LocalOut & AboutWhat's on

The Grand Union Orchestra on over 25 years of East London music

The local Grand Union Orchestra, with professional musicians from all across the world, has been hiding right under our noses at St Margaret’s House. Unveiling Bethnal Green’s best kept secret, we talk to Orchestra Head Tony Haynes about The Grand Union’s current multi-cultural music event series Sounding Bethnal Green, their genre-defying, category-dodging unique musical vision and the plans for its Youth Orchestra in All Points East 2019.

Haynes has been writing music since the original group formed in 1982. After a decade writing theatre music, with the Royal Shakepeare Company and regional theatres, he formed a company where music was the central focus – not the script. Originally formed in Clerkenwell, and after dabbling in Shoreditch, The Grand Union found its current home in St. Margaret’s House, Bethnal Green five years ago.

He writes music with themes about exile, migration, the civil rights movement, the silk trade, and the slave trade. ‘A creative artist’s job is to reflect and express the society we live in,’ he says. ‘I mean obviously, your mission is to visualise a better world.’

The Grand Union vision is music that represents its demographics, music that blends different cultures in a powerful way and represents the society around it.

The history of the Grand Union

The Grand Union had their first show in 1982, called ‘ Jelly Roll Soul’ after legendary New Orleans Jazz pioneer Jelly Roll Morton. From that they moved into themes of exile and migration for their second show. Haynes describes the importance of describing that experience authentically, and how he recruited a company of eight performers, musicians, and singers, three of whom were migrants.

There was ‘Sarah Laryea, an excellent singer, conga player and percussion musician who was a kind of economic migrant. Vladimer Vega, a Chilean exile just released, who played folk instruments like the charango, panpipes and quena. He represented the political refugee. And Toni Kofi, the third migrant, was a press photographer for the civil rights movement, and also had a beautiful voice. The other musicians were white, and multi-instrumentalists.’ The show was very successful and made three tours.

Later, they grew to become 16 musicians and played a piece called ‘Song of Many Tongues’ in Covent Garden in 1986. The theme was of songs from different cultures, and included popular children’s songs sang by school children. This was the beginning of the Grand Union, how it was born.

They did several shows and tours, including Undreamed shores, Now Comes the Dragon’s Hour, If Paradise, and Freedom Calls. In these they used an eclectic mix of Chinese, Indian, and South-African music merging with western music and jazz. The outcome was an enriching sound, and they gathered fellow musicians wherever they went, forming a large band that would meet for main events, but a central core group for smaller constant sessions.

Haynes chose these themes for the Grand Union because they’re integral to our view of the world. ‘They are the broad themes of life, aren’t they? The movement of people, what affects people. They’re also dramatic. Every five years we do a big commemoration of the Battle of Cable Street in 1936, that’s a way to show it’s not just the history that matters, but it’s how it relates to today.’

The Battle of Cable Street is famous as a moment East Londoners came together in forcing back the fascist march of Oswald Mosley and the Blackshirts. The crowds famously shouted, ‘You Shall Not Pass!’ pre-J.R.R. Tolkien’s Gandalf.

Sounding Bethnal Green

Throughout February, the Grand Union Orchestra have been holding informal music events in St. John on Bethnal Green church, for people to come along and experience new music and the unique blending of sounds from different cultures. The professionally skilled house band has decided to hold these ‘pay what you can’ nights for several reasons.

Grand Union Orchestra Zhu Xiao Meng
Zhu Xiao Meng from Shanghai.

‘Everything I’ve described has been on a very large scale, but this project is about breaking it down to focus on each of those musicians individually, and devise an evening which allows them to tell their own stories’ Haynes tell us.

At the events, people are welcome to find out a bit more about the musicians and their instruments – like the gu zheng (Chinese harp) from their 15 February East/Southeast Asia music event.

They chose to do the local events and name it Sounding Bethnal Green, ‘so that people can know a little bit more about the community in which they live. We want people to be aware of all the different cultures that surround them.’ Haynes also tells us that the evenings are largely informal. ‘We have a few numbers up our sleeves each time but the rest is to see what happens.’

Sounding Bethnal Green Yousuf Ali Khan
Yousuf Ali Khan will be at St. John on Bethnal Green on 1 March

There are around ten in the central core team of Grand Union musicians, but then another dozen for larger events. For Sounding Bethnal Green there is a house band of Tony Haynes, Marcina Arnold, Josh Brandler, Claude Deppa, and Louise Elliot. These mult-instrumentalists play high-quality pieces.

Each week is themed and represents a certain culture. The next event, on the 1 March, will feature the Grand Union’s internationally-known Yousuf Ali Khan. Haynes tells how the tabla and dholak player is ‘particularly relevant, because of the numerous Bengali community. This is an opportunity to meet, and enjoy one of the most successful Bengali musicians.’

Their other Sounding Bethnal Green events focus on Somalian musicians and music from Eastern Europe.

Grand Union Youth Orchestra

The Grand Union also has a Youth Orchestra, which was set up 12 years ago. Created with the same vision as the Grand Union, it plays music from different cultures. As it’s a performance based group, the Youth Orchestra is often at Rich Mix, and will be at the All Points East Festival 2019 as part of the mid-week community project.

‘We have a few natural musicians,’ Haynes says, ‘who just sort of take to it, and understand it all. You just absorb everything as a young performer, it becomes a complete fascination.’ They are planning a summer school for the Youth Orchestra in the Summer.

The Youth Orchestra accepts musicians from the ages 12-26, and is continuously growing. Many gain the musical technique and skill to go on professionally, with some even going on to join the Grand Union group.

Grand Union Orchestra Sounding Bethnal Green Tony Haynes
Composer of Grand Union, Tony Haynes plays the trombone and piano.
Grand Union Orchestra at St John on Bethnal Green church
Sounding Bethnal Green event poster

Visit the Grand Union Orchestra website at grandunion.org.uk for more information about their events. If you liked this article, you might like to read our feature about historian Carolyn Clark or Naz Islam’s Sweet Treats.

Your local news is at risk

Natasha Forrest

Natasha is a QMUL English graduate who lives on Brick Lane with a passion for reading and tea.

One thought on “The Grand Union Orchestra on over 25 years of East London music

  • Think I have photos of the group in the 1980s taken at what is now Bethnal Green’s Curious School of Puppetry and recognise a couple of faces still in the group~!


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.