Brass for Africa and the Music Products Industry

Last month, we had the wonderful opportunity to speak about Brass for Africa with their founder, Jim Trott. You can read how Brass for Africa started in our last post here, and about their educational programmes here. Today’s blog covers the effect of COVID on the organisation, and how companies within the music products industry have helped over the years.

Stills from the film "Topowa" [photograph property of Jim Trott]
Stills from the film “Topowa” [photograph property of Jim Trott]

Has COVID had a significant impact on your outreach programs?

Prior to the pandemic. we were working with around 1200 children a week. We went down to around 500 last year, due to local lockdowns. A lot of our teaching became digital virtual learning, which is a new thing for us. We provided devices and mobile data. We’re back now working a lot more face-to-face again, now that the lockdown has been eased. We’re back up to working with about 700 young people a week and pushing back towards original targets.

I understand that you’re currently operating in Uganda, Rwanda and Liberia. Why these countries in particular?

It was by circumstance to start with, having sent those 30 instruments to Uganda. I do travel around the world and I have to say that Uganda is one of my favourite places in the world to be. The country’s wonderful, the people are great, but there are a lot of issues there. I felt that those first instruments could be used well there, and then seeing the way they were embraced, Uganda became our center of excellence. It’s where we have our training center, and the majority of our programs. Rwanda is a neighbouring country, and can road travel eight hours and be in Rwanda,. Again, we are working with a strong local partner in Kigali the capital city.

Brass for Africa currently operate in Uganda, Rwanda and Liberia [Photo by Slava on Unsplash]
Brass for Africa currently operate in Uganda, Rwanda and Liberia [Photo by Slava on Unsplash]

How did you set up in Liberia?

Liberia was on my network, as I was flying to Monrovia with the airline I work for. Liberia is often listed as one of the poorest countries in the world and it has some real problems. There were 2 ruinous Civil Wars where almost a quarter of a million people died. It has a small population of only around 4 million on the West coast of Africa, and there is a significant need for support for the youth there.

My accommodation was very close to an orphanage which was in an absolutely awful state. Initially I just went about rehousing that orphanage, just to get the children in a better state. I managed to raise some money to find a building and move them. While I was doing that, I thought, let’s just get some instruments in. We can have a band when I’m in town! We did that, but I found no real formal music teachers in Liberia. I found myself in the coast guard camp down on the docks talking to one of the coast guard bandsmen, Momoh, who really got it straight away. We started working together and he’s now our Country Manager in Liberia. We then started to spread out organically, and I met an amazing woman called MacDella Cooper, who founded the MacDella Cooper Academy for disadvantaged children in Monrovia.

Do you have any future plans for your work in Liberia?

Despite Liberia suffering a terrible Ebola outbreak in 2015, which was horrendous with all of the airlines pulled out, we’ve managed to keep the programmes going and support them. We’d love to scale up in Liberia, but it’s a difficult country to work in at the moment and find funding for. It’s very much on the radar if we get through what’s happening now to. We were working with over 200 children in Liberia, but we’re down to about 70 now because of the pandemic and the lockdowns.

Brass for Africa in Liberia
Brass for Africa in Liberia

In general, how is the process of setting up in new areas?

You’ve got to have local buy-in. You can’t just push this on somebody. You’ve got to have them come to you and say that they want this. Then you look at a partnership. We audit all of our partners, and we’re audited regularly ourselves by granting organisations and the charities commission, and the Uganda NGO board. We work with the American Embassy, the British Army, Oxfam, and many other prestigious organisations. They carry out due diligence on us. We are audited, and we audit our partners, so they have to be at a certain standard so that we can ensure that we have safeguards in place.

It would be really interesting to speak about companies in the music products industry that you work with…

We’ve recently started building a relationship with NAMM through appearing at their recent online conference and events. We’ve had a long-standing relationship with Dawkes Music in Maidenhead. I met the Dawkes team basically through buying instruments for my own children. Then when Brass for Africa started, I was looking at getting some help with a few repairs. I’d also been donated some really very fine instruments that were possibly not suitable to go to Africa, so Jon Dawkes the MD got those swapped for starter instruments. Through this collaboration, for 1 trumpet I could end up with 10 cornets and more young people getting the opportunity to play in Africa!

I know that Abi from Dawkes has worked closely with your repairers in Uganda…

Abi from the workshop has been great, and she’s been out with me to Uganda twice to visit our own instrument repair facility. It’s one of the very few instrument repair facilities in that part of the world. Abi came out and trained up some of our young local people to do basic repairs. She taught them how to lap valves, how to get dents out, how to get trombone slides moving again, how to get stuck mouthpieces out! Abi produced some great training material which is still used daily.

In 2019, I invited Jon Dawkes to come see what we were doing, and he’s said that it’s been life-changing for him to see the impact of music. Jon’s been in music all of his life but to see the raw power that it had in these struggling communities he found pretty mind blowing. Jon rolled up his sleeves, sorted out the workshop, got new shelving built. They’ve just supported a local drum maker to come in and teach our team how to make drum kits. Dawkes have been a fantastic support in so many ways.

Am I correct in understanding you’ve also worked with Warwick Music Group?

One of the very early partnerships I had was with Warwick Music Group, which continues to this day. They initially donated a good number of pBones, but they also sent out a really top music teacher, Simon Hogg, to show us how to use them. They’ve also continued to support with pBuzzes which we use quite a lot with our street child refuge programs. The children go through that program quite quickly, and can sometimes only be there for 6 to 12 weeks before they get re-integrated into communities. The pBuzz is ideal for these shorter term interventions.

Warwick Music Group's pBones
Warwick Music Group’s pBones

What about educational institutions?

We’re developing some lovely partnerships with music colleges, such as Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama. Teams from Guildhall and The Royal Northern College took part in our Choose to Challenge  “Race for Equality” campaign. This supported music opportunities for disadvantaged girls and young women.

We’ve also had a few donations of consumables from various companies. Valve oil is something we’re always looking for. You can buy it in country, but it’s probably about £20 per bottle!

For other people in the music products industry, what can they do get involved and help?

Any sort of provision of those consumables would be really very welcome. Things such as valve oil, slide grease. If someone’s upgrading from a basic instrument to a new instrument, rather than sell their old instrument or keeping it, a suggestion of donating it works really well. Dawkes have flyers, and quite a big display too to encourage this. Some donated instruments are really old and might, for example, have a valve missing. We have to turn those down, but perhaps if there was somewhere in the music products industry we could go to source spare parts, that would be really helpful!

Whether you work in the music products industry or not, find out how you can support Brass for Africa, click here.

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