The history of the Grand Union spans twenty-five years:
- Early days
- The Grand Union Orchestra
- The Grand Union Band
- Large-scale shows
- Music education
- Grand Union abroad
Grand Union was founded in March 1982 to tour theatrical work with music at its core. Our first shows were Jelly Roll Soul and The Lost Chord. Strange Migration followed and was crucial in shaping all our subsequent work - the way it embraces less familiar musical cultures, and is based around the experiences of the performers themselves, many of them migrants or refugees. Soon, we had musicians from virtually every part of the world working together to create and perform new work drawing on their own varied cultural and musical backgrounds.
The Grand Union Orchestra was born in response to a commission from the GLC to celebrate its Year against Racism in 1984. The resulting show, The Song of Many Tongues (1984), was composed by Tony Haynes (like all subsequent work) with lyrics contributed by writers in many different languages. It toured England for two years and was followed by:
- The Lightning and the Rainbow (1986)
- A Book of Numbers (1987)
- Freedom Calls (1988)
- Songlines (1992)
- The Rhythm of Tides/Por Mares do Imaginário (1996)
- Now Comes The Dragon's Hour (1998)
- If Paradise… (2002)
- Can’t Chain Up Me Mind (2007)
Most of these shows have been recorded and broadcast in full on BBC Radio 3, and subsequently released on CD.
The Grand Union Orchestra consists typically of between 15 and 20 musicians and naturally smaller, more flexible combinations of the musicians emerged. These became known as the Grand Union Band and featured between seven and ten musicians in each guise.
Originating as a popular street band, The Grand Union Band repertoire is based on traditional music from the musicians' own countries of origin and some of their original compositions. These have taken many different forms:
- Prastutikaran (1994) explored Indian classical, film and folk music after originating as a popular street band.
- Marabenta (1995) featured musicians from Portuguese-speaking Africa.
- Babylon To The Jade Gate (1997) involved four Chinese musicians.
- Echoes from Anatolia (1998) showcased two musicians from Turkey
- The Bangla Band has become a very successful ongoing project featuring South Asian musicians, especially sarod virtuoso Shahadat Hossein Khan (Bangladesh).
- Masa Jokima is a collaboration with Scottish musicians.
- Spirit of Carnival is built around our leading Latin-American, African and Caribbean musicians.
- Bengal Tiger, Shanghai Dragon brings together our South Asian and Chinese musicians.
Recordings of music drawn from these various projects are also available; Echoes from Anatolia has become a best-selling CD in Turkey!
The Grand Union Orchestra has always produced large-scale shows, often specific to a particular city or community. These shows are developed by a core group of our musicians in conjunction with young musicians, amateur performers and local cultural groups and include:
- Threads (Manchester 1986)
- If Music Could… (Warwick 1990, London 1992, Slough 1997)
- Shadows of the Sun (Clerkenwell 1992)
- Nau Charia De (Spitalfields 1994)
- Dancing in the Flames (London 1995, Melbourne 2005)
- Where The Rivers Meet (Sadler’s Wells 2000).
Three of these shows have toured England with local participation changing in each locality visited:
- Beyond the Silk Road played in five venues in England (1999)
- Doctor Carnival played in 12 large venues from London through Leicester's De Montfort Hall, Symphony Hall Birmingham and Leeds Town Hall to the St Magnus Festival in Orkney (2001-2005)
- On Liberation Street featured as a Guardian Cultural Highlight of 2005 at its premiere at the West Yorkshire Playhouse Leeds, and was performed subequently in Wavendon, Gateshead and London's Hackeny Empire (2005-2009).
Although live performance of original music is its priority, Grand Union has also always operated an extensive outreach programme. We average nearly 200 workshops a year in education settings which are all in some way cross-cultural. Perhaps more significantly - given the lack of provision elsewhere - we run training and professional development programmes. These allow students and adult musicians to learn at first hand our technique and practice of composition and performance through devising and producing original shows and running workshops.
Many of Grand Union's activities have been transferred abroad. The Rhythm of Cities (1999) was funded by the EU Kaleidoscope programme and involved local young people living on the disadvantaged fringes of London, Paris and Lisbon. It naturally featured professional musicians from France, Portugal and the UK.
The Grand Union ethos and way of working are much admired all over the world:
Over the last six years, Grand Union has built up a strong and enthusiastic following in Melbourne with local versions of the 10-piece Band and the full 18-strong Grand Union Orchestra, and a large-scale participatory show Dancing the in the Flames (May 2005).
Daily broadsheet The Age described the Orchestra as ‘one of the most alluring ensembles appearing in the Commonwealth Games Cultural Festival’ in Melbourne and Bendigo (March 2006); high-profile performances by the Band include the Eureka 150 Festival in Ballarat (December 2004) and Shepparton Harmony Festival (March 2006).
In March 2007, Tony Haynes reassembled the Orchestra and the Band for performances as part of the Stonnington Jazz Festival (Malvern Town Hall) – also reviewed enthusiastically in The Age – and the Melbourne Food and Wine Festival (Federation Square), complemented by seminars and master-classes at the VCA and NMIT.
In January 2005, Grand Union musicians Yousuf Ali Khan, Tony Haynes, Gerry Hunt and Louise Elliott travelled to Dhaka to reunite with sarod virtuoso Shahadat Hossein Khan, who toured the UK with Grand Union in 2004. They joined eight other local Bangladeshi musicians and singers to produce an East Meet West Fusion Concert at the Shilpakala Academy.
The Minister for Foreign Affairs was among the local dignitaries hugely impressed with the event, which attracted over 700 local people of diverse ages, and some very flattering reviews. The audience was enthralled by the mix of musical styles - the jazz, African, Latin and Caribbean elements brought by the Grand Union musicians, combined with classical music, the songs of Tagore and Nasrul and popular and folk songs of Bangladesh.
The warm relationships established with Portuguese musicians and promoters during The Rhythm of Tides project continue to bear fruit. Rui Junior of Tocá Rufar made his own unique contribution to the massed percussion element of Doctor Carnival, while guitarist/singer Mingo Rangel has become a more or less regular member of the Spirit of Carnival band, touring Scotland with us on several occasions. A bigger band - with the addition of Fernando Molina on Portuguese percussion and Sadjo Djolo on kora - played three dates at the Gulbenkian Amphitheatre in Lisbon in 1996 and toured the Alentejo region in 2003.
Echoes from Anatolia was originally commissioned for the London Jazz Festival of 1999, a collaboration with well-known Alevi singer Sabahat Akkiraz and her London-based saz-playing brother Cemal. A studio recorded CD made following the London performances has gone on to sell over half a million copies in Turkey, Germany and Holland; and a tour of Turkey with Sabahat and the Grand Union Band is planned in the near future.
In December 2003, Tony Haynes and Li Yan (writer of Grand Union's Chinese lyrics) spent a week in Shanghai and Hang Zhou. Among other adventures, they gave presentations and ran workshops at the Academy of Theatre in Shanghai and the Academy of Performing Arts in Hang Zhou, meeting and working with a variety of Chinese writers, directors and performers. These were immensely successful - and eye-opening for all parties! - and with the support of the British Council, Tony and Li Yan returned to China in June 2009 to further the collaboration of Grand Union with local musicians and build partnerships with theatres, ensembles and cultural organisations. More news of this project will follow soon.