At Brass for Africa, the Debut Is the First Lesson

The Ensemble seeks to connect and inform all people who are committed to ensemble music education for youth empowerment and social change.

At Brass for Africa, the Debut Is the First Lesson

Ronald Kabuye, Project Manager, Brass for Africa


Photo: Brass for Africa

Brass for Africa’s mission is to create brighter futures for disadvantaged children and young people in Africa, using music as a tool to empower and transform their lives. Registered as a charity in the U.K., Brass for Africa was founded over 10 years ago by airline pilot Jim Trott, who donated 30 instruments from his son’s junior band. Today, it supports over 2,000 children and young people in Uganda, Liberia, and Rwanda.

At BfA, our aim is to nurture the transferable life skills gained through learning brass instruments. In doing so, we concentrate on eight key attributes: communication, concentration, self-confidence, teamwork, resilience, leadership, problem-solving, and perseverance. We believe these skills have the potential to support many life-changing activities.

But how? Our young musicians come from orphanages, informal settlements, and refugee settlements, where brass instruments are not easily acquired. And our program can be an intimidating prospect for any young person; not only does it take time and patience to learn an instrument, but it also takes confidence—a sense of belonging—to feel ready to perform for an audience. Our solution is simple: a small group of teachers who travel to meet new participants (primarily ages 8–26) where they are most comfortable. Our recruitment methods are organic and, of course, optional; teachers put on unofficial concerts that help participants feel comfortable and self-assured in performance settings. As young people share in the vibrancy and joy of making music, they begin to see themselves as musicians.

Singing “Music My Savior” [Editor’s Note: A performance of “Music My Savior” can be viewed at the end of Topowa!, a documentary that follows the journeys of 12 Brass for Africa participants], we engage these young people, make a circle, dance around the circle, introduce ourselves and our instrument, and then play something for them while sharing our love of music. One by one, we step into the circle’s center and proceed to have the time of our lives. Eventually, the participants start joining in.

Photo: Brass for Africa

To paraphrase Kwizera Samuel, a former participant who is now a volunteer: seeing teachers introduce their instruments while making beautiful sounds makes you wish you had the confidence and ability to play like them. That is what we call “Resurrection of Hope.”

This takes us to the next step, which I call an “Hour of Transformation.” In this hour, participants learn about the most important thing: taking care of the instrument. After all, the instrument is their tool; it helps them connect with music more deeply and express themselves more fully. Participants play games focused on putting the instrument in and out of their cases. Once this is done, participants get to handle instruments for the first time—a happy, buzzing period during which they make their first sounds.

As we see it, those first sounds are the most beautiful. Teachers make sure to celebrate this idea during this first session; once the young participants have been acquainted with instruments and teachers, they all put on a show, marching and playing on the streets of their villages and communities. This is a special moment for participants and teachers alike. For participants, the mini performance gives them hope and confidence; as teachers, we get to see these young people come alive in new ways.

In Northern Uganda’s Bidibidi Refugee Settlement, the second-largest refugee settlement in the world, we recently started a music and life skills program called Lab Uganda and Community Music Project in partnership with Music Connects, a Germany charity. Young musician Paul Nyabaka, 21, had this to say after his first mini marching band performance: “When you march in the community, you see a lot of people coming out. This brings peace to the community, and a stress-relief factor.”

As teacher Florence Nakachwa rightly puts it, “Seeing the participants march for the first time shows that they have understood my language. They know that they have the potential to become better players, make the community happy, and bring people together.”

That is the greatest lesson music teaches us—that we have the ability to empower, impact, and transform our lives and the lives of others.