I’m Rob Smith. I’ve been a musician since I was at school and could bash out a tune on the piano at home. I studied piano and clarinet in school and took my clarinet with me when I went to study music in London.
I think I probably played the clarinet once in the entire time I was at university. So when I was asked to join a rock band I traded it in for a saxophone and I’ve not really looked back, though I now have not only a clarinet again but also a bass clarinet. It wasn’t until I came to Cardiff that I really got into playing jazz music. I formed a band called the Heavy Quartet and we used to busk in Cardiff city centre to make money.
I formed Wonderbrass in 1992. Back then it was only ever supposed to be a ten-week long project for the National Garden festival of Wales, in Ebbw Vale, but the members of the band loved it so much they decided they would find the money to keep it going. And they did. 25 years later Wonderbrass are still going strong and have some fantastic achievements under our belts. We’ve performed as part of the 2012 Cultural Olympiad with saxophonist Jason Yarde; represented Wales in an international jazz festival in France and performed at a gathering in Cardiff for visiting EU leaders.
Wonderbrass now funds itself and fuses professional musicianship and community music in quite a unique way. We produce professional performances, for which we charge a fee. This money then pays for the musical directors to run rehearsals and provide music to perform. It also pays for instruments for band members to use and to fund trips and organise other musical experiences for band members. Last year we wanted to play for the Budapest half marathon. Using money earned from gigs and busking we were able to spend a weekend playing music in Budapest, meeting other musicians and exploring the city’s culture and art. It was brilliant.
The band has taken me places I’d never have expected it to when we started out. I wrote my PhD thesis based on my work with Wonderbrass, as well as creating lots of original compositions and some pretty involved arrangements for the band; we’ve travelled all over Europe playing at festivals, international events and meeting some incredible people along the way. Some members of the band have said Wonderbrass has literally changed their lives.
Sometimes they mean that in a musical context – quite a few people have cut their teeth on Wonderbrass, so to speak, and gone on to have professional careers as musicians. Other people mean it socially. It’s a hugely diverse mix of people all thrown together doing something creative, sharing goals, achievements, highs and lows. I think that can form a really incredible bond between people who may never have crossed paths otherwise. We’ve always tried to be a beacon of what community music can achieve for people: we are an inter generational band and we were pioneering in putting women in numbers on stage at jazz festivals in an era when it was pretty much a male preserve. Jazz doesn’t feel quite so make dominated now and we like to think we’ve been a part of that change – especially at home in Wales.
We’re so excited to be working with the Heritage Lottery Fund to celebrate 25 years of Wonderbrass. The project is inviting anyone who has ever been in the band to join us for a series of workshop and recording sessions with myself and other composers who’ve worked with us in the past, including South African Trumpet legend Claude Deppa and tenor saxophonist Nick Briggs – Nick is one of those players I mentioned who joined the band and went on to become a professional musician – now he’s back composing for us. We’ll be writing collaborative compositions during these sessions, gathering up everyone’s personal stories of Wonderbrass into one big musical story, which we’ll add to the band’s repertoire
We’ve run one of these workshops already and it’s been absolutely wonderful watching people who’ve not seen one another for 10, 20 years catch up again and make music together. I’m so excited to see this developing over the rest of the project.
We’ll be showcasing the result of these workshops in October as part of the Made in Roath festival. Anyone who’s been involved in the workshops will be invited to perform on stage and we’ll be giving out free CDs of the music developed during our workshop sessions. We’re also interviewing members past and present and you’ll be able to hear their stories on the People’s Collection Wales website very soon.
Part of the celebrations include creating videos about the band. We’re working with Laurence Hall to develop a documentary about the band, and we’ve already made a music video with Joe Marvelly featuring a composition I helped the band to create as part of the project. It’s called Santes Dwynwen Shuffle and it is inspired by the Welsh version of St. Valentine. She suffers in PR terms by having her saint’s day on the same day as Scotland’s Burns night so we’re trying to big her up with this track.