In July 2019, the Gloucestershire Youth Brass Band (GYBB) met in St Gregory’s Church Hall, Cheltenham, to greet members from Brass for Africa (BfA).
Meet and greet
The Ugandan musicians and their committed leaders, Jim Trott and Lizzie Burrowes, blew the hall away with their heart-warming approach to music and their total belief in its transformative powers. Their introductory song, Music, music’s my Saviour, and I love music, of course I do, do, do spoke of their belief; a belief forged in poverty and struggle in the slums, orphanages, and youth prisons of Kampala. Their introduction became more than words when BfA members shared their personal stories during the concert the following week.
GYBB and BfA sat down together, and British inhibitions slowly disappeared as the ensembles got into the swing of the music, led by Lizzie Burrowes (BfA Director of Music Education). The young, Gloucestershire musicians looked slightly reticent, to say the least, as our African guests introduced themselves with fun, vigour and some pretty fancy dance moves! But it didn’t take long for them to embrace the power of music. Normally quite reserved students left the rehearsal beaming, high fiving and, yes, dancing! “That was just amazing! Those two hours went so fast!” said one saucer-eyed cornet player, with sheer delight etched on her face.
During a break, Ivan, the BfA drummer, came to inspect the vibraslap instrument being used by the GYBB drummer, Henry. Very inquisitive about its sound production and how it was played, he started a beat for others to join in and improvise the song ‘One Love’, with a combination of Julius on vibraslap, Ivan on Cabasa, and Tadeo singing.
Working in groups
With only a few minutes remaining of the first morning’s rehearsal together, GYBB broke away into groups for sectionals in which they were taught a short memory piece by their new BfA friends. Every available space both in and outside the hall was used, with BfA musicians moving around the groups adding harmonies.
The final run through showed that everyone had got the BfA music bug and were looking forward to the concert the following week on Saturday. The next Saturday found GYBB in high spirits ready to meet their BfA friends again to prepare for the evening concert featuring trumpet legend Wynton Marsalis. No-one mentioned that Channel 4 cameras would be there following BfA! No pressure. The band was conducted by Alan Fernie, BfA’s Composer in Residence and well-respected musician, teacher, and brass band adjudicator.
Lizzie conducted the march Westward Ho! before Alan returned to take his own composition, African Funk, including a very vocal section from the Ugandans of The Lion Sleeps Tonight.
During the week Karin (GBBA/GYBB) had received the news she was hoping for and after the break, instead of showing Ivan some percussion, she was able to present him with his own vibraslap courtesy of Adrian Evans from Ev-entz, to take back to Africa. A massive thank you to Ev-entz who are great supporters of GM and GBBA. Amidst a chorus of ‘Open it’ and ‘show us’ Ivan was delighted to demonstrate his gift. And soon the sound of the vibraslap was constantly heard in punctuation to Alan’s comments and Alison Balsom’s speech of welcome to us all!! Alison is Cheltenham Music Festival’s Artistic Director as well as an internationally re-knowned trumpet player and patron of Brass for Africa.
The final piece to work on was Kampala (Alan Fernie). With Alison persuaded to join the band on back row, staff adding extra percussion, a series of solos were taken, including Alan on trombone and all were keeping fingers crossed that Wynton Marsalis would also join in during the concert. BfA musicians moved to the front and the party atmosphere was complete.
Minibuses loaded, GYBB walked over to the Town Hall for a well-deserved lunch break.
Excitement grew as word spread that Wynton Marsalis was in the building. His rehearsal was watched with anticipation from both sides of the stage. As he noticed our group he turned and finished the piece playing straight to us, then waved. It was as if royalty was in the building.
GYBB and BfA take to the stage for rehearsal
Both groups had something to tell the folks back home when Wynton joined the solo line-up, duetting with BfA’s lead trombone. Wynton gave words of wisdom not only to the brass about playing softly but also to the percussion section for picking out a specific rhythm and to Ivan to lead the band in different dynamics.
After some much needed down time and fresh air, the show began. A full house was soon in the African spirit clapping to the beat as Brass for Africa led a parade through the downstairs auditorium before making their way onto stage. As brass band line ups go, what we had onstage at the Town Hall for our final rehearsal was a little unconventional. Of our 8 trombone players, only 2 read treble clef (thank you Sibelius!), we had an alto trombone in the horn section and a cornet section covering three rows.
After taking applause, GYBB joined them dancing their way onto the stage and the programme continued interspersed with stories from the young African Ambassadors linked to music which had meaning to them. One particularly moving one was Tadeo who had lost both hands and feet in a fire but was able to play a beautiful trombone solo and loves to be able to help disabled children proving anything is possible.
All too soon it was time for our big finisher, Kampala. The stage party of Alison Balsom OBE, Guy Barker MBE (Patron of BfA) and Wynton Marsalis took their seats on the back row and the jazz solos began.
Standing ovation, thunderous applause and the best experience ever!
Sitting in the balcony for the second half we were treated to many well-known numbers by the Wynton Marsalis quartet which included a treat for the auditorium when he went walk about through them. His final number saw him leaving the stage still playing…
After lengthy applause the quartet performed two encores for the appreciative audience.
GYBB and BfA said their final goodbyes, which saw the end of a memorable week for both sets of musicians.