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Friday Mixtape: Grand Union Orchestra’s founder curates us a mix on the theme of migration

This week’s Friday Mixtape is a treat. An unusual addition to our usual mix of bands and creatives, this week we’ve handed the reigns over to Tony Hayes, the founder of Grand Union Orchestra.

Located just down the road from the It’s Nice That studio in East London’s Bethnal Green, Tony started the Grand Union Orchestra (GUO) 30 years ago. Made up of musicians and singers who are mostly first-generation migrants “with unique skills and experience to pass on to the second and future generations,” it explains.

Although orchestral music isn’t a regular fixture on the It’s Nice That mixtape, GUO hopes to change the perception of what orchestras currently are and can be, building one that reflects the society we live in today. But Tony can give you a better description than us so over to him!

It’s Nice That: Why have you picked these songs, what do they remind you of or make you feel?

Tony Hayes: Much of my work for the Grand Union Orchestra is about migration and the consequent movement and exchange of music, musicians and musical styles. There are also political implications, like the imperialist ambitions of European nations, so questions of freedom and justice also arise…

This musical voyage around the Atlantic and back to Europe begins with one of my songs featuring Portuguese (the first global explorers) and African musicians. West African culture and rituals were transported through the slave trade to Brazil and Cuba (where they still flourish), the Caribbean and southern USA. You can hear similarities in these male voices and the roots of the Mississippi delta work songs and blues.

These elements, in turn, gave birth to jazz in legendary New Orleans, influencing the century of music that followed. Although often joyous, the music of African-Americans also reflects their appalling treatment. Charles Mingus was alive to both the jazz tradition of Morton and segregation, bringing both together in a piece lampooning a notorious governor of Arkansas. Nina Simone’s song has an appropriate echo of South Africa.

Many escaped by taking a boat to the North; where they would meet other migrants, particularly Jews fleeing persecution, like violinist Jascha Heifetz. He had a remarkable empathy for American music, but was also a wonderful European classical player, as in this sublime work by Mozart.

After all that, the music sums up the adventures, experiences, oppression and hope we’ve encountered during this voyage. Another of my compositions for GUO from The Rhythm of Tides, features four singers from Africa, South America, the Caribbean and Europe.

INT: When or where should this mixtape be listened to?

TH: Overlooking a majestic expanse of ocean, for example, from a cliff-top or a smallish boat, preferably a sailing ship.

INT: What song or album did you listen to as a teenager? What kind of posters did you have on your bedroom wall?

TH: I listened mostly to the early and modern jazz represented in this mixtape, and a lot of European classical music. The only poster I recall was of the classic Ford Zephyr, a car I hoped (fruitlessly!) that my family would acquire.

INT: Can you tell us a little about the Grand Union Orchestra?

I formed the Grand Union Orchestra about 30 years ago, as a medium for my compositional work. It brings together over 20 musicians and singers, many of whom are themselves migrants, born and bred into musical cultures from all over the world. This helps me express my musical ideas, which embrace classical learning, jazz and improvisation, and expertise in song-writing and lyric theatre.

Not only have I learned a great deal through GUO musicians of the different kinds of music that flourish in the UK today, but working with such a diverse group of performers lends authenticity and artistic truth to the social, political, philosophical and historical ideas I want to express. More about GUO can be found here and on my blog.

INT: If a feature film about The Grand Union Orchestra was to be made, what song would be in the trailer?

TH: If Music Could, another of my vocal ensemble pieces for the Grand Union Orchestra, expressing the desire of musicians to change the world while acknowledging our limited power to do so, which again blends five very contrasted singers from different continents.