Bissau, Mozambique—from all over, in fact. It was then that I began to have this idea of a show describing end of empire but through Portuguese eyes because they have a much stronger idea of migration in Portugal. You may not know this, but during its empire there was a net export of people. It wasn't a large country but they had to staff this extraordinary widespread and contiguously administered empire."

Haynes fell in love with both the music and poetry of Portugal and its now ex-colonies but he was also shocked by what he learned of the effects of empire on these countries and on Portugal itself. The anti-imperialist wars of Angola, Mozambique and elsewhere had taken a heavy toll.

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