Sometime last year, the sound of Led Zeppelin’s ‘Immigrant Song’ blasting out of my TV caught me by surprise. Hearing this song in my house isn’t in itself a massive shocker, but I was fairly sure I’d left CBeebies on to keep the kids entertained while my wife and I collated everything we’d need for a day out. Had one of them got hold of the remote control? Hit a wrong button, perhaps?
On the TV was the mildly surreal sight of a studio full of kids rocking the flip out – my own joining in from the living room – while YolanDa Brown led her band through a raucous version of the 70s rock classic. What the HELL was going on? I settled down on the sofa to find out…
A secret: want to see the BBC at its absolute finest? Forget about the drama, m8. You need to get on CBeebies. The best of CBeebies is where you’ll see that famous mission statement in action: Educate, Entertain, Inform. One thing that CBeebies does particularly well is picking subjects that kids are interested in and teaching them in digestible formats. My children have been particularly fascinated by shows such as Numberblocks, Yakka Dee, Maddie’s Do You Know and YolanDa’s Band Jam. All are short by adult standards – episodes of Numberblocks come in around the five-minute mark – but they pack in a stack of information in that is inevitably then parroted back to parents across the country.
YolanDa’s Band Jam is CBeebies’ award-winning music education show, hosted by the also award-winning YolanDa Brown. YolanDa has the sort of CV a superhuman would envy: the UK’s leading female saxophonist, she is the only person to have won two consecutive jazz MOBO’s. She has toured with acts ranging from The Temptations to Billy Ocean, Diana Krall and Courtney Pine and collaborated with the likes of Jools Holland and reggae legend Bob Marley’s son Julian Marley. She also acts as a celebrity ambassador for several charities, and – alongside Nile Rodgers, Zara Larsson and JP Cooper – is an ambassador for the BBC’s new music education initiative Bring the Noise. And this is before we get to hosting the CBeebies Proms and various TV and radio shows. In conversation she’s lively and enthusiastic, with a deep passion for music regardless of genre instilled in her from youth, “…starting from a young age with my dad’s record collection, y’know, not growing up with one genre, from opera to ska through to reggae and pop and everything in between. I think being able to listen to those genres and wanting to recreate it was what led me to want to learn an instrument in the first place.”
The show returned for its second series this week and boasts an eclectic mix of musical guests including Maximo Park, The Lightning Seeds, Imogen Heap, Flamingods and Feeder.
“For me I think it’s really important that we cover every genre and every mix that we can possibly find ‘cos even in my everyday adult music I never stick to one genre. It’s more about the feel – how does the music make you feel? And so usually either we have subject matter or an instrument, and my first instinct is to go to the opposite. So for example if we were working with the violin, it’d be ‘don’t touch classical at all!’ How about drum ‘n’ bass, y’know? *laughs* I think it’s really nice to have instruments outside of their comfort zone or where you (normally) hear them. When we’re writing the music for the show it’s really fun to be able to break those barriers and actually just try to create something new. And you find the young audience members – Bandjammers in the audience – they don’t care about genre! They just want the music to make them dance and enjoy themselves.”
I agree – whilst yes, the Frozen 2 soundtrack is currently on heavy rotation in my house, my daughter also lists Lou Reed’s ‘Perfect Day’ as her favourite song, and will often happily sing along to – of all people – Sisters of Mercy…
“Yeah yeah, exactly that! And I think that if we give young people an opportunity to hear different types of music and different instruments they will make up their own minds, and I feel the same way with my daughter. She’ll be singing along to a Beatles track and then the next minute she’s singing Bob Marley and y’know, she doesn’t think genre, she just thinks about the emotion that the song gives her at the time.”
How do you choose which artists you approach?
“We always try to get sort of a wide range of instruments and as well genres. But really we want to hear from artists that have a story and a connection to their instruments. From series 1, having Anoushka Shankar on the sitar to having oh, y’know, Newton Faulkner playing guitar in a different way… it’s really nice to hear how artists have a relationship with their instrument. And it’s lovely, I think, from having full rock bands like Maximo Park and the Lightning Seeds to having an opera singer in Laura Wright. I think it’s really nice just to have a nice blend of musicians in the room.”
I’m of an age, so seeing Maximo Park on the list piqued my interest…
“They were really great and rewrote one of their songs, ‘Our Velocity’, and it was really a fantastic time. And it’s lovely speaking to the artists and seeing them so empowered and so enthusiastic about bringing their music to a younger audience as well, because, y’know they’re used to playing to a different sort of audience, and yet when they get in there they can’t believe the energy that the children give back to them when they’re playing. It’s just really lovely to see. You find as well that a lot of them have young families, children of a similar age to ours, so they actually sort of relish the opportunity to focus on their children and imagine how they’re going to react to it. Y’know, we had Feeder come in as well and it was really nice that they were thinking in that way.”
Do you have any particular favourite/stand out instruments featured in this series?
“When (Noisettes singer) Shingai Shoniwa came on, she shared some really fascinating instruments from Africa, and so that was nice to see how they were made and the sounds and rhythms that she could make. And we had an interesting instrument, it’s gone out of my head now, I might have to email it to you! In Bhangra music and it was really nice to have. We had Indian dancers on the stage and we learnt all the moves but also hearing sonically what the instruments sound like and what sort of having it broken down to us was really nice as well. The name of the instrument will come back to me very shortly! Sarangi! That was it”
I thought the sound gloves sounded particularly interesting…
“They’re fantastic! It was a wonderful VT…the children really enjoyed being able to craft the sounds just using these gloves.”
Like a theremin?
“Similar to the theremin, but Imogen Heap (has) got these gloves and actually it’s like if you lift your hand up and raise the pitch and change the pitch, but also you can record your own voice or your own sounds and manipulate them in different ways, a bit more advanced than the theremin.”
Yeah, I’m a bit wary of giving my kids access to a theremin!
“The young person was so good at it! And managed to engage with the instrument so well!”
So how did Band Jam come about?
“I’ve always loved sort of working with young people and music, and when I tour I’m always doing workshops and making sure I’m available to whoever wants to learn about improvisation or freedom of music and I was actually writing a series of children’s books relating to music and that comes along with making music, so when I got the call from CBeebies it was a no-brainer. It all fitted into the plan perfectly.”
Are the books still on the horizon?
“They are indeed, yes, yes. Lots of conversations and they’ll all be coming out very soon. They actually started just me wanting to be able to explain to my daughter what happens when I go on tour, sort of in a child friendly way. And it’s just kind of really grown from there, so I’m really excited about when they come out.”
Can you tell us more about the upcoming Band Jam live show?
“Oh, I’m so excited! It’s the first time that we’ll be taking the show from the TV screen to the stage and I think it’s nice being able to have that audience there and let them be interactive with us, as a band. So we’ll have the live band there, we’ll take a bit of a musical journey as well, which is very important for me, to get all the genres and their songs in there. We’ll have the reoccurring songs from the series as well that the young listeners seem to know. We played at the BBC Summer Social this year, and the reaction of the audiences was really lovely, to know that they’re familiar with the songs, and we’ll have some of the favourite songs from the series too. But most of all, it’s an interactive time where the young audience – and their parents – really need to be involved and get up and dance have fun. It’ll be a really great time.”
What does being an ambassador for the Bring The Noise campaign actually involve?
It’s a fantastic campaign, just wanting to bring music making to every young person in the country. Even with my work as chair of Youth Music, it’s important to us that every young person has the opportunity to make music, and Bring The Noise has created a great resource in schools and also at home – parents can also tune into it – so that young people can learn from people in the music industry, learn about music and just be inspired. We did a fantastic concert last year with the BBC Philharmonic, which was sort of a journey of discovery using music, and I’ve really enjoyed making short series about finding sounds in everyday places. And I think that’s the important thing for parents and music makers to remember is that you can make music with anything. Some children have fantastic access to musical instruments, but actually we can make musical instruments, we can write lyrics, we can write poetry or we can combine it with art, and there’s so many other ways to engage with music if the access is not there. I’ve really had fun making music in different ways and opening up young people’s musical palette as well. It’s a great, great campaign and I’m really honoured to be a part of it.
What’s the strangest thing you’ve used to make a musical instrument?
“I did a series that will come out this year called Found Sounds and we were actually in Romford Market of all places and found a giant comb and managed to make some interesting percussion sounds with a giant comb from a store, which was really fun! *Laughs*. Anything from tubing through to pots and pans, anything can make really, really great sounds, so I really enjoyed that series.”
What’s next? I mean, you’ve had a busy career so far…
“*laughs* I know, I know! Well, I enjoy it all and even though it seems like so many things are happening they all link together, which is lovely. So I’m still touring with my band and my adult music, where we go to Australia in March, which I’m really looking forward to. Then we’ll come back and continue our European leg of the tour. Then in my philanthropic elements we have the Drake Yolanda Award, going again for 2020 which we kicked off last year and we had 10 wonderful awardees that are going to be doing the celebration concert in February and then we’re taking applications now for the next round and that’s been really nice, just to be able to support emerging artists with their journey because I’m independent and I know what it’s like to have to build it all yourself! So I’m really enjoying that as well. And of course the other elements of presenting are always fun. So yeah, I enjoy it all and no two days are the same *laughs* Keeps me on my toes!”
Just to close off, is there any particular new music that is exciting you at the moment?
“I think we’re in an exciting time with having British music at the fore. For me growing up I was always hearing about American music, but apart from the traditional pop sounds there was no British scene whereas I think now, in the UK, we have amazing music coming out of every genre and every style…I’m really excited for the future generations ‘cos they can actually just look to home for inspiration and it’s not just in one genre. I mean, we’ve got Grime, through to pop and experimental music, the jazz scene as well, so I’m actually really sort of encouraged and inspired by what we’ve got going on here, and I think the thing that I want more of and get excited about is collaborations, and I think if we could see some more cross-genre collaborations in the UK we’d have a really exciting platform that people would still look to, y’know?”
YolanDa’s Band Jam can be viewed on BBC iPlayer and CBeebies now.
The first ever YolanDa’s Band Jam live show is taking place on 21st February 2020 at the Southbank Centre as part of the Imagine Festival.
Interview by Steve Horry