Interview: Tony Haynes, Grand Union Orchestra – Storytelling Through Authenticity (July 2019)

Tony Haynes is co-founder and composer for Grand Union Orchestra (GUO), a group of exceptional artists in London making original cross-cultural music. They are a band that celebrate diversity as an emphatic theatrical art form and use music to join prejudicial gaps.

After watching an incredibly moving live show from the orchestra, we sat down with Tony to chat about his creation and enjoyed his natural enthusiasm for storytelling. He makes it clear that the term ‘authentic’ forms the backbone to the ethics of the orchestra. With the intention to explore the traditions of world music, the band plays a style closest to jazz, as the performers have freedom to improvise around the structure. However, they draw heavily from influences across the globe, including Chinese, African, Indian, Bengali and Latin American songs in line with the cultural heritage of their performers.

The most spell-binding part of the experience is just how emotively conveyed difficult topics are. They investigate subjects of conflict, persecution, migration and exile, which arise naturally as Tony writes about social and political issues associated with cultural diversity and integration.

The orchestra started in 1984, and since this time, they have run cultural workshops in schools, community centres and prisons. The Grand Union Youth Orchestra (GYUO) has since been formed, and a major thread for the foundation is to regenerate the music with the next generation.

Tony chats to us about how he started his career, how the performers come together and what their future holds.

“When I started out, it was a time in the seventies and a time of politicization. It was almost an anarchic period, in some ways not unlike now. The arts were absolutely flourishing. If you talked to people now and called it a golden period, they would react and say, “What? We had the three-day week; we felt like disaster was looming”.

But the opportunities for this kind of career were great. I was writing music endlessly and could join political musical theatre companies and tour. So, when it came to set up the Grand Union Orchestra, it started really as a music theatre company. I wanted to do theatrical performances but based on music rather than script as the dominant element. And you had this incredible network of venues, promoters and art-sector funders all over the country.

I feel sorry but responsible for young musicians now, because they just don’t have those chances. When you consider, at the age of thirteen, I earned the same amount as I probably do now.”

So, given there are less chances for young artists in our current environment, how do you get them involved in your work and projects?

“So, we have a world choir, and it’s made of just about every ethnicity in East London. And it happened naturally. We were asked to do workshops, because we were regarded as a multi-cultural company, and the youth stuff came through that. We are quite idiosyncratic about that, because the people who tutor are all professional musicians rather than teachers. We used to go in teams of three, so we would have at least one woman and a spread of cultures as well. At one point, we just decided, what’s the point of recreating this separately every year at the Hackney Empire; why don’t we just keep this going? And then the youth orchestra became established.

Our first-generation musicians average an age of over sixty, so you start thinking what’s next. At the same time, the young musicians are growing into their late teens and early twenties. So, we are now creating a second-generation orchestra. And a lot of them are second-generation immigrants. But also, second generation of ourselves. Regeneration is our theme for autumn. And we are trying to get the young musicians to take over.

The idea is that this will grow and be properly programmed and funded in the autumn. The most important thing is that these musicians on stage, say Indian or Chinese, have the authentic skills to pass. It is very hard to get anyone to recognise this as an issue, but also to get them to do something about it. You can imagine why it becomes worse with Brexit too.”

As authenticity and the performers’ ability to channel a real experience is so integral to the affection of the orchestra, how did you initially meet your first-generation performers?

“Well, it all started very naturally when I wanted to do a show. This was the second touring show with Grand Union, which was called “Strange Migration”, and I wanted to do a piece that looked at exile and xenophobia and all those things. And so, it was part of the political background. I needed performers where it would only be authentic. So, it would work best if we had performers themselves who were exiles or refugees. Then, the company was eight musicians strong and had a charismatic Ghanaian singer, Sarah Laryea, dancer and drummer, who you might call an economic migrant. A lot of the stuff we do now stems back to her repertoire of beautiful Ghanaian songs, which go well with children.

Another performer was Vladimir Vega, who sadly died a few years ago, who was in a Chilean prison under Pinochet for about ten years, then released under the general amnesty around that time. The emblem of resistance in Chile became the playing of traditional instruments and the traditional music. So, Vladmir played kane, the wooden pan pipes; charango, which is made of turtle shell; and something called cuatro, which is a bit like a mandolin. He had a lovely keening tenor voice. He became the symbol of, to put it crudely, the man who had suffered. And he was a genuine political activist. So, if I wrote about East Timor, as I did later, then he would be the person who could speak authentically for it. You couldn’t have English graduates from the Guildhall singing these passionate songs.

The third one was an extraordinary woman called Tunukwa. She was black American Caribbean. She had been a press photographer by trade and was connected with the civil rights movement. She was a wonderful blues and jazz singer. She embodied that for me. I love mythology, a lot of the West African Yoruba culture, and so she was the embodiment of that mystical figure, and was a mystical narrator for the creation of the world and the movement of people.”

With so many cultures and musical styles on stage, do you find communication difficult between everyone?

“It isn’t difficult if you have got good musicians. I love going around the obscure African clubs finding Angolan singers. The other thing is that, once you get a bit of a reputation for it, then people come to you and say I’ll do this. Or someone will give you a recommendation.

Ultimately, the writing is dialectic. The job of a composer is to create music for performers. It is what jazz is supposed to be; I mean, you’ve seen these guys solo!

What’s your biggest challenge?

“Well, you’ve caught me in a sunny mood today, but I can usually be quite depressed. And one of the problems we’ve faced is that this doesn’t fit into a specific genre. It’s not world music, it’s not pop and it’s not jazz. In the past, it has not necessarily mattered.

In the age of digital media, it just gets harder and harder, and you have to compete with so much stuff that’s out there. And that is all genre-based too.

We do have quite serious problems with funding. Some of these grant foundations seem to all move at the same time and jump on bandwagons. For example, the youth funding is from children in challenging circumstances. Now obviously, some of our children do come from challenging circumstances. And the current theme is health and wellbeing, and we are kind of vaguely equipped to do that in this show. But this is not what we do. The fact is, what we do contributes to health and wellbeing. I think this is getting lost at the moment. You don’t have to be part of the Gwyneth Paltrow playbook and put tangerine juice between your toes in order to feel better; all you have to do is listen to a bit of music.

What can readers do to support you?

Sign up to the mailing list and keep looking at the website. I also write blogs, and these aren’t the usual narcissistic blogs that most people write; well, they are self-centred in some way, but they are about musical techniques. They also talk about the musicians that I work with and the stories that I am telling.

The current one is about New Orleans; I was there with my daughter, who is studying in a Mexican university, and we were in Mexico City as well. It was a great trip, and that feeds into what we do.

For me, we have to have continuing opportunities to do things, and the way to support that is to get people to come along to see the shows, and then pass the word around.  

In other words, we have a lot going on at the moment, and we need to make the most of it. A lot of it is sort of political too, because none of us are that keen on musical education these days. It can be quite shallow, or it leaves people out.

There is also an option for donating on the website.” 

What’s the next big step in your future? 
“We will have a brand-new, big show either early autumn or at the beginning of next year. We have a piece called “Rising Tides”, which is obviously connected with climate change. And remember that people on those stages come from Shanghai or Bangladesh or Lisbon for that matter, and these are the first places that will suffer. But it’s likely that it will be the rising political tides as well. In other words, you have the literal and the metaphorical, and I think it’d be very interesting to join climate change and climate-change activism quite overtly to political activism. Because you are not actually going to achieve anything, with people at war with each other and dictators in all of the big countries, unless you take some political action.”


Grand Union Orchestra have shows coming up throughout July and August, including free event Bengal to Bethnal Green on 7th July and Grand Union Re:Generation Band on 26th July. They will also be holding a summer school for musicians aged between 12-21 from 29th July – 1st August.