REVIEW: Brotherhood of Breath at the 2018 South Coast Jazz Festival

The Brotherhood of Breath
Brotherhood of Breath: The Music of Chris McGregor
(Ropetackle Arts Centre. 26 January 2018. South Coast Jazz Festival. Review and iPhone snaps by Sebastian Scotney)

The question I found I was asking myself, and ever more insistently as Friday's rather special gig by the Brotherhood of Breath Reunion Band at the South Coast Jazz Festival proceeded, was: why on earth haven't they been asked to play at any recent festivals before this one? And that question instantly gave rise to another: why isn't this band at every festival?

Brotherhood of Breath has an incredible and infectiously joyful collective spirit, a shared legacy, and an authenticity which really mark it out. The entire performance had the feel of a celebration, and as a number of band-members and others kept repeating, the very fine, unique and characterful music by Chris McGregor which forms its repertoire deserves to be heard far more widely.

Back to those questions though. One answer for the under-exposure is probably that the band hasn't actually been heard that often. In reality, it has only re-formed in recent years to mark specific occasions, of which the most recent was a memorial for the vocalist Pinise Saul. But maybe there are deeper reasons. Like the fact that it represents London-exiled South African music rather than the music of the country itself. At least part of the significance of "Breath" is that it demonstrates the very deep roots that the exiles put down here, and their seminal influence on several generations of British musicians, of which the Loose Tubes generation, well represented on stage on this night, are just part of the story. There was a running gag from saxophonist and MC Frank Williams about how the tune Sweet as Honey was/is always called Sweet as Harry, referencing a one-time band stalwart, the much-missed Harry Beckett.

The two worlds are of the exile, the adopted and the native country, are separate, and that came across when there was total and bizarre confusion in the Q&A between Marcus Wyatt's South Africa-based Blue Note Tribute Orkestra (another band definitely in need of wider acknowledgment)  and... Robert Wyatt.

At the heart of everything: Steve Arguelles with
Michael Curtis Ruiz

The infectious energy of the band seemed to come from all kinds of places, but musically at the heart of everything was the pairing of drummer Steve Arguelles with bassist Michael Curtis Ruiz. Arguelles was phenomenal throughout. Tony Coe once said the reason he liked Arguelles' playing so much is that he "doesn't drum". That's right. He doesn't ever impose himself through volume, but his playing was flawless, and constantly inspired and anchored the entire 13-piece group. Alastair Gavin, the other member of the rhythm team is also a fine player, but has that characteristic of playing what is necessary and important, even at the risk of hardly being noticed.


A special moment:
Annie Whitehead as featured soloist (and dedicatee)
of Country Cooking

There was a wonderful moment when Arguelles and bassist Ruiz set up the groove for Country Cooking, a superbly taken feature by Annie Whitehead. But before she stepped forward to play, she stepped back into the half-light by the side of the stage, let the joy and the buoyancy of the music affect her – and danced.
One way to appreciate and to understand how much this music means is to watch Claude Deppa. He had explained that in South Africa, for any occasion, "when we are born, when we die,  get married – or divorced, we sing and we dance". Deppa was leading, directing from the back of the band with an astonishing sense of all that shared joy and understanding of the music.

So this was a gig which was remembrance, party, celebration, reunion, explanation, and music which is deeply necessary all rolled in to one.

This event is also a major feather in the cap for the South Coast Festival, now in its fourth year, and, I was told, with every evening gig having sold out. 

To end there can only be one question: now that Brotherhood of Breath have brought their joy to a first festival, which festival is going to welcome them next?

A photo call afterwards for Annie Whitehead, Frank Williams, Fyass Virji
Dave Devries and Dave Bitelli

BAND

Piano: Alastair Gavin
Bass: Michael Curtis Ruiz
Drums: Steve Arguelles

Trumpets: Dave Devries, Claude Deppa, Chris Batchelor
Trombones: Annie Whitehead, Fyass Virji
Saxophones: Chris Biscoe. Dave Bitelli, Julian Nicholas, Robbie Juritz, Frank Williams.

SET LIST - All compositions by Chris McGregor unless stated

Mandisa
Sejui - Peter Tholo Segona arr. McGregor
Bakwetha - Ernest Mothle arr. McGregor
Sea Breeze

Dakar
Country Cooking
Sweet as Honey
Mayibue
Amasi

Big G - George Lee arr. McGregor

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