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'God is faithful, and he has a plan'

RUSS BRAVO talks music, faith and family with award-winning saxophonist and Prince’s Trust ambassador YolanDa Brown ...

RUSS BRAVO talks music, faith and family with award-winning saxophonist and Prince’s Trust ambassador YolanDa Brown

It might not be inaccurate to describe YolanDa Brown’s CV as a touch intimidating.

An award-winning jazz saxophonist (two MOBOs), who also sings and plays piano, she’s bilingual after a year in Spain as part of two Masters gained in operations management, and has suspended her PhD at the University of Kent while pursuing her music career.

She’s been to tea with the Queen, is a Prince’s Trust Ambassador and has played with everyone from The Temptations, Mica Paris and Alexander O’Neal to Jools Holland and Soweto Kinch. And has seen her first album April Showers May Flowers top the iTunes Jazz Charts this spring. All of this without signing to a major label.

So it’s a relief to find a chatty, friendly and down to earth young woman who carries her extraordinary gifts and talents lightly, and is keen to talk more about her faith and background.

Born in Barking in 1982, she soon found music struck a chord with her: “I tried violin, drums, piano – all the things kids get to play. Then at 13 I was introduced to the saxophone and felt an instant connection with it.

“If I was happy or sad, I could just play – it was quite therapeutic and helped me process my emotions. I joined a band at university to make some extra money and the next thing I knew it was a career!”

Playing alone in her room as a teenager, YolanDa found music helped her express how she was feeling. While others worried about boyfriends, what they wore and so on “with my music, I didn’t feel pressured to do that. Music was just like prayer – it was between you and God.”

Brought up by parents with strong Christian values but often deterred by the church institution, YolanDa’s spiritual journey started at school: “I was born again at 15. Someone invited me to a youth outreach project – a play about the parables of Jesus. I knew the values but didn’t understand about the relationship with God. That was where it started.

“My parents supported me in my faith – they came to church with me on occasions, and helped me explore my relationship with God.”

Now she is part of Liberty Church in North London and gets support as well as the opportunity to minister in music there. With constant touring, many musicians struggle to find a church base but for YolanDa “it’s a fellowship – once you find that, it’s a golden thing”.

Her flourishing academic career in the field of business and management studies has enabled her to forge her own path in the often demanding music industry.

“There have been a few approaches from major labels. But I am myself – I don’t want to pretend to be anyone else. I’d have meetings where they’d say: ‘We can make you more sexy with shorter skirts and shorter tops’ and I’d say: ‘Sorry, no – it’s not me!’

“I didn’t want to be pigeon-holed and the right offer wasn’t there. I’ve worked so hard to have my relationship with God and my values that I don’t want to break that – not for a million dollars!”

This steely determination to do it her way has meant it’s maybe taken longer for her debut album to see the light of day. “When I was introduced to the industry, to get the interest of listeners I would do covers of pop songs and so on, so the jazz industry thought I was a covers artist.

“It took a long time to break down those stereotypes so I released some EPs with my own compositions called Finding My Voice and A Step Closer, and these were all instrumental. We’ve toured this music for the past five years and been self-funding. So we locked ourselves away last year and managed to get the album done.”

Now April Showers May Flowers looks to be broadening her appeal, with a mix of jazz, soul, R&B, Afrobeat and reggae, and giving her a chance to play piano and sing. “I like diversity,” she says, “I want the audience to feel they’ve been on a journey.”

Not that her talent has gone unnoticed. She works increasingly in the charity sector, particularly with the Yamaha Class Band, a project that visits schools in deprived areas encouraging children to learn an instrument. “It’s amazing the confidence it brings them,” she says.

The future looks bright for YolanDa, whatever path she takes. And her view is disarmingly simple: “God is faithful, and he has a plan. Wherever we’re told to go, we’ll go.”

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