Grand Union Orchestra: Music and Movement

Duncan Heining By

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In March, 2012, The Grand Union Orchestra, one of the jazz world's finest and most ambitious ensembles, celebrates its thirtieth anniversary. Maybe you haven't heard of the band yet but if you have the chances are you'll revel in its kaleidoscopic blending of jazz and music from across the planet. Though based in the East End of London, it would be an outrageous misnomer to call it "Britain's Grand Union Orchestra." After all, it draws its participants from Africa, the Caribbean, South America, China and the Far East, Australia, Turkey, Italy and Britain and its music from all these places. Instead, let's call it the "pan-Global" Grand Union Orchestra because that's just what it is.

Unashamedly opposed to racism, unashamedly internationalist—Grand Union is a product of all of these peoples and their musics and, at its best, it transcends all of them. Long before the term "World Music" turned on a light in some record exec's brain, GUO Director and keyboardist Tony Haynes had seen his vision transformed into a remarkable vehicle for a fusion of forms and styles that remains quite unprecedented.

GUO's most recent CD, If Paradise (Red Gold, 2011), is arguably its finest to date and its most successful integration of content and form. Recorded in 2003, it tells a story of a young Asian couple caught up in contemporary events where imperialism and religious fundamentalism are no longer abstractions but touch all our lives for the far, far worse. In its text and its music, If Paradise does not shrink from confronting controversial issues. In fact, it questions "the moral certainties of all politicians and generals who tolerate, condone and often stir up conflict created by religious dogma and fundamentalism." Its case rests upon that potential of all human beings to transform their world, which is seen most powerfully in music and art.

If Paradise is both an amazing musical achievement, but also a very brave one.

"It doesn't seem like that to me," Haynes says. "I mean, it hasn't got a great deal of coverage. We shall probably do it again but I'm not sure when. One assumes, of course, that sadly it will remain relevant to what is happening in the world. Tell me, what is it about the recording you particularly liked?"

That is an easy one. It is one of the finest musical syntheses I've ever heard; it is coherent, consistent and that the performances are quite astonishing. More puzzled than frustrated by the absence of response elsewhere, Haynes replies, "Then how can I get it listened to in that light? Why is it that people aren't interested in covering something like this? I don't like the word 'message' because I don't think that's what we are involved in at all. We're expressing the world in which we live. I don't really understand why it doesn't seem to provoke more interest."

It sometimes seems that Grand Union's music is seen as "too jazz" for the world music audience and "too world" for the jazz audience. Is that part of the problem?

"Maybe," he answers. "And, of course, you have the lyrical content sung in several different languages, as well. Perhaps, it's hard for people to work out in what category it might belong."

One would think that diversity would be a strength. Haynes chuckles as he replies, "Exactly. But through my career, it's been a case of 'Lovely darling, but we can't sell this product because it doesn't fit anywhere.' So, when it comes to the shelves at HMV where are they going to locate it? Perhaps, if there were a category like the cleverly created 'world music' category, that wonderful catch-all category, or if there were a category called 'boundary-crossing' then people would be able to take on board what we do but there isn't [laughing]."

Yet we only have to go back to the eighties and nineties, when artists like saxophonists Courtney Pine and Andy Sheppard, and groups like The Jazz Warriors and Loose Tubes and others in Britain were being lauded by critics and fans for doing precisely that. Or think back to the sixties and how successful saxophonist Joe Harriott and composer John Mayer's Indo-Jazz fusion was. They even played rock festivals. Have we entered a period when such music is seen as too difficult—by the mainstream media at least?

"I think that's right," Haynes suggests. " Loose Tubes and the Jazz Warriors were all contemporaneous with Grand Union. They were, oddly enough, strangely monochrome in comparison—Loose Tubes, apart from the occasional conga player, were white boys and the Warriors were entirely black boys, while we were very mixed and had quite a lot of women involved as well. Perhaps that was thought to be a step too far [laughing]. I don't think any of it was conscious."

Having interviewed both pianist/hornist Django Bates and bassist Steve Berry 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.

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, 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.

"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."

For Haynes, the Second Generation Band is a further important development. "I love that idea, too, of the second generation. They have come through the youth orchestra, so they are second generation in that respect but in a lot of cases they are also second-generation Britons. I think that's an extraordinary position to be in—to be the son or the daughter of a migrant family. These younger musicians can move backwards and forwards between the culture of their grandparents and play within the language of that culture but can also function within the local culture as well and, through that, create an identity of their own in a way that I could not. My own life has been relatively comfortable, so I don't know why this fascinates me but for some reason it has all these resonances."

Günes Cerit joined the Youth Orchestra in 2006, having discovered Turkish singer Sabahat Akkiraz, who had performed with GUO. Reading about the orchestra on one of the singer's albums, she got in touch just as they were starting GUYO. In a way, she exemplifies Haynes' hopes for the venture, as her remarks confirm, "I always wanted to be involved in music and I was new in the country at that time. I'd told myself this is the opportunity to do something in music. I mostly enjoy being on the stage and now with a confidence. Which shows are my favorite? Most of the shows are my favorite but the very big show that we performed for two days in Hackney Empire in 2008, that was great. The thing with Grand Union is it's open to the world. It's open to the every culture. There's no racism. The most important thing is Grand Union respects music and passes that on to the next generations."

Her younger colleague, saxophonist Iona Kay, discovered the youth orchestra through a friend who had joined. For her, the project provides similar opportunities, as she explains, "I enjoy trying different styles of music and now I have friends here, who I enjoy playing music with. My best show was probably the one at Paradise Gardens in Victoria Park, when we played quite a big festival. I was a bit nervous while we were setting up but once we started playing it was a lot of fun. There were a lot of people in the crowd and it got bigger as we played and people were dancing. I was really relieved it had gone so well but then Claude [Deppa] was very helpful in directing us onstage and before."

If anything, this aspect of Grand Union is growing in importance and several members of the team contribute to it, most notably Claude Deppa and Louise Elliott. Deppa has been with GUO from the early days, as he explains, "I started with the orchestra in '86 at the start. My first contact with the orchestra felt very welcoming. It's a family unit musically, in the sense that we all look out for each other and not just musically. And that's also what keeps most of the original members on board. Because it is such a close knit unit the music comes through like it is a well-worked unit—like, for instance, the bands of Duke Ellington, Sun Ra and Fela Kuti, and unlike most present-day units, which rely on musicians just coming in and reading the parts and where nobody cares further than just playing their parts."

Grand Rhythm Orchestra The Rhythm of the TidesFor Deppa, an important aspect of working with the youth orchestra is to communicate those same musical and social values, "The educational work is important, as it gives us the chance to really show how best to portray what we're good at. It's showing the importance of music in education. For 20-odd years, we've been arguing to make music in education important. It does appear that some of that shouting is finally being heard as the government is now putting music at the forefront of some of the academies they're starting. If we were allowed to continue in the way we've been going without any interference from sad energies, I think we would show truly what music in education means and what world music really is all about."

The part played by Deppa and Elliott is readily acknowledged by Haynes and, as he points out, the aim with both the youth orchestra or the Second Generation is to allow them their own character not to create clones of the professional orchestra. "The Second Generation band really began with a show a couple of years ago we called 'Second Generation.' That was the first attempt at it and, in a way, it's only in the last few months that it's been developing as a separate identity. But I've noticed—and I'm impressed—that certain musicians do well under the tutelage of Louise Elliott and Claude Deppa. Eventually, it needs to have its own identity and I see signs that's beginning to happen."

So much jazz seems to look only to the past for inspiration. There's nothing wrong with that per se, of course, but there is a danger with it of turning the music into a museum exhibit. It's an issue that continually concerns Tony Haynes and his confederates. Their work describes a number of possible evolutions for the music that will allow it to remain vital and relevant. Theirs is a very different approach from that of some key figures across the Atlantic, as Haynes makes clear,

"We have Wynton Marsalis coming to the UK on a regular basis, and Wynton represents a kind of strange institutionalization of jazz. So, for example, in his hands the works of Jelly Roll Morton might be lovingly recreated and there seem to be this idea that jazz has a repertoire. I simply think that's wrong. The essential thing about jazz is that it constantly reinvents itself—it has to. It moves on. It also seems to me to take a narrow view that defines jazz as, 'This is the only jazz tradition. It was born in New Orleans.' I'm saying, 'Hang on a minute! I love all that and I respect all that but here in London things are different.' What we've done is to create something that allows that difference to be celebrated."

Jazz is, after all, a migrant itself.

Selected Discography

Grand Union Orchestra, If Paradise (Redgold, 2011)
Grand Union Orchestra, Bhangra, Babylon & The Blues (Redgold, 2005)
Grand Union Band, Around The World In 80 Minutes (Redgold, 2002)
Grand Union Orchestra, Now Comes The Dragon's Hour (Redgold, 2002)
Grand Union Orchestra, The Rhythm Of The Tides (Redgold, 1997)

Photo Credit

All Photos: Courtesy of Grand Union Orchestra

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