By Leila Dougan
This group did not exist five years ago. Many of its members could not play an instrument or read a note. Today, this big band from Delft performs on some of the country’s biggest stages.
It’s 5pm and there’s the daily exodus of workers from a printing factory in the warehouse district of Airport Industria, Cape Town. They grab their bags and rush for the door to make it in time for their transport home. One woman shouts as she runs by, “They’re upstairs, just follow the music”. And sure enough, above the sounds of hooting afternoon taxis, thudding train tracks and humming factory machines, the familiar melody of Queen’s Crazy Little Thing Called Love drifts from a small office space above the vast factory floor.
This is the Delft Big Band’s rehearsal space. Most of the musicians wear t-shirts, slops and shorts, many wear twisted peak caps, heavy bracelets, gold rings. The drummer wears dark sunglasses, you can feel his beat as they take the number from the top. Lorenzo Blignaut is the band’s conductor for the night. Arms poised, eyes fixed on the music sheet, he leads the band through the chorus with confidence; vocalist David October reaches each note effortlessly with energy and a smile.
“What you heard is what they’ve achieved in the space of five years from nothing, from never having picked up an instrument for most of their lives, never having read a note of music,” says Ian Smith, one of South Africa’s top trumpeters, and the man behind the band. “There are no individual lessons, all the teaching has been done purely in the big band practices and all the band members can sight-read at the level of professional musicians,” says Smith.
Formed in 2008, the Delft Big Band was a six-month long social development project targeted at vulnerable youth. Seven years later they’re touring the world and causing a buzz on the local jazz scene. With over 100 members and a repertoire of more than 300 numbers, the band consists of a section of four trumpets, four trombones, five saxophones, two alter saxophones, two tenor saxophones, a baritone sax as well as a rhythm section comprising of drums, keyboard, bass and two vocalists.
The band has an impressive collection of awards and has toured internationally. They’ve played in Sweden, France and at the Edinburgh Jazz and Blues Festival. One of their highlights was performing at the Cape Town Jazz Festival in 2010, where they played as a youth band. They’ve been invited to hit the stage again this year, on the main programme, at the end of March.
Despite their success, however, weekly rehearsals demand that they deal with the dangers of their local community. Before they were offered space at the printing factory, they were rehearsing in a classroom in Delft, one of the most violent areas on the outskirts of Cape Town.
“We couldn’t have carried on there, I mean literally from where we were rehearsing there were shootings going on. I remember one incident where there was a shooting just outside and there were bodies found in the field behind where we rehearsed,” says Smith. “It was just not conducive for music making, that kind of environment.”
The band is recognised internationally but the musicians still have difficulty being acknowledged in their own community, “there’s not even an awareness in Delft in terms of what the band is doing, even parents are not interested in what their children are doing,” says Smith, his voice low and strained.
“Then you get drawn into all the social ills and dramas that go on. This one’s been robbed and that one’s been mugged and it’s just never ending,” he says, louder and sounding flustered, recalling that a few weeks ago the bands vocalist, Adelia Dell was a victim of serious crime.
“Someone broke into [her] house and fired shots at her. She was actually shot at. Luckily they missed but these things can be quite traumatic. The police arrived an hour later and they didn’t do anything about it. I mean if someone’s shot a gun at you, that’s a serious crime but you know, they just couldn’t be bothered,” says Smith, his voice now shaking with anger.
The tempo changes in the small room as the band moves into the second part of their rehearsal. Michael Bublé’s Save The Last Dance For Me starts to play and some of the musicians take a few minutes to talk about growing up in a tough neighbourhood, with few role-models and little opportunities.
“I dropped out of school and so did a few other band members, we didn’t have any direction or think about our future. But through the band I was motivated to go back to school and now I’ve got my matric,” says Godwin Blignaut (28), third trombone player. He’s tall and skinny, and many of his fellow musicians mention his name when they talk about individual success in the Delft Big Band. Not only did Blignaut finish his matric, he is in the UCT big band, on the dean’s list and supplements his family’s meagre income with money earned from gigs.
“What I’ve experienced in music, is that there is so much discipline: being punctual, being prepared when you come to rehearsals, knowing your part, practising at home, learning to listen to your fellow musicians and just making music, enjoying the music,” says Blignaut while packing away his trumpet. “The Delft Big Band really saved me, but it saved all of us,” he says.
Trumpeter Marshall Adams is at the UCT college of music and plays lead trumpet in the UCT big band, lead vocalist Adelia Dell won a scholarship to Berkeley and has played the lead role in the production, Evita. Some of the tuba players have taken up teaching posts, while others are in demand as professional trumpet players. The band has created jobs and put money back into the community.
In the meantime, Smith is working hard to get government departments to recognise the importance of continuing to fund the main band, as well as the feeder band. “I saw immense potential, enthusiasm and talent, and how it was giving them some sort of direction in life, getting them off the streets and keeping them away from drugs and poverty,” he says.
“It’s essential to get younger people involved. Not only for the social good, but to actually keep the band going, it’s essential for sustainability; so as the players get older we can replace them with younger members,” says Smith.
By now, it’s almost 9pm. The band members pack up their instruments and cram into the cars they have between them, to get back to Delft, leaving behind the late night factory workers who continue their shift. A group of women with overalls and hairnets print, glue, cut and pack. The clocks tick. The machines hum, one woman taps her foot, one begins to whistle as another joins in with lyrics from Frank Sinatra’s It’s almost like being in love“.