YolanDa Brown interview: 'Music builds teamwork, confidence, empathy — it empowers young people'
In a studio in west London, YolanDa Brown — double Mobo award-winning saxophonist and soon-to-be children’s author — is telling me about her penchant for heels.
“I have quite the collection,” she laughs, bouncing around the room in her black patent-leather pointed stilettos. They are Brown’s go-to for day-to-day, but onstage she prefers to wear gold because they reflect in the lights while she’s dancing. Sometimes she gives them away to fans at the end of the gig.
At her next big gig, however, stilettos will probably be a little large for most audience members. This weekend she’ll host two CBeebies Proms at the Royal Albert Hall, introducing children as young as five to Handel and Benjamin Britten.
Classical music might seem a surprising field for a jazz and reggae artist, but breaking down genres is what Brown, 36, is all about. Growing up with Jamaican parents in Barking, she listened to everything from Michael Jackson and Bob Marley to Gilbert and Sullivan, and later went on to develop her own style: a blend of reggae, jazz and soul that she calls “posh reggae”.
Brown only uses that term “for those who need to put it in a box”, though. To her, “it’s just music” — which is exactly how children see it too, she insists. “At that age they don’t know genre, so actually that’s the age when you should be bringing every genre in that you can.”
This is the premise behind her new TV series, YolanDa’s Band Jam on CBeebies. The children’s show launched earlier this year and was immediately dubbed the “Jools Holland for kids”. Each week Brown invites star guests, from Newton Faulkner to The Shires, to jam along with a live audience of five- to seven-year-olds.
“You don’t ever have to tell the children: ‘OK, the camera’s on now — time to dance’. They’ll just naturally move.”
Scroll through the hashtag #yolandasbandjam on Instagram and you’ll see what she means. A quick search pulls up dozens of videos of children bopping along to Brown and her entourage, The Band Janimals: a little boy who likes to dance along first thing in the morning; a two-year-old girl who’s taken up the drums since watching the show; and another who’s started playing his father’s trumpet.
“Some parents say they’ve never seen their children react to music like that,” says Brown, who lives with her music promoter husband and their daughter in north London. “A lot of them say their children will run to their toy box and get a musical instrument that they’ve probably had in there for years — from a maraca through to a drum kit or a keyboard — and actually start playing along.”
For Brown this is the best kind of introduction to picking up an instrument. “It shouldn’t be a lesson, sitting there nervous that the teacher is going to tell you off because you played the wrong note,” she says. “It shouldn’t be about scales, just playing — then when you find that you really enjoy it you can really home in on building that skill and technique, because you’ll always have the enjoyment that brought you to the instrument in the first place.”
Her own daughter Jemima, five, has grown up with music since day one — and even before that, Brown insists. “I toured with her in my tummy and she always used to move on a certain song, Tokyo Sunset, which was my very first reggae jazz mix.” Jemima came on tour from three months old and “she’d always wake up on that song and have a bit of a jig”, laughs Brown. “Children are musical by nature: they would have heard all the sounds and rhythms of heartbeat in utero, and when they come out it’s actually quite a comforting thing to have a continuous rhythm.”
Since starting the CBeebies show her live concerts have changed. “I always say to the audience, ‘If your body wants to move, listen to it,’” so she encourages fans to dance along. “Sometimes here in England we can be very British about it: we’re in a jazz club or the theatre, we shouldn’t do this. No, move your chair, stand up, do whatever you want to do.” Is classical music accessible enough? “There’s still a way to go but we’re definitely making waves.”
She hopes events such as the CBeebies Proms will encourage families to explore what other concerts are taking place around the country, and applauds ensembles like the Chineke! Orchestra, who are playing at the Proms, for making “a very concerted effort to bring people from more diverse backgrounds into classical music”.
Brown is making her own concerted efforts, too. As chair of music education charity Youth Music, she’s working to break down the financial and educational barriers to entry, and earlier this year she launched the Drake YolanDa Award to provide financial support for young artists across the country.
“It can be as simple as a drumming lesson together,” she explains, recalling testimonies of young people whose lives have been changed by the “therapeutic nature” of music. “It doesn’t have to be a vocational thing, but actually that experience of being able to make music builds teamwork, confidence, empathy with somebody. It empowers young people.”
Somewhere in among all this, Brown is finding the time to write her first children’s book, about life as a touring musician, and last month she ran the London Saxophone Festival, an initiative she set up last year.
How does she fit it all in? “I don’t have the answer… but if it’s in my iCalendar, it’s happening,” says Brown, showing me her iPhone’s meticulously colour-coded schedule. Family time is currently green and her daughter is yellow: “She’s got her own social calendar now.”
All of which means Brown has little time for her other hobby, driving racing cars. “If you’d have asked me at 13 what I wanted to be, racing driver was my answer,” she smiles, recalling how Ron Dennis, former boss of the McLaren Formula 1 racing team, once called her the “Lewis Hamilton of the jazz world”. Her first-ever music video featured a Formula 3 car, but now Brown rarely has time to get behind the wheel.
Instead, she does Pilates and aqua aerobics to stay in shape but insists her main workouts happen on stage. “It’s a very physical experience for me — particularly when I’m with the children,” says Brown, who’s busy filming the second series of YolanDa’s Band Jam this month. “It’s 12-hour days with 90 kids coming in for each session,” she laughs. “I’ll be wearing trainers for that one.”
YolanDa Brown will play the BBC Proms July 21-22 at the Royal Albert Hall, SW7 (royalalberthall.com)