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Artist Profiles

Grand Union Orchestra: Music and Movement

By Published: April 3, 2012
"I fell in with a well-respected poet called Manuel Alegre, who had been a dissident. Many of the poets and artists, many of whom are now MPs, were exiled during the later days of the dictatorship of Salazar and after. They were back by then and Manuel Alegre wrote some wonderful poems, which we've used. They sound like love poems but actually they're all about freedom and use sea imagery. He has this lovely line about deforesting the country of trees to make ships and uses that as an image of the country being deforested of its men to fight all these wars, especially the African wars of independence. Some of the students I'd associated with had spent four years in the army since I saw them last in the Algarve and several of them had been completely traumatized by the experience."

The Rhythm Of Tides expresses not just the colonial experience of Portugal but all such experiences—their impact on those lands that are colonized and also on those who service these enterprises. Unsurprisingly, it allows for reflection on Britain's own imperial history. Migration means movement and it offers potential for change. Ultimately, if we can learn from this and transcend that historical legacy, it might mean change for the better, as Haynes suggests,

"The Rhythm Of Tides is a curious mix drawn from different musical traditions and personalities telling of migration, exile, different cultures and politics and histories. It won't surprise you that I'm an Internationalist. It's kind of been a thread ever since through my personal and Grand Union's history. We keep in touch with these Portuguese musicians individually and some of them come over from time to time to tour with us and sometimes we go over to Portugal. In fact, we have a funding application in for a big European project that involves a lot of them again."

The orchestra's early recordings, The Song Of Many Tongues (1985) and Freedom Calls (1989), reveal both the ensemble's consistency and its development. In both respects, the persistence of core personnel has been an advantage. Saxophonists Chris Biscoe and Louise Elliott, and trumpeters Claude Deppa and Shanti Paul Jayasinha have each been with Grand Union since the eighties, whilst others have earned their long-service medals, gone and often returned. However, listening to Now Comes The Dragon Hour, If Paradise and Rhythm Of Tides, it is how the music has grown that most impresses. Some early songs, like "Can't Chain Up Me Mind," with its lyric from Caribbean poet Valerie Bloom, still feature, but now the lyrical content is more integrated within the whole. Form and content are now indivisible. It's the difference, perhaps, between looking at photographs and watching a movie, and reflects the emphasis on narrative structure in both songs and music.

It helps here that the orchestra is able to draw upon singers of the caliber of Jonathan André, Günes Cerit, Richard Scott and Lucy Rahman, and on their ability to tell their stories. But this change also goes to the heart of Grand Union's rhythmic centre. In the beginning, the different pulses of jazz and rock had to be coaxed into alignment with rhythms from the Far East, Africa, the Caribbean and South America. Now, these coalesce as naturally as breathing. It helps too that Grand Union's horn section contains musicians who are such fine rhythm players in their own right. The orchestra beats and breaths like one giant organism.

Grand Union Orchestra Around the World in 80 MinutesIn 2005, Grand Union began perhaps its most important endeavor to date—one that offers hope for the continuation of its values. First of all, a youth orchestra was set up and then, just a couple of years ago, a Second Generation Band was established to absorb its increasing number of graduates. Some of them, singers like Jonathan André and Günes Cerit and drummer Christiano Castellitto, now perform regularly with the professional orchestra, whilst every opportunity is taken to involve the young musicians—some as young as 10 or twelve—in shows and performances.

It takes time and commitment, but this area of activity is pivotal to Grand Union's concept, as Haynes explains, "We formed the Youth Orchestra partly to provide continuity of activity between our one-off big shows but partly because such a thing just didn't exist. We wanted to replicate and, I suppose, reproduce the ethos of the professional orchestra that is a place where players of non-European instruments and those of European instruments could meet. We wanted to provide for young people who were interested in learning about music from different cultures with authentic advice and teaching about those world musical cultures."

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