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26 June 2016 03:03 (South Africa)
South Africa

Delft’s proudest export: Big Band, Big Sound, Big Soul

  • Marelise van der Merwe
    MareliseBW
    Marelise van der Merwe

    Marelise van der Merwe writes about anything and everything. After she studied, and then studied some more, and then studied a bit more, she spent some years writing, editing, researching and teaching, before becoming production editor at the Daily Maverick. After a couple more years keeping vampire hours in order to bring you each shiny new edition (you’re welcome) she ventured into the daylight to write features. She still blinks in the sunlight.

  • South Africa
Photo: Delft Big Band.

Do yourself a favour. Before you read any further, grab some good quality earphones (the quality is important) and start playing the videos on this page. And when you’ve done that, cancel your plans for this Thursday and next. Because nothing the interview you’re about to read can really prepare you for what you will hear when the Delft Big Band starts playing. By MARELISE VAN DER MERWE.

Adelia Douw is just 22 years old. Like the other musicians in the Delft Big Band, she began her musical education in her early teens under the mentorship of trumpeter Ian Smith. Flipping back through the videos of her as a much younger singer, one sees her development in terms of stage presence and maturity, but it’s obvious from a very early age that she’s going places. Adelia recently won the Grand West Open Mic Competition as the most promising young jazz vocalist in the Western Cape. Her male counterpart, David October, came third, giving the Delft Big Band dibs on three of the most promising upcoming vocalists in the province.

She holds audiences in the palm of her hands,” says band director Butch Rice. “She blows any other singer off the stage.”

The band, which was founded in 2008, consists of 16 players and two vocalists. Smith is responsible for the musical training, while retired jazz drummer Rice is the director. Smith is perhaps best known as former lead trumpeter for the Gerry Bosman Orchestra – in which Rice also played – and co-founder of the Cape Jazz Orchestra, and has played with a diverse set of local and international performers including the Tony Schilder Quartet. He has also shared the stage with Luciano Pavarotti, Shirley Bassey, and Liberace. As teachers go, the DBB hasn’t done badly.

Watch: Delft Big Band performing “Feeling Good”

The band was launched in August 2008 as an initiative by the Department of Social Development and NGO Cape Outdoor Adventure Service and Training. The objective was to keep young people out of gangs, given that Delft was one of the most violent areas in the Cape Flats, and additionally enable them to contribute to their household income. Census 2011 revealed that just under 70% of households in Delft received a monthly income of under R3,200 in total, with just over a fifth of adults over 20 years having matriculated.

In this respect, the Delft Big Band is a major success story. Asked how much the band members earn, Rice explains that it does vary, since some of the band members have become so successful that they are booked for individual gigs on a regular basis; they obviously earn more than those who are booked with the band only. But, he says, monthly income varies from a few thousand rand a month to R20,000 or even R40,000 a month for really successful musicians. Some of the band members are using their income to put themselves through university.

Watch: Adelia Douw’s cover of “Someone Like You”

The difficulty, he says, is that it’s not a simple rags-to-riches story of success. It’s not a matter of simply finding talented youngsters and giving them an opportunity, and Bob’s your uncle. “We also teach them professional skills,” he says. “It’s not as simple as taking kids off the street, empowering them and whoopy-doopy.”

Children living in violent areas or who have been exposed to trauma in their formative years also face challenges that their peers do not. Rice mentions more than one example of band members who have faced crime and violence in their community or shootings at or near their homes; he also mentions struggles with keeping band members motivated. The exhaustion and frustration are evident.

It’s a story of hope, but it’s also a story of challenges,” he says. “Some days I think I can’t go on, but then I hear them play. God, can they play.”

Watch: Delft Big Band performing “Sway”

Rice himself found that music gave him a leg up as a young person. “I started in a very poor family,” he says. “I began doing gigs at 13. Music changed my life. I bought my first home through music. Music taught my punctuality and reliability, and to smile at an audience even if I didn’t feel like it.

What I try to teach the musicians is that talent isn’t always enough. I learnt that I could get hired even if there were better drummers out there, if I were more reliable.”

Now that the players are older, their level of professionalism seems to be paying off. Members of the band have undertaken two tours of Sweden, a tour of France in 2013, and performances at the Liverpool Brouhaha Festival and the Edinburgh Jazz and Blues Festival. They performed for Prince Charles and Camilla while on tour in the UK, and met the royals to boot. The band performed at the 2015 Cape Town International Jazz Festival, while members Myles Stewart and Siraaj Allen performed at the 2015 London Jazz Festival in November. Another two trumpeters, Lorenzo Blignaut and Marcelle Adams, were selected to be part of the eight-piece Standard Bank National Youth Jazz Band to perform at the Joy of Jazz Festival in Gauteng in September 2015. Adams also performed in Remembering the Lux and Blignaut was selected for District Six – Kanala.

Watch: Marcelle Adams on The Expresso Show

What makes the band stand out, believes Rice, is that many of the members were raised in families where their parents participated in the Cape Minstrel Carnival (Second New Year), so from an early age they had extensive musical knowledge. Many of the band members still participate in the event. Adding a stringent regime of musical theory training to this already solid background made the band unstoppable, says Rice. They have all been drilled so well that they can now sight-read extremely challenging works. “It’s a musical miracle,” he says.

Not only that, but they’ve also learnt to gel well enough together that they can improvise – sometimes so well, says Rice, that it can be challenging to remind them of the necessity of discipline. “Sometimes I think they are too talented,” he says. “We’ve got a CD out now, and we laid out 12 tracks in one afternoon. 12 tracks in an afternoon! That is unheard of.” The first production round is sold out.

Watch: The Delft Big Band, “Don’t get around much anymore”

The next step, now, is the Delft Big Band Academy, which aims to train the next generation of musicians. “We have about 200 guys coming in so far,” says Rice. “We’ve also launched the feeder band. These are the guys who can step into the current musicians’ shoes as they move onward and upward.” From humble beginnings rehearsing in deserted classrooms, the band also now has a permanent rehearsal room near the airport.

The struggle continues, though, as it always does. For the directors, teachers, and the band members themselves, it’s a fight to stay on top, and a fight to retain support. “We need around another million a year to do what we want to do,” says Rice. “We’ve had some good financial support, but nowhere near what the band deserves. We want to reconfigure the band, but we want people who are passionate.

This band deserves to be a national treasure. It’s a great success story and it’s really iconic. But there’s also the reality of the work involved. You have got to really want it.” DM

Delft Big Band is playing at The Brass Bell, in Kalk Bay, on Thursday 4 February and at The Crypt, on Wale Street in Cape Town on Thursday 11 February. Do yourself a favour, go and see them.

  • Marelise van der Merwe
    MareliseBW
    Marelise van der Merwe

    Marelise van der Merwe writes about anything and everything. After she studied, and then studied some more, and then studied a bit more, she spent some years writing, editing, researching and teaching, before becoming production editor at the Daily Maverick. After a couple more years keeping vampire hours in order to bring you each shiny new edition (you’re welcome) she ventured into the daylight to write features. She still blinks in the sunlight.

  • South Africa

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