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Grand Union Bangla Band: Live At The Spitz, London, 21 July '05

Chris May By

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The Bangla Band is a smaller and more intimate version of the larger Grand Union Orchestra... and as the name suggests narrows the Orchestra's global focus to concentrate on jazz and Bangladeshi/Indian music.
Always a glorious artistic experience - a uniquely deep blend of jazz and other world musics - tonight's performance by Tony Haynes' Grand Union Bangla Band had a powerful extra-musical significance. A few hours earlier, to commemorate the mass murder they'd committed precisely two weeks before, terrorists had planted another four bombs on London's public transport system. Fortunately, this time, the bombers' technical competence fell short of their fanaticism and none of the bombs had exploded. But it was temporarily unnerving for Londoners, like it was meant to be.

To see the multi-cultural eleven-piece Bangla Band onstage together in these circumstances - black and white, women and men, British, Bangladeshi, Indian, African and Australian - was especially life-affirming and joyful. A harmonious mix of peoples and cultures which gave an eloquent finger to everything the terrorist death cult represents. Welcoming the audience, Haynes briefly acknowledged "the danger we all face," and then we all got on with enjoying the music, and each other.

The Bangla Band is a smaller and more intimate version of the larger Grand Union Orchestra (whose last London performances were reviewed in November) and as the name suggests narrows the Orchestra's global focus to concentrate on jazz and Bangladeshi/Indian music. The source material for this performance included classical north Indian ragas, Bollywood tunes, Bengali folk and popular music, and - because Haynes' vision is too wide to be constrained within finite stylistic boundaries - Caribbean soca and South African township jazz (plus a riotous taste of ska in some of the horn arrangements).

Visiting guest artists for the gig were Shahadat Hossein Khan, sarod, and Kutub Uddin Bansun, bamboo flutes. The other musicians were Grand Union regulars: Lucy Rahman and Akash Sultan, vocals; Yousouf Ali Khan, tablas; Baluji Shrivastav, sitar; Claude Deppa, flugelhorn and congas; Louise Elliott, tenor saxophone and flute; Tony Haynes, keyboards, trombone, and dijeridu; Gerry Hunt, bass guitar; and Brian Abrahams, drums. Eleven musicians, eleven singular stylists.

The performance opened with "Nagin Been," from a Bollywood movie of the '50s, exuberant and celebratory. But the hair really started standing up on the back of your neck during the second tune, a wild soca romp titled "Ol' Lady Walk A Mile And A Half," for the revelation that was Kutub Uddin Bansun. Playing a small treble flute, he held band and audience transfixed with a torrent of spontaneous melody, riding the Caribbean rhythms as though he'd been born to them. Bansun was one of the treasures of the evening, equally at home on traditional Bengali folk material or soca or Abdullah Ibrahim's "African Market Place."

"African Market Place" also featured an astonishing, out-of-the-box, cultural mutation in front of your eyes, sarod solo from Shahadat Hossein Khan. Singers Lucy Rahman and Akash Sultan were as ever transcendentally beautiful. They could have been reciting shopping lists for all that most people in the audience would have known - but it didn't matter, for the poetry tonight was in the sound, not the dictionary.

A stand-out instrumental tune was the north Indian classical raga "Raj Jhijhit", given an urgent, strings and percussion only, jazz-raga mutation - hard driving sarod, sitar, tamboura and electric bass in close counterpoint over tough tabla and kit drums beats, coincidentally and pleasingly reminiscent of US drummer Scott Amendola's recent album Believe. Louise Elliott's blues drenched tenor solo bridging "Churir Tale" and "Ektaratir" also sticks vividly in the mind, as do Claude Deppa's flugelhorn on "Ol' Lady Walk A Mile And A Half" and congas on "African Market Place."

The next big Grand Union project is titled 'On Liberation Street' and premieres in the UK in November. Meanwhile it was a treat, on this night of all nights, to revisit the source of Haynes' genius mutant 'Bhangra, Babylon & The Blues' suite. A special gig on many levels.

Visit Grand Union on the web.

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