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Review: Grand Union Orchestra celebrates 40 years of community service in London’s East End

30 members of the Grand Union Orchestra lifted the spirits of the Hackney Empire audience in mid-May to celebrate 40 years of entertaining, educating and life-enhancing

Directed as ever by Tony Haynes, the Grand Union Orchestra‘s two performances included Chinese, South African, Ghanaian, Indian, Bengali, Cuban and other influences to his dramatic and jazz-filled compositions.

These concerts in GUO’s spiritual home of the Hackney Empire Theatre were just part of a month of diverse celebrations reflecting the incredible breadth of the GUO’s activities in East London and the multi-cultural community there.

The Grand Union orchestra began as a project to tour Tony Haynes’ theatrical music, reflecting his passion for telling the stories behind the diverse people of East London. But it was always a much bigger project, devoted to introducing these influences to young people and involving them in it.

So, the band’s activities expanded into creative workshops for young musicians of any backgrounds, mixed performances of professionals and students, street bands and schools events.

With funding from Arts Council England, Youth Music, Foundation for Future London, local councils and many others, GUO has inspired hundreds of young people to learn and explore their musicality. Past alumni have included Gail Ann Dorsey, Courtney Pine and Alison Limerick and the current stable of over 50 musicians and singers includes many who have stayed with the orchestra for all 40 years. 

A a pianist and trombonist, but most importantly a mentor, Tony Haynes said, ‘Since it began in 1982, Grand Union Orchestra has been making music that reflects and absorbs diversity. It has been my honour to compose nearly 40 major shows across four decades for the company, working with some of the UK’s leading migrant musicians of each generation, whose talents and cultural generosity have been my source of constant inspiration.

‘Young people and their blossoming musical talents and professional ambitions are an integral part of our work. Supporting them through mentoring, performance opportunities and building skills alongside our core musicians has been at the heart of Grand Union Orchestra and we are proud to have been the springboard for many generations of the UK’s leading musical talents.’

And so, the month of 40th Anniversary events include performances by GUO’s spin-offs, the Grand Union Youth Orchestra, the aspiring young professionals of the Re:Generation Band, a special edition of the Bengal to Bethnal Green series of concerts and the latest project, the Shoreditch and Hoxton Community Orchestra.

A greatest hits album, Made By Human Hands, is also being released, showcasing the orchestra’s big band sound, replete with joyful brass riffs, close harmony and solo voices and the signature rhythm section of the GUO.

Tony Haynes said, ‘Our mission has been to represent the ever-changing demographic and cultural musical influences that thrive in Britain today, addressing the myriad social and political issues associated with cultural diversity and integration.

‘Grand Union’s inspiration has always been the authentic migratory stories of our extraordinary musicians from across the globe.’