Wonderbrass: creating a participatory community through music

Impact: Cultural impacts

Description of impact

In South Wales there were many well trained and able musicians as a legacy of the brass band/school music educational systems. Wonderbrass offers a context whereby these skills can be utilized in a creative context and secondly to deepen engagement with musical creativity by offering a context whereby participants could creatively participate in the musical activities of the band via improvisation, arrangement and composition. Therefore, the need was for new contexts for creative participation in music making and the mode of addressing this was the band.
All participants have benefitted through the act of participating and belonging to the band. The impacts are social, cultural and quality of life impacts. We have provided musical contributions to hundreds of community events as we are affordable on a community scale budget. Thousands of people have seen and enjoyed us at festivals and events throughout Wales, UK and Western Europe, as well as in the media. We have also worked with USW composers who have heard their pieces performed by a big band, got feedback from the performers and benefitted from this rare experience. In the last year we have launched our Wonderbrass at 25 project via a £20,000 grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund. This grant recognises the impact the band has had in Wales over its 25-year existence and documents it as an ongoing project with continuing positive influence on well-being (members, families, audience members) and on the cultural scene in Wales.
Music policy is changing quickly in Cardiff at the moment as it moves to become the UK’s first ‘music city’. As Wonderbrass’ director I have recently contributed to panels on Cardiff’s live music economy – an economy that thrives on social entrepreneurism as much as on social and financial capital. In these discussions I have ensured that participation in all its forms has been on the ‘City of Music’ agenda and opportunities to participate in music making are enshrined in the cultural statement that ensues from it. The invitation to contribute to this policy debate is both a recognition of Wonderbrass’ impact and an invitation to have influence over future policy.
The impacts are social, cultural and quality of life impacts. Our current membership ranges from teens to late 60s but historically it has been to nearly 90. There aren’t many contexts outside of extended families where intergenerational friendships like this can happen in a context of mutual interdependence and knowledge transfer. The impact has been spread over the past 25 years but in the last 5 years we would cite:
• our commission in 2014 of three new works which were performed at festivals around Wales,
• our staging in 2015 of an open weekend in Torfaen borough where new people were invited to come and work with the band and which resulted in a performance in Cwmbran,
• our participation in the community carnivals of 2013, 2014 and 2015 (run by South Wales Intercultural Community Arts),
• our participation in the Pride August festivals and parades 2015 and 2016,
• our participation in St David’s Day parades in Cardiff every one of the last 5 years including this March,
• our currently ongoing HLF funded project which commissions three composers to work collaboratively with the band on new material that will be premiered In October 2018.
• The band gives its members cultural and social capital as well as confidence as performers, musicians and citizens.

How did your research contribute?

The underpinning research is into the engagement of the public in musical participation, creation and performance. The facilitation of this was the subject of my PhD. This was done through my work with and for Wonderbrass. Knowledge exchange was through musical performance skills, improvisation, arrangement and composition. The impact is via the beneficial effect on participants’ lives and well-being (evidenced through published research) the engagement of audiences and collaborators such as venues, communities, institutions. All this is evidenced in my chapter in ‘This is our Music’ (see section 6) and my article in Jazz Research Journal (see section 4).

Smith, R. (2011) Wonderbrass: A South Wales jazz collective. Jazz Research Journal, 5(1-2), pp.166-175.
Smith, R. Wonderbrass as a South Wales Jazz Collective in Gebhardt, N. and Whyton, T. (2015) This Is Our Music; The cultural politics of jazz collectives New York and London, Routledge.

Who is affected?

A growing body of amateur musicians have benefited through participation but also venues, promoters and audiences.
Pooling our resources has proved a radical, collective move. The fact that we were one of the first bands to do this, to plough our earnings back into the project and be able to operate when necessary outside of the arts funding structures which are extremely changeable. It has enabled us to survive and thrive through many changes in arts council policy and seen us outlast the much-loved Brecon Jazz festival, the Torfaen Jazz festival and Cardiff’s annual summer carnival. Our status as a noteworthy musical collective is recognized in the inclusion of the chapter on our work in an anthology of writings about jazz collectives in Europe and Americas. We continue to provide a participative platform for non-professional and semi-professional musicians throughout South Wales, where participation becomes creative, creating new intellectual property and a career in music for some. Examples of progression to professional work would be Nick Briggs, Gareth Roberts, Mike Newman, Francesca Dimech all of whom are professional or semi-professional performers and creative musicians. Any stage on the path has proved hugely beneficial to the participants as is evidenced in the article: Smith, R., 2011.
Category of impactCultural impacts
Impact levelIn progress