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Just Brass 79 - Where there's Brass

Just Brass 79 - Where there's Brass

It’s not every day that you come across a brass band playing in rural France, unless, of course, you live in the heart of Poitou-Charentes, as Roger Moss discovered.

Just-Brass-4-deux-sevresThe village of Limalonges sits almost on the borders of three départements: Charente, Deux-Sèvres and Vienne. This otherwise peaceful commune also has the unusual distinction of possessing a real brass band, and a resolutely Anglo-French one at that, as I discovered when I met founder members Neville James and Nelzir Morisset. 

I asked Neville how it all began. “I arrived in France 2004, and had played trombone in brass bands in Glossop, to the east of Manchester. I knew even before I came that there would be virtually nothing similar here, apart from one or two top-notch outfits – mainly professional or semi-pro musicians from the conservatoires and based in big cities like Paris and Bordeaux. There didn’t really seem to be anything for me, so the first thing I did after we moved over was to join the Harmonie Musicale de Civray, which happened to be run by Englishman Geoffrey Edwards. I played with them for four or five years, and that’s how I met Nelzir, who plays tuba. The people were fantastic... really nice, but while it had some brass, it was predominantly for woodwind instruments, so the sound of the band wasn’t what was in my blood.”

Then Nelzir introduced Neville to ‘le Big Band Celleois’ from Celles-sur-Belle (Deux-Sèvres), playing great swing music, but of course it still wasn’t quite what he had played back in England, and longed to play again. As Neville recalls: “A couple of English colleagues – George and Headley – felt just the same, so the three of us decided to start playing together as a trio. We were just bass trombone, a tenor horn and euphonium – not a good mix of instruments, as normally you need someone to lead with a cornet.

Traditional brass-bands don’t have trumpets, they have cornets, which are naturally quite mellow, but most of the players here play trumpet, with a more ‘direct’ sound. After a couple of weeks I discussed it with Nelzir and Dede, a baritone player, and they decided to join us. Pretty soon we were up to six or seven players, and it was starting to become viable, as there are existing arrangements written for a ten-piece line-up. We were then joined by Penny Day, who had played French horn in the RAF, had switched to trumpet here, and soon found herself buying a cornet.”


The next hurdle would be finding a Musical Director. “While we scrounged for music and tried to find more players we were also on the lookout for an MD. We were lucky enough to find Ron Fletcher, a retired ex-Guards player who came from other side of La Rochefoucauld, initially to play tuba with us. It soon became apparent, though, that his talents might be even more useful to us as a Director. We played a few concerts, and all was going well until one day Ron suffered a fatal heart attack...”

So the search resumed once again, and eventually turned up Gavin Clemons, a young ex-military player. “He was a really versatile musician, who was equally at home on cornet or trombone. We persuaded him to join us for concerts, but like many young people coming here, he was always scratching around for work and ended up returning to the UK to join the Police Force. So we’d lost another MD. It’s a very special skill – one or two of us have tried but had no idea of what was involved. There’s just so much to read from the score.” In the end it fell to Rob Burnett, who had played euphonium at a very high level in the Cory Band for about forty years in Wales, and who agreed take it on ‘for a short period’. That was over two years ago, and currently Rob is still giving the band some direction while playing so it’s no surprise that he’s as keen as anyone that they find a dedicated Director.

But, as Neville observes, it’s surprising who comes out of the woodwork, once they know you’re around: “We’re still short of players, as a full British-format brass band has twenty-five players, and sheet music is scored for that kind of instrumentation. But we’re now up to nineteen players and last night another chap – a cornet player – came along to a rehearsal and offered to play with us. He doesn’t live here full-time, but it’s new blood, so he’s very welcome.” 

I ask Neville about the blend of nationalities and cultures involved. “We’re currently eight French and eleven British players – people think of us as English, but as Rob is Welsh and proud of it, I make a point now of introducing him as un gallois.” Nelzir obviously agrees: “Oui, c’est très important!” he interjects, with a knowing smile. So, with such a mix, is language a problem? “No, not really,” continues Nelzir. “Rob addresses the British players in English and the French players in French. Of course, we all understand terms like piano or crescendo, which are international, and most of the British try to speak some French. For us they’re mates, fellow musicians, and style-wise, we already played some jazz and harmony pieces in Civray, which at least resemble the brass band ones. The main difference is that in the Harmonie Musicale the brass-section plays only part of the time, so players can have a long wait for their part. But I love all the music we play, even the rehearsals – they’re always a pleasure, because we can sense ourselves making progress, particularly with certain passages which are difficult technically to begin with. We play those at the debut of the rehearsals, while we’re still fresh.”



The band’s repertoire certainly sounds varied and, as Neville explains: “To keep things fresh we change the repertoire frequently, so we use existing brass-band arrangements. We play anything from classical to pop, some well-loved French pieces, and of course there are things like French marches. As audiences don’t know what to expect, we try to keep things light, but do try to include one of the less-well-known pieces which are written specifically for brass bands.”

There’s plenty of choice when it comes to these pieces, as the world inhabited by top brass bands is a surprisingly competitive one. “In the UK it’s run on the same lines as football, with leagues or sections, and promotion or relegation are determined by contest results. Current national champions are the Cory Band, whose origins lie way back in the South Wales mining industry.” Across the Channel, on the other hand, the first French brass band wasn’t established until 1995, and even when Neville first came to France the whole country still had just eleven bands. Now there are over thirty, and although still hardly in the same league as the UK (which currently has over nine hundred), the genre is steadily gaining in popularity. “In June each year there’s a French Open Championship in Amboise (Indre-et-Loire) and this year will be the eighteenth edition. Because it’s an open event it also attracts bands from the UK, so some of us go along to enjoy the music and the social occasion. It’s quite something to hear that special sound floating around.”

Clearly, there are plenty of people, both French and British, around the Poitou-Charentes region who feel the same. “We’re asked to play in all kinds of settings,” says Neville. “In summer it’s often outdoors, but by way of a grateful thank-you to the village, we play a couple of concerts each year.” As Nelzir (a former Maire de Limalonges) remembers proudly: “The most recent concert raised around eight hundred euros for La Ligue Contre le Cancer – and everyone had a good time!"

Find Out More about Just Brass 79

Just-Brass-1.jpgJust Brass79 is a member of le Foyer Civil de Limalonges, a cultural association founded in 1920, and which today provides the band with a modern, heated and well-lit rehearsal room. New brass players who can read music can expect a warm welcome!