The closing event of the Grand Union Orchestra’s week-long series of Windrush 75 events is the premiere of “Unforgotten Voyages” on Sunday 25 June at Hackney Empire. Interview with Grand Union Orchestra’s Tony Haynes by Dr Duncan Heining:
Duncan Heining writes: How do you tell the story of a truly momentous but misunderstood and misrepresented historical event? Seventy-five years ago this June, the HMT Empire Windrush docked at Tilbury with some five hundred Caribbean migrants, many of them WWII veterans. They, those that followed and those who came from the Indian subcontinent changed Britain and its culture in so many ways. Sometimes resented and even despised, often patronised but rarely celebrated, they persisted in the face of such trials, just as their forebears from West Africa survived the brutalities and indignities of slavery.
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For forty-one years, from their base in London’s East End, Tony Haynes and the Grand Union Orchestra have celebrated the cultural contribution of those first migrants and their heirs in shows that are as visually kaleidoscopic as they are musical. This June, the orchestra celebrates the Windrush anniversary with a series of events culminating in a newly-devised show, Unforgotten Voyages, at the Hackney Empire on Sunday 25 June.
“It is a week-long festival featuring different aspects of Grand Union’s work,” Haynes explains, “including social and community events with our Youth Orchestra and Re:Generation Band all with the commemoration of the arrival of the Windrush as its lynchpin. For me, the main thing is to use the Windrush to celebrate that event in 1948 but also to show how that is part of a long history that includes the slave trade that took African people to the Caribbean 500 years ago. The show puts the Windrush in the context of the history of the African diaspora.”
As with all their shows, Unforgotten Voyages will draw on the musics of the Caribbean brought to these shores in 1948 and all the other musics that collide together in the East End and brought together in a Grand Union performance.
“It starts off with its feet in the Caribbean,” Haynes says, “but then broadens out with a new song called “Mr. Never-Smile” – he is the border guard, reminding us that not all were as fortunate as the Windrush in getting even a grudging welcome. Then there are songs of defiance and at the music’s heart is a five-strong drum ensemble of quite different traditions from Ghana, Nigeria, Burkina Faso, Angola and Zimbabwe.”
Authenticity and attention to detail are the keys to how Haynes and his musicians approach the creation of shows like Unforgotten Voyages. These are musical and historical journeys that do not just tell these stories from a white, even liberal or leftist perspective. They talk with the voices of other cultures, here notably through the West African Yoruba religion that emerged as Santería in Cuba, Candomblé in Brazil and Shango in Trinidad and Tobago. As Haynes notes, “It’s about paying tribute to the indomitable spirit that somehow kept their traditions alive through years of enslavement in the Americas.” And at the centre of those religions and of the massed instruments and voices of the Grand Union Orchestra is rhythm. Few ensembles in jazz can dance like Grand Union.
Does Haynes feel that the UKs jazz establishment has ignored Grand Union’s contribution to jazz in the past? Has the orchestra been too eclectic for its own good?
“Jazz is an attitude rather than a genre, in my view” Haynes replies. “It’s an approach to music-making that can be replicated in lots of different forms and circumstances I feel we follow directly in the footsteps of say Jelly Roll Morton, which is how I discovered and fell in love with jazz as a teenager. But it also tells dramatic stories, related to the world today, or reflecting on historical or political issues; hence this Windrush project! Grand Union doesn’t pretend to be in the mainstream of the jazz tradition. It uses the techniques of jazz but also draws from other musical traditions and from other performance disciplines like theatre.”
In a sense Grand Union is very much in the jazz tradition. Think about the things it has in common with the music created by Morton, Ellington and Mingus. Morton conjured up quaint vignettes of New Orleans life, Ellington was adept at combining the popular songs he wrote with suites like Black, Brown and Beige and a Mingus performance was a thing of high drama. Miles Davis was the most theatrical of performers and anyone who has seen the Art Ensemble will know exactly what I mean. Haynes and his orchestra restore, revive and extend the jazz tradition.
After all, as Duke Ellington once said, “There’s simply two kinds of music – good music and the other kind!”
LIST OF OTHER EVENTS
Grand Union Youth Orchestra, Caribbean Music Masterclass Workshop FREE – Rich Mix, Shoreditch: Sunday 18 June – 10am-1.30pm
Grand Union ReGeneration Band, Voyages in Music: The Caribbean Connection – Hoxton Hall: Sunday 18 June – 7.30-10pm
Shoreditch and Hoxton Community Orchestra, Open Workshop in Caribbean Repertoire – FREE Shoreditch Town Hall: Monday 19 June – 6.30-8.30pm
Grand Union Orchestra AllStars with the Shoreditch and Hoxton Community Orchestra, FREE – National Windrush Day Celebration dance and BBQ – Hoxton Gardens: Thursday 22 June – 5:00-8:00pm