Conversation with Bristol Reggae Orchestra founder, Stella Quinlivan

Bristol Reggae Orchestra is one of the UK’s most unique, inspiring and uplifting community projects. Set up in early 2010, its debut sold out St George’s in Bristol, a renowned classical music venue, and turned it into a seething dance hall. Since then, performances at local festivals, in the St Paul’s community and around the southwest have confirmed the Reggae Orchestra as one to watch. Here is our conversation with Bristol Reggae Orchestra founder, Stella Quinlivan

Q: Do you have any connections to Jamaica or Jamaican culture?
I have been working in St Pauls, Bristol for the last ten years. I came to set up a learning and family centre, which was being built as part of the regeneration of the area.  St Pauls is an inner city area of Bristol.  It has a multicultural population and is particularly identified with the Caribbean community.  The majority of Caribbeans living in the area are from Jamaica.  The Learning Centre ran a café, selling Caribbean food.  Every year, the Centre was involved in St Pauls Carnival – the biggest Caribbean carnival in England, after Notting Hill. I have loved working and socialising in the area.
Q: How did you come up with the idea to start a Reggae Orchestra?
 A local Jamaican resident in St Pauls used to come and see me from time to time.  His name was Chris Williams. He would come for a chat, ask to have official letters explained to him etc. One day he said, “What St Pauls needs is a reggae orchestra. What are you going to do about it?”  People often asked me to help them set up projects etc.  Some were more realistic than others.  This request intrigued me.  I knew what reggae was.  I knew what an orchestra was, but a reggae orchestra?  I looked on the Internet to see if there were any in existence. Apparently there was one in Australia!  The only other thing that I could find was a reference to Mykaell Riley, who developed the Reggae Philharmonic Orchestra in the 1980’s.

Question: What first drew your attention to Reggae?
I guess Bob Marley’s songs must have caught my attention first.  His powerful songs are so significant to so many.  I used to live in New Zealand and noticed how popular he was within the Maori community.  They are great singers and produce wonderful music of their own.  However, they identified with his songs for freedom and against poverty and being put down.

Question: Can you tell us about the first time you heard reggae. What was that experience like? Goodness!  I can’t remember the first time.  It must have been listening to the radio in the 70’s, when I was a young girl. One of the first reggae bands I saw was Misty in Roots, in the early 80’s.  Coincidently one of the original line-up, Simba Tongogara, now lives in St Pauls. I instinctively loved the music, though it was some time before I learned more about the genre, with its different styles and focus on politics, religion or love.  

Q: Once you came up with the idea how did you find the musicians?
I produced a poster and fliers and took it round the bars and the bookies in St Pauls and Easton, as well as promoting it in the Learning Centre, local websites, and on Ujima Radio, the local radio station. Working with a colleague, we engaged Charles Ogolvie from Black Roots to help champion the idea within the community.  His vast knowledge of reggae and respect within the community brought in a number of interested people who wanted to play in or support the orchestra.

Q: Are any of the musicians Jamaican or of Jamaican Heritage?
Yes!  Junior grew up and learned to play Alto Saxophone in the Boys Brigade in Kingston. Barrington Chambers (percussion) is from Montego Bay.  Before coming to England, he was a sound engineer and worked on sound systems all over Jamaica.  Richard Williams’ (Vocals) family is from Jamaica. Anthony Ashbourne (Vocals) was a Choir Member during attendance at St. Aloysius School, Kingston, Jamaica.  Sharon Reid’s (Clarinet) family are from Jamaica.

Question: What influence had this style of music had on the non- Jamaican musicians in the Orchestra?
Everyone who joins the orchestra has to love reggae.  However, not all of them could immediately produce the right vibe.  They may have been playing technically correct but needed to – let go a little?  They have really enjoyed learning and developing their reggae style.  Occasional master classes that we have held, featuring musicians such as Gary Crosby and Abram Wilson from Jazz Jamaica, Bekele from Talisman, and Bunny Marrett from Black Roots, have helped this.

Q: How has the Orchestra been received in the Bristol community?
Really well! The first ever performance was sold out.  OK some of the audience were family and friends, but a lot of people were intrigued at what a reggae orchestra would sound like and were excited to hear the sound.  Since then, each performance gets people dancing and calling for more.  I have heard some St Pauls residents (not part of the orchestra) refer to BRO as ‘theirs’. They don’t do that lightly, so we must have something right.

Question: Has the orchestra performed outside the UK country?
 Not yet.  We have been asked to play at the Millennium Centre in Cardiff this year – not quite out of the UK but outside England!

Question: Are there any plans to release an album?
 We are currently trying to raise the funds to make a recording.

Question: What are some of the songs the Orchestra performs?
We do a mixture of covers and original work.  For e.g. ‘Three Little Birds’ (Bob Marley), ‘Shine’ (Aswad), ‘Big Ship’ (Freddie McGregor) and ‘I’m in the mood for ska’ (Lord Tanamo). We also do classic tunes that have rarely been performed in the reggae style, such as songs made famous by the likes of Nat King Cole and music by more contemporary African and Jazz musicians. All the songs are arranged especially for the orchestra by our musical director, Norma Daykin. We also try to feature songs by local musicians, such as Farm Digging (Bunny Marrett – a Jamaican musician, living in St Pauls) and Golden Glow by local musicians, AMJ Collective.

Q: Do you perform any original Reggae songs written specifically for the Orchestra?
 Yes!  Our musical director, Norma Daykin has written, ‘Stepping Out’.

Q: Can you tell us the future plans for the Orchestra?
Well, we are working hard to finance our first recording.  We are planning another workshop in April with master classes from professional artists.  We also have several gigs lined up during the year.  We would really like to perform at Glastonbury (The biggest music festival in the UK) and at WOMAD. 
Finally, we are hoping to soon commission a new piece of work from a refugee involved in Bristol Refugee Rights.  This will be paid for by LARA a fund set up in memory of Lorraine Ayensu.  As well as working with refugees, she was a wonderful musician and a great supporter of Bristol Reggae Orchestra.  Sadly she died last year and we all miss her.

Question: Have you ever been to Jamaica? What was the experience like for you?
Sadly no.  One day I will get there, hopefully – maybe with the orchestra!
Question: Thanks for the interview and the Orchestra a successful upcoming season. Do you have any final words?
Thank you for interviewing me. One day maybe, Bristol Reggae Orchestra could visit Jamaica and play where it’s really at!