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‘Disproving Kipling’ – Grand Union Orchestra 40th Anniversary Concert (Hackney Empire, 15th May 2022)

For forty years, the Grand Union Orchestra has been telling stories of migration, of war, of change and hope. For each one of those years, GUO has been building its own audience and constituency across the UK. Its music and vision is given voice by the mind and hand of composer/director Tony Haynes with the support, commitment and skills of some of the country’s finest musicians, who find their way to GUO from all five continents. Review by Duncan Heining:

Front Row L-R: Byron Wallen, Kevin Robinson, Shanti Jayasinha, Claude Deppa. Photo credit: Daniel Oluwasayo Olabode

In the sixties and earlier, jazz musicians such as John and Alice Coltrane, Pharoah Sanders, the Art Ensemble of Chicago, Randy Weston and Charlie Haden embraced the indigenous musics of the Indian sub-continent, of Africa and Latin America. Grand Union’s music is in that rich tradition but goes even deeper. Perhaps “Country & Eastern” might be a good descriptor.

On this wet Sunday afternoon, the melody and words of “If Music Could” hang suspended, a reminder of wars raging in Ukraine and Yemen. But this is no sugar-coated Lennon-esque fantasy. It’s a point certainly not lost on GUO’s enthusiastic audience. Grand Union’s encore – “Raise the Banner” – makes clear that only struggle can “down-strike the torturer’s arm” or “bring justice to the oppressed”. Music can’t, but it – and jazz – can and must be part of that struggle.

GUO’s journey takes in Santería chants, West African and Caribbean rhythms and even an Old Testament Psalm – “The Waters of Babylon”. So, the notes and rhythms of “Rag Mishra Kafi” played by violinist Jyotsna Srikanth and Yousuf Ali Khan on tabla lead seamlessly to three Chinese folk songs with Chinese harp (Zhu Xiao Meng) and flutes (Ruijun Hu) and an unexpected and free solo from Jason Yarde on soprano before a duet between Louise Elliott on concert flute and Hu. 

The two longest sections in this retrospective came from the 2009 touring show, On Liberation Street, and songs taken from The Rhythm of Tides (1997) and If Paradise (2011). The first set saw “The Mother, The River”, sung by wonderful Bengali singer Lucy Rahman. One of the orchestra’s most poignant works, it tells of the struggle for independence of Bangladesh through a bereaved mother’s eyes but set to music by turns expressive of mourning and, through bhangra, angry and determined. The second section links Portugal’s imperialist wars and the West’s disastrous interference in the Middle East. It also provided one of the show’s two highlights in “Collateral Damage” with its sax and trumpet duel between trumpeters Claude Deppa and Byron Wallen and saxophonists Jason Yarde and Tony Kofi on altos. The other showstopper was newcomer Joshua Brandler’s performance of “Can’t Chain Up Me Mind”, its defiant lyrics underpinned by irresistible Caribbean dance rhythms.

Throughout the two-hour show GUO’s audience follow each step with enthusiasm and rapt attention. A Grand Union Orchestra audience is untypical of those habitués of the West End one finds on the South Bank or at the Barbican. Mixed by race, colour, class and age, this audience speaks to GUO’s greatest success – creating music that draws upon and reflects the lives and communities of those who live in London today. “If Music Could…” It can’t but Grand Union’s message is – we could!

Tony Haynes. Photo credit: Daniel Oluwasayo Olabode

“Can’t Chain Up Me Mind” is released as a single and taster of the forthcoming album of GUO ‘greatest hits’, Made By Human Hands. [listen]

Watch “The Mother/The River”

Listen to “Collateral Damage”

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