Grand Union Orchestra – nurturing the Second Generation

Grand Union Orchestra at Fairfield Halls, Croydon
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Co-founder and Director of the Grand Union Orchestra, Tony Haynes, argues that – in the fast-changing demographic of Britain today – migrant and migrant-descended musicians can and should have a profound artistic and educational influence on our culture.


In 1984, the recently formed Grand Union was touring a music theatre piece called Strange Migration (which featured a Chilean political exile, a Ghanaian woman drummer and an African-American singer) when we received a commission from the Greater London Council (GLC) to celebrate their Year Against Racism. I wrote The Song of Many Tongues, we doubled the size of the group to 16, forming the Grand Union Orchestra (GUO), and performed it on a glorious early September Sunday afternoon in front of the portico of St Paul’s Church in Covent Garden Market.

At that time, ‘multicultarism’ was all the rage so, before long, we were asked do workshops (run by a team of three musicians from different backgrounds) in job centres, youth clubs and schools. I continued to write new touring shows, GUO flourished – the young Courtney Pine, David Bowie’s bass player, Gail-Anne Dorsey, and many other up-and-coming musicians passed through its ranks – and the workshops developed to the point where we were combining both strands, creating large-scale intergenerational cross-cultural shows. (How dry and pompous that sounds! But how magic the reality as you will see later…)

Now fast-forward a generation to 30 years on:

It’s a brief snapshot of the culmination of Music Untamed, which GUO produced with Croydon Music and Arts in 2016. The first thing to note is that of the eight GUO musicians leading the project, I am the only one actually born in the UK. Why is this significant?

To begin with, let’s take a closer look at that concert at the Fairfield Halls:

The programme consisted of a series of pieces, illustrated in these short excerpts, loosely based on:

  • a traditional song from Ghana
  • South African township music
  • a Chinese folk song
  • West African drumming and chant
  • a baul song from Bangladesh
  • a classical North Indian raga
  • Latin American salsa

This music was all provided by, and directed by, British professional musicians born and bred into the traditions this music comes from. All seven, in other words, are first generation migrants; and they have very specific and valuable skills, techniques and approaches to music-making without which this project could not have been done. First generation migrant musicians can and should have a profound artistic and educational influence on our society today; and unless their skills are respected and passed on, they will be lost to future generations.


First generation migrant musician, Claude Deppa

Claude Deppa, who led this project, emigrated to London with his family from South Africa when he was 12.

One of the original members of the Grand Union Orchestra – he made his début at that concert in Covent Garden in 1984! – he is an internationally known jazz musician and bandleader in his own right.

The other musicians, equally distinguished performers, have all been members of the Grand Union core team for many years:

  • Ruijun Hu (China) – dizi, xiao (bamboo flutes)
  • Louise Elliott (Australia) – tenor saxophone, flute
  • Yousuf Ali Khan (Bangladesh) – tabla, voice
  • Jonathan André (Ghana/St Lucia) – voice, African drums
  • Andres Lafone (Uruguay) – bass guitar
  • Carlos Fuentes (Chile) – drums, Latin percussion

It’s self-evident that the 300 or so young people you can see performing come from an equally wide range of cultural backgrounds.  This is not surprising, given the rapidly changing demographic of this country, where it’s estimated that one in two children in London is born into an immigrant or immigrant-descended family. All too often in the news for civic disturbances, Croydon outstrips that figure with an unusually large proportion of refugees and asylum-seekers living in the borough. To cater for the needs of their children was one reason why Croydon Music and Arts commissioned GUO to produce this project.

It’s also evident that these young musicians are responding with great enthusiasm to the GUO leaders. Meeting and working with older musicians whose language, religion and customs they or their families share is clearly also inspiring for these children. It gives them confidence, can boost their self-esteem among their peers from other backgrounds and gives them an insight into the culture of their parents and grandparents; it even provides them with possible role models.

Although there are strong moral and social reasons to address this inequality in provision, however, what really matters in the end are the exceptional musical results. To begin with, there is the innate, authentic musical character of the original songs, melodies or rhythms – sometimes very simple; but what gives these performances their verve and immediacy is the creative contribution of the participants themselves:

  • all the music involves improvisation (though not necessarily very sophisticated);
  • much of it is learned or created by ear or from simple sheets of notation – a kind of crib or ‘head’ – sketching the melody and (where relevant) the chords;
  • harmony, riffs and accompaniments are improvised from these;
  • the arrangement or structure relies on visual cueing and the alertness and imagination of every musician involved

Here is an example of one of the ‘crib sheets’ they were working from:

‘Jemanja’ melody in transpositions © Tony Haynes/Redgold Music
‘Jemanja’ riffs in transpositions © Tony Haynes/Redgold Music

The value of improvisation

Don’t underestimate the value of improvisation, an important skill seriously neglected in music education! It need not be intimidating and, moreover, can be harnessed to the practical exploration of non-European musics.

For example:

  • Melodic improvisation can be developed very effectively through Indian music. Harmony is not a consideration and the rhythmic pulse can be simple (or indeed not present at all) so it’s possible to concentrate solely on the notes. A major scale with a flattened 2nd and/or an augmented 4th gives plenty of variation but ensures melodic freshness; for a more advanced challenge, students can move on to one of the more complex ragas. (There is also a wealth of Chinese pentatonic and hexatonic melodies which make an equally good starting point.)
  • Similarly, West African drumming provides a stimulating basis for rhythmic improvisation, inventing cross-rhythms, call and response exchanges, stops, cues and signals to structure the music. Students can then try adapting rhythmic figures in familiar 12/8 or 4/4 into the 7/8, 9/8 or 11/8 characteristic of Balkan or Turkish music. (Latin-American rhythms offer yet another rhythmic perspective.)
  • To become proficient in harmony, they can begin with the diatonic I-IV-V chord sequences of South African township music, salsa or Caribbean reggae and ska (often just two chords, I-ii), which all have simple melodies and irresistible dance rhythms, so enjoyable to solo over or invent backing riffs, before moving on to the more chromatic harmony and modulations of Broadway songs and jazz standards.

The other three essential elements of music – expression (dynamics, inflection), form and structure (the shape of pieces) and texture (deploying often less familiar instruments) – can be explored in a similar manner. Then everything can be combined: raga-based melodies acquire harmony, a reggae bass-line and ‘Latin tinge’ rhythmic feel… Even in those short Croydon clips, you can see and hear all this in action!


It’s important that authentic exponents – South Asian, Chinese, East European, African, Latin American, Caribbean musicians and so on – are involved, to inspire and give expert advice; indeed, it would not be possible to work effectively like this without them. Grand Union is fortunate in having a large core of such artists, often internationally acclaimed in their own right and charismatic workshop leaders, whose expertise is essential to all our work with young musicians. This includes:

  • the Grand Union Youth Orchestra, now over ten years old
  • an annual residential Summer School
  • projects with Centres for Advanced Training (CATs) and music hubs across the UK
  • workshops with county/borough ensembles
  • a variety of one-off workshops or short residencies

What our experience proves, time and again, is the value of ‘non-genre-specific’ mixed ensembles – catering in principle for players of any instrument (especially non-Western), cultural background, level of skill and ability, some able to read music, others having a good ear, some with a gift for composition, others confident improvisers… Above all, the ensemble must be shaped creatively by its members and belong to them.

Such ensembles require leadership, however. There is no formal provision in, for example, conservatoires or music colleges to acquire the skills manifested by, say, the GUO core musicians; but in any case, such skills are best learned and honed in practical circumstances – at first hand, ‘from the horse’s mouth’, ‘on the job’.

Grand Union’s informal apprenticeship scheme, The Second Generation, aims to do just this, helping emerging professionals acquire the portfolio of skills necessary to become future mixed ensemble leaders. They are ‘second generation’ in the sense that they are born into migrant families and/or form the next cohort of GUO core members. Coming from varied backgrounds, through working alongside Grand Union’s veteran musicians in workshops and performances, they gain greater knowledge of the musical traditions and techniques I’ve described and how to put them into practice creatively. They also develop their own distinctive artistic identity.

The Grand Union Youth Orchestra © Andrew Smith
The Grand Union Youth Orchestra © Andrew Smith

Furthermore, they help develop suitable repertoire – adaptable for mixed ensembles with different age groups and levels of skill and experience. Again, no such material is available ‘off the shelf’ – it has to be specially created. Over the years, Grand Union has compiled a vast body of such material, which we use in a variety of workshop or performance circumstances. But this material can’t just be notated, read and then reproduced with any accuracy or spirit – it has to be interpreted and its subtleties of inflection, rhythm and phrasing appreciated by ear. However, if authentic performers are not available, basic notated sheets (like that illustrated above) and appropriate practice can at least be illustrated with recordings.

This is a process we are presently developing in partnership with Cambridgeshire Music, a progressive music hub we’ve worked with for many years to address these issues and put them into practice to broaden the horizons of young musicians. Under the direction of the GUO specialist world musicians, the Second Generation musicians will gather together material, notate and print it and make video recordings of it as a general resource – comprising representative pieces from a variety of musical traditions or styles – like those in the Croydon concerts. We are currently seeking funding to publish and disseminate this material.

This, of course, is exactly the repertoire needed by and useful to the mixed ensembles advocated above – ensembles which allow for any mixture of instruments, musicians of different accomplishments and aspirations and which are also ‘owned’ and shaped by their members. Moreover, the musical challenges posed, and the satisfaction gained in rising to them, is one sure way of keeping young people involved in music-making and halting what is acknowledged to be an alarming drop-out rate among teenage musicians.

More of these young musicians would no doubt persist if they had the opportunity to take part in joyous and exhilarating performances. Imagine the mixed ensemble with one or two players of each instrument expanded to half a dozen or more and you would get something like this – including junior brass band, Indian ensemble, African drummers, steel pan band, youth jazz orchestra and a choir:


The Second Generation Orchestra

Grand Union’s Second Generation Orchestra is the company’s latest venture, spanning three generations of musicians (and perhaps unveiling the next Courtney Pine or Gail-Anne Dorsey!).

It made its début at the Musicians’ Union Delegate Conference in July 2017, enthusiastically reported in the MU’s journal, The Musician, here. It is available for performances in its own right or as the core of workshop and collaborative projects.


But musicians from other musical traditions have so much more to offer than just musical techniques, insights and inspiration. They are a link to other cultures and other times, which we can see through their eyes and hear through their music; they bring them alive. In other words, it’s not just the music that is important, it’s also the provenance of the music – where does it come from, why is it here, how did it get here, what lies behind it? This in turn opens up yet another world of discovery – the ancient Silk Road, European global maritime adventure, the transatlantic slave trade that took the music of West Africa (and its religion and culture) to Brazil, Cuba and the Southern USA to survive and eventually be reborn in the New World…

But this is not just dusty history: through its lens, we can take a hard look at our world today and find new ways of expressing it in a way that speaks to everyone. In our society, riven at the moment by racial and religious intolerance, the historic Silk Road, European colonisation and the slave trade speak with a contemporary resonance; and one of the strongest echoes is migration.

In 2014, I wanted to return to the theme of migration and composed Undream’d Shores, performed at the Hackney Empire in London by the full GUO professional musicians and singers, the Grand Union Youth Orchestra (GUYO) and a newly established World Choir (now an ongoing GUO project). Here in another video nutshell is how that show was able to celebrate and take advantage of the creative benefits of the wide range of music and musicians that flourish on our doorstep – another large-scale Grand Union performance in which young musicians play a major role but this time also with adult community performers:

Even condensed like this, this snapshot grabs you because the performers themselves represent – indeed, come from – such a range of migrant cultures. This has always been at the centre of my own work as a composer; that work has shaped Grand Union’s artistic practice; and that artistic practice is directly replicated in the company’s music education work. We set great store by intergenerational projects so the inclusion of the GUYO and Second Generation musicians in this show is also crucial. Across the generations, the performers have the authority to speak for the experiences – some tragic, some joyous – they portray in the show as you can see in this longer (20-minute) selection of highlights:

What this demonstrates above all is the artistic value of authenticity, where the performers themselves embody the ‘message’ or content of the material and elicit a response from the audience which is both visceral and heartfelt. Young musicians can also do this when given the tools to achieve it. The audience response to Music Untamed in Croydon bore testimony to this and it’s an experience the young performers will never forget.

So, in a sense, we have now come full circle in this article. It’s disappointing then that 30 years on – a generation later – not much has changed. We’ve had two reassertions of the need for cultural diversity from Arts Council England, the Music Manifesto and a general shake-up of music education but anything beyond the mainstream or cultural orthodoxy remains woefully underfunded and under-celebrated. Small independent artist-led companies like Grand Union lack the resources to enhance the impact of their work and spread their influence; but it’s from them that creative innovation, radical ideas and progressive projects are most likely to come.

So how can this change? I believe that correcting the balance of funding is essential, to reflect and respond to the whole of the UK’s culturally rich and fast-changing demographic. Meanwhile, given that the European classical tradition still receives the lion’s share of music funding (whether public or private), the organisations which benefit could surely be more adventurous in forging partnerships to address this inequality themselves.

The Grand Union Youth Orchestra & Strings
The Grand Union Youth Orchestra & Strings

Grand Union, for example, has worked successfully with amateur, student and professional classical orchestras including the BBC Concert Orchestra. We would welcome further collaborations of this kind – and with national music institutions: our decades of experience and the particular expertise of our musicians could broaden and enhance enormously their participation and education programmes. And how about setting up a touring workshop roadshow which – led by a range of world musicians – demonstrates in practice the value and appeal of this approach to creative music-making? Or, tutored by the same musicians, a national youth orchestra that is not genre-specific but brings together the most promising and accomplished young musicians in any style including, indeed, from existing National Youth Music Orchestras?

Better, wider and more imaginative media coverage would also help. Music that is new but doesn’t fit the standard ‘classical’ or ‘jazz/pop/rock’ categories is easily marginalised; it therefore also needs more journalists bold and pushy enough to champion it. The BBC could be more adventurous in the content of its programmes on Radio 3 and 4 and there is a serious dearth of good contemporary music programmes on television. The issues I’ve been raising here could generate a lively debate on radio and the projects I’ve described and illustrated would make absorbing and colourful TV documentaries.

It’s clear that migrant and migrant-descended musicians can and should have a profound artistic and educational influence on our culture. I believe they hold a key to our musical future; over the next 30 years, their contribution will prove increasingly vital in shaping the society in which future generations will grow up.


Header photo: Music Untamed, which the Grand Union Orchestra produced with Croydon Music and Arts in 2016


For a general overview of Grand Union’s work and its activities with young musicians, go to www.grandunion.org.uk.

A DVD of Tony Haynes’ latest show for the Grand Union Orchestra, Song of Contagion, performed at Wilton’s Music Hall, London, in June 2017, can be seen here in five sections. Read Music Education UK’s review here.

For general enquiries, email mail@grandunion.org.uk or call +44 (0)20 8981 1551.


About the author

Tony Haynes was one of four co-founders of the Grand Union Orchestra (GUO) in 1982 and has remained its composer/director ever since. The acknowledged pioneer of cross-cultural music-making, Grand Union has expanded gradually from a music-theatre company touring the UK to a large-scale ensemble producing projects in Europe and across the world.

Tony was originally self-taught but went on to take music degrees at Oxford and Nottingham Universities. He began his musical career as a travelling jazz musician; after stints as Musical Director of Nottingham Playhouse and the Liverpool Everyman Theatre, he wrote music for all the UK’s major regional repertory theatres and touring companies, including the RSC, and toured with his own band, RedBrass. He also taught degree students at Trinity College of Music, wrote a report, Music in Between, for the Gulbenkian Foundation and made several programmes on jazz for the BBC.

Through his work with GUO and its musicians, he has acquired a useful working knowledge of most of the world’s major musical cultures. This experience infuses his creative work: he writes and/or arranges most of the music for Grand Union projects, which have also been extensively recorded and broadcast; and, like all GUO musicians, he is involved in education workshops.

To pass on this knowledge and experience to a younger generation, he writes a regular blog, describing his approach to music-making and analysing his compositional techniques. He still loves travelling and has headed up projects in places as diverse as Paris, Lisbon, Bangladesh, Singapore, Shanghai and Melbourne.

Tony Haynes’ blog: www.tonyhaynesmusic.wordpress.com


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