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Meeting your heroes
Brass for Africa and Wynton Marsalis...

Paul McLaughlin of the Lydbrook Band and Gloucestershire Music Services reflects on a memorable musical link with Brass for Africa and a certain Wynton Marsalis and friends, as part of the recent Cheltenham Music Festival.

Brass for Africa
Heroes one and all...

They say you should never meet your heroes.

I thought about this last week in Cheltenham Town Hall as I listened to Wynton Marsalis sat next to Alison Balsom and Guy Barker in the Third Cornet section of the Gloucestershire Youth Brass Band.

But I had already met my heroes, and they were amazing - more than I could have wished for; heroes that were every bit as inspiring and generous, funny, encouraging and brilliant as Wynton, Alison and Guy.

They were Julius, Tadeo and Micheal (sic); Gilbert, Sharon and Ivan; Best, Disan and Julius; Sumayya, Bruce and Emmanuel. They were the Ugandan musicians from Brass for Africa. 

Introduced by BfA’s Jim Trott and Lizzie Burrowes, they simply blew me away (almost literally in the case of Julius on bass trombone!) They warmed my heart with their approach to music and their belief in its transformative powers; one forged in poverty and struggle in the slums, orphanages and youth prisons of Kampala.

First meeting

That first meeting came with some nervous youngsters of the Gloucestershire Youth Band in tow, in an innocuous church hall in Cheltenham ahead of the joint concert appearance at the Cheltenham Music Festival.  

Their introductory song to us spoke of their belief – one that was to kick-start the enthusiasm of the GYBB young musicians on what proved to be a short journey on a very fast machine (with apologies to John Adams!). 

“Music! Music my saviour! I love music, of course I DO DO DO!!”


The man himself in action...

Everyone learnt the song in a very short time and, over the hours we spent together, I think we all began to appreciate that these were more than aphoristic words chosen for their poetic scansion. 

At first our young musicians were slightly reticent as our 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 and to prove, as Jim Trott said, that “no-one has ever died of embarrassment!”

Flashed by

Two hours flashed by and the transformation in our students was wonderfully obvious. Reservations disappeared, replaced by beaming smiles, high-fives and, yes, dancing!

“That was just amazing!” as one saucer-eyed cornet player summed things up with sheer delight etched on her face.

The minute details of the two rehearsals won’t make interesting reading to anyone not present, but suffice to say that rarely have I seen a bunch of young musicians sit up and take notice, real notice, of what’s being said and being asked of them. 

That, I suspect, is often the case with Alan Fernie in the middle. 

His no nonsense approach focussed minds, but also showed the musicians just how much can be learnt and soaked up in such a short space of time.

The minute details of the two rehearsals won’t make interesting reading to anyone not present, but suffice to say that rarely have I seen a bunch of young musicians sit up and take notice, real notice, of what’s being said and being asked of them. 

Stories

We heard the stories behind some of the music played.

'Kabalagala' is an area of Kampala with bars, restaurants and night life; so little surprise it was a piece bubbling with energy.  It was postcard of evocative excitement.  

In contrast, ‘Thula Baba’ is a traditional lullaby sung by Ugandan mothers to their children. Sharon, a baritone player and a fantastic marching snare drummer, told us that it is a song she used to sing to her baby.

Brass for Africa
The music making and friendship making cam hand in hand

That may have sounded almost naive in its beauty, but Sharon also told us that she was a single mother who used to be afraid of boys. Thanks to the work of Brass for Africa that darker side of life has now been replaced by brotherly love and friendship.

Music has taught her to trust people. 

Hearing that story from a slightly built, but strong natured young woman gave the music we played such a powerful additional meaning - transforming it from a simple lullaby into a song of empowerment for young women everywhere.

Hearing that story from a slightly built, but strong natured young woman gave the music we played such a powerful additional meaning - transforming it from a simple lullaby into a song of empowerment for young women everywhere.

All this and there was fun and laughter as well as understanding and trust as friendships quickly blossomed – as well as a joint love of Swedish pop music in the form of ABBA with Alan Fernie’s brilliant ‘ABBA Gold’ arrangement an instant smash hit.

Africa
Down to the hard work...

Phenomenon

Saturday saw us back in the same church hall where we were joined by more GYBB players; Gloucestershire Music and Brass for Africa colleagues and the BBb Bass sensation that is Sumayya, whose visa had been approved at the very last minute and who had flown in to meet up with us all.

Sumayya was a phenomenon. 

Standing at maybe 5’3” in her bare feet and weighing about the same as her tuba, she swung it round like a soprano cornet.

Never again will I accept the groans of a band bass player. I will simply quote what I have now called ‘ Sumayya’s Law’ back to them, that “a tuba decreases in weight and cumbersomeness in inverse proportion to the smile and enthusiasm of the player!”

Never again will I accept the groans of a band bass player. I will simply quote what I have now called ‘ Sumayya’s Law’ back to them, that “a tuba decreases in weight and cumbersomeness in inverse proportion to the smile and enthusiasm of the player!”

Brass for Africa
Tadeo: An inspirational young man of Hope

Changed the rules

If Sumayya broke down stereotypes of tuba players, then Tadeo just changed the rules on everything.

As a week old infant, Tadeo had been horrifically burned in a fire; losing both hands and suffered serious burns to his legs. 

He told us that Brass for Africa had changed his life, given him hope and resilience. “Anything is possible” is his mantra.

I now firmly believe this having watched him play trombone in the horn section, and then a solo, 'Hope’, written for him by Alan Fernie.

He had overcome the darkest pitch of adversity. It was simply inspiring.

He told us that Brass for Africa had changed his life, given him hope and resilience. “Anything is possible” is his mantra. I now firmly believe this having watched him play trombone in the horn section, and then a solo, Hope’, written for him by Alan Fernie. He had overcome the darkest pitch of adversity. It was simply inspiring.

Unconventional line-up

As brass band line ups go, what we had on stage at the Town Hall for our final rehearsal was a little unconventional. 

Of our eight trombone players, only two read treble clef (thank goodness for Sibelius), we had an alto trombone in the horns and a cornet section covering three rows.  

We even had trumpets - although given they were being played by Wynton Marsalis, Alison Balsom and Guy Barker I turned a blind eye to my brass banding prejudice!

Africa
Check out the third cornet section...

Happy Birthday

Wynton had generously joined us after his own sound check to run through ‘Kampala’, the final big number of our set.  With an open section for solos, he, Alan Fernie, BfA’s principal trombone, Julius and youth band flugel player, Matt, all took a spotlight. 

Listening to Wynton and Julius swapping 4s was probably the highlight of the day! 

He then took the time to chat to the band – his words lapped up by everyone present. I stood just a couple of feet away and I swear you could feel the musical electricity in the room. 

This was education as a crucial element of the experience – topped by a legendary figure inspiring youngsters to make music an integral part of their life skills. 

Oh, and Wynton Marsalis even played ‘Happy Birthday’ to me (the concert was on the day), apologised for it not being very good, but said he was tired.

His mantra echoed that of Tadeo that ‘anything is possible’ and that ‘music goes a long way to making it so’. It was as valuable a lesson as any I have heard being taught in my career.

As for me? The concert flashed past and was over too soon. Brass for Africa had played, told their stories and won the hearts of their audiences and fellow musicians. The prolonged ovations said it all.

Oh, and Wynton Marsalis even played ‘Happy Birthday’ to me (the concert was on the day), apologised for it not being very good, but said he was tired.

Then he was gone.  He’s still a hero though...

Paul McLaughlin

Find out more about Brass for Africa, go to: https://www.brassforafrica.org/

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