Brass for Africa’s Beginnings

Last month, we had the wonderful opportunity to speak about Brass for Africa with their founder, Jim Trott. Over the next few months, we’ll be publishing parts of this conversation, which we hope will be of interest to our BBICO News readers. If you would like to find out more about Brass for Africa, please visit their website here.

Brass for Africa Musicians [photograph property of Jim Trott]
Brass for Africa Musicians [photograph property of Jim Trott]

Hi Jim! Thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me this morning, it would be great if you could briefly introduce yourself to our BBICO News readers.

My name is Jim Trott. I’m the founder and the executive director (or CEO as they call me in Africa) of Brass for Africa, a UK registered charity operating in Sub-Saharan Africa, mainly in Uganda, Rwanda and Liberia.

Fantastic. thank you very much for that. And do you have a musical background that you can tell us a little bit about, Jim?

Well, I’m an amateur musician. I’ve played music since about the age of seven. Piano is probably my first love really. I picked up trumpet around about 13 and I played it till I left school at 18. I then went off into my professional career and dropped it for some time,  it was actually having my own children that got me to pick up the trumpet again. As you’ll find out, this is how I ended up with a charity based around brass band music. So, my musical background is purely amateur, but it’s something I have a passion for. It’s what makes me tick.

Jim Trott, Founder of Brass for Africa [photograph property of Jim Trott]
Jim Trott, Founder of Brass for Africa [photograph property of Jim Trott]

It’s great to get a better understanding of where the musical link comes from, thanks Jim. I understand that Brass for Africa has been around for just over 10 years now, is that right?

We sent the first instruments out in 2009. In fact, we had our 10th anniversary in December 2019. So yes, we’re into our second decade of operation now!

It would be really interesting to hear about the initial inspiration for setting up the charity 11 years ago…

Actually, I didn’t plan to set up a music-based charity, but it happened as a function of what was going on in my life at the time. I’m pilot by profession and I have done that all my working life, 32 years or so. I’ve lived and worked in Africa as a helicopter pilot early in my career, and then as an airline pilot I found myself flying to Africa quite regularly. So, I had friends and a lot of experience working and living in Africa.

Then I had young children and a young son who was playing in a brass band with Berkshire Maestros. When he was quite young, his junior band were looking to get rid of 30 old, tarnished, dented instruments. They’d been around for a long time and were not of use to them any longer. The instruments were going to get thrown out. At the time I was operating quite regularly to Uganda, so I said; “Don’t throw them out, let me see if I can get another use for those instruments”. On my next trip, I asked around and found out that we could get those instruments out there and find a use for them.

I went about raising some funds in the community band I was playing in, so we could ship the instruments out. We put them into a place called the Good Shepherd Home, which houses a lot of orphans and street children, as well as elderly and disabled people in the community. We sent the instruments there and basically I thought that was it.

But it wasn’t, what happened was that I continued to visit the Good Shepherd home every time I went back to Africa. The change I saw in the children that had access to music and the instruments, it was really very profound. They had very little, and were from very disadvantaged backgrounds. To be given this opportunity to play music gave them a voice, a platform, and something to be proud of. I saw this transformation in front of my eyes. So, we started working with my local colleagues there to get more training and better teaching. It grew organically out of that.

It’s really interesting that it started off as a one-off thing, then spiralled from there once you’d seen the impact that those first 30 instruments made. Do you want to talk a little bit about how important music is as a catalyst for improving people’s lives?

Yes, we started to see real success with these young people. In 2014 we started working to train up 10 young musicians as teachers. We put them through a foundation in brass teaching course, which I had commissioned from a couple of really great brass teachers that I knew here in the UK. They came out and delivered the course. That gave us the opportunity to start working with other people and other organisations. Finding these young musicians work became a motivator for me as well, because we could pay them as music teachers.

What happened after that?

The real key to success is that we always work with local partner organisations. Once we were out teaching more and more we realised that self-confidence and an ability to concentrate increased. These things were quantifiable and measurable. So, we looked to the actual attributes that were being delivered through music. We got an independent specialist, a monitoring and evaluation consultancy, to go out with our teachers, have a look, and come back to tell us what else was happening. They came back with a list of over 35 other attributes. As a team, we then drilled that list down to 8 key attributes. These are the eight commandments that everyone knows in the organisation:

The 8 Key attributes at Brass for Africa
The 8 Key attributes at Brass for Africa

These eight key attributes can help prepare you for a workplace, and just turning up to band. You’ve got a responsibility to get to band on time, know your part, play your part. It doesn’t matter if you’re on a second horn or principal cornet, your bit matters just as much as everybody else’s. It’s important to take responsibility for that. You learn a lot of these soft skills innately, but I think the knowledge of knowing you have that life skill is really powerful. To know that you do have resilience is something that people can draw on.

As the organisation moved forward, we then found a way to harness those life skills that you get with music. We found a way to nurture, promote, and teach those through the twice weekly music interventions that we were having with these young people. These were designed to give them other life chances, a toolkit, or some way of recognizing that they could problem solve, concentrate, and communicate. They can then translate that into other areas of their life, be it education or trying to get a job.

…this blog will be continued on 16th April – keep an eye on the BBICO News Page!

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