Sandy Brown Jazz

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Bend It Like Bebop

by Howard Lawes




Bend It Like Beckham still picture


The 20th anniversary of the film Bend it Like Beckham (produced, written, and directed by  Gurinder Chadha, 2002)  has stimulated a discussion about the participation of women in football, (a game that used to be played almost entirely by men), the role of South Asian women in society, discrimination and same-sex relationships.  It was in 1921 that the governing body of football in England, the Football Association, decided to ban women from playing professional football citing dangers to women's health and morality.  It was not until 1972 that the ban was lifted and even then it took encouragement from the European Football Association for this to happen.  The rise in popularity of the game among women was immediate with the number of women and girls' football teams rising from 80 in Women footballers1993 to 8000 by 2005 (House of Commons Culture, Media and Sport Committee Women's Football Fourth Report of Session 2005–06).  The lack of women's football in England had resulted in very little success on the international stage and it is telling that the young women footballers in Bend it Like Beckham saw their future in the USA.  It was not until 2011 that women in England were actually paid anything to play football and in 2015 before a very small number became professional footballers, but in spite of this frugal approach, England came third in the 2015 Women's World Cup in Canada, beating Germany in the third-place playoff. 

In 2018 the Football Association restructured women's professional football by inaugurating the Women's Super League providing an all professional competition for women.  A further innovation was the setting up of 200 Wildcat Centres where school-age girls could receive free football training in the hope that having learned to play and enjoy playing, a steady stream of talent would be available to the professional game. In fact, this initiative was so successful that rather than 200 centres by 2019, 1250 centres were in operation, and at the last estimate, the Football Association claims more than 2.5 million women are active players.  With popularity and success comes media coverage and investment and with England tipped to succeed in Women's Euro 2022, which takes place in England this summer, the future for women's football looks very rosy. 

Fundamental to increasing the appeal of the game to young women and girls are high profile role models but sadly with increased exposure comes increased anti-social comments and behaviour.  Female commentators on TV have received sexist social media abuse and some sort of sexism is experienced by the majority of women working in football although this may reflect society as a whole rather than football in particular.

What can jazz in the UK learn from the success of encouraging women to play football?  While women may not have been banned from playing jazz the process of making a success of their career in jazz can be particularly daunting as acclaimed trumpeter and composer, Yazz Ahmed, described in the Guardian; she recalls receiving comments about her body and being praised for “playing like a man”. She Yazz Ahmedsays that jam sessions, a staple of the jazz scene, can be particularly anxiety-inducing for women. “They’re very competitive in nature – guys trying to play faster, higher, louder than each other. Women have those abilities, but it goes back to being scared because we’re ridiculed all the time. [Some men] don’t understand – a lot get defensive”. 


Yazz Ahmed


Very often a career in music starts at school but sadly the provision of music education in many UK schools has been reduced and that which remains can seem very expensive.  The techniques proposed by El Sistema in Venezuela, providing instruments and free training, resulted in great benefits for the children involved and for society as a whole; such projects have been adapted and exported to other countries around the world, including the UK, with varying success.  Organisations like Tomorrow's Warriors and Kinetika Bloco provide additional opportunities, free of charge, for young people in London to play music with a special focus on the needs of young women and ethnic minorities.  Other opportunities specifically for women are provided by organisations such as the PRS Foundation with projects such as Women Make Music and Keychange, which is a global network and movement working towards a total restructuring of the music industry in reaching full gender equality.

There have been a few, all-female bands in recent years including Blow the Fuse, an artist-led organisation formed in 1989 by jazz musicians Deirdre Cartwright and Alison Rayner; Yazz Ahmed's Quintette, and Issie Barratt’s Interchange, a large collective of well known female artists whose performances received great reviews. In general, these bands are collectives, formed either all or in part by established, female musicians; there have been very few successful, female bands formed by relative novices but in 2014 a band emerged from Tomorrow's Warriors, performing at the EFG London Jazz Festival, called Nérija.  The success of Tomorrow's Warriors mentoring and educational techniques were featured in a previous article (click here) and while initially, it was mostly male Tomorrow's Warriors alumni who prospered and embarked on successful careers, in more recent times the females have made up for lost time with Nérija being a great example.  Nérija's prestige and popularity grew rapidly, winning awards, delighting audiences, and signing with Domino Records.



Here's a video of ARQ playing Half A World Away in 2021 with Alison Rayner (bass); Buster Birch (drums); Deirdre Cartwright (guitar); Diane McLoughlin (sax) and Steve Lodder (piano).




As Issie Barratt explained in an article from 2020 in Jazzwise magazine there is a difference between playing in a band with men and with all women. The conversation is different, the priorities change, and perhaps the whole process is just more relaxed.  Members of Nérija talk about playing together in similar terms in a 2019 Jazzwise article with guitarist Shirley Tetteh describing it as "joyous" and  drummer Lizy Excell saying "there's a family feel to the thing".  The concept of ‘family in music’ has become increasingly important - organisations such as Tomorrow's Warriors and Kinetika Bloco provide the kind of support that a family provides, and young, developing musicians often mention how valuable such support has been to them. 


A video of Nérija playing Riverfest.




Another organisation with a family feel to it is Jazz re:freshed, a music movement founded in 2003 by Justin McKenzie and Adam Moses with an ambition to challenge the elitism and prejudice within the jazz community.   Describing itself as a small but relentlessly determined organisation, Jazz re:freshed has its hands in many pies, hosting a weekly live residency, a record label, festival, film club, band development programme, club night, workshops, and more. 

One particular activity, called Jazz re:freshed Outernational, is to showcase up-and-coming, UK-based jazz musicians on an international stage at the annual SXSW Conference in Austin, Texas.  Over the last few years many young musicians, male, female, and those from Nerijaethnic minorities have enjoyed this experience; even during Covid lockdowns, when innovative streaming methods were used to keep the show on the road.

For 2022 the artists that travelled to SXSW were Brown Penny, led by Nérija, SEED Ensemble, Kokoroko alto saxophonist Cassie Kinoshi, bass player Daniel Casimir, vocalist Cherise, drummer Jas Kayser and Afro-Latin ensemble Colectiva.  Also present at the conference to discuss The Dope Black British Jazz Landscape was Tomorrow's Warriors founder Janine Irons, Adem Holness (Arts Council England), Adam Moses (Jazz re:freshed) and vocalist and Tomorrow's Warriors alumnus Cherise.  The conversation included the dramatic rise of the jazz scene over the last ten years, the inclusivity of the musicians involved, plus the successes and challenges experienced along the way to enjoying far wider recognition.




A review in the Austin Chronicle reviewed all the performances but seemed particularly taken with Colectiva - "Jazz re:freshed saved the most high-energy act for last. Although Colectiva endured a faulty (but eventually resurrected) keyboard that stretched their set-up time well into the second-to-last hour, the Latin jazz quintet imbued their groove-loving dance tunes with as much energy as all of the other acts combined. Frustration quickly transformed into joy as band and audience shook their groove-things to the turbo-charged rhythms without overlooking Colectiva’s level of harmonic sophistication. Smiles all around reminded us just how much fun this brand of jazz is to play and hear".

Colectiva is perhaps the least well known of the artists representing the UK jazz scene at SXSW and this probably has much to do with the effect of the Covid pandemic, as in 2019 Colectiva won Best  Alternative Act at the Latin UK Awards and were all set to release a single Colectivaand embark on a tour. In  2021, they performed at a sell-out gig at Milton Court Concert Hall with the all-male Balimaya Project and produced a Barbican Sessions video .  Also in 2021 they went on to win a Drake YolanDa award designed to provide momentum to those artists pushing boundaries and developing careers. Mark Kidel for The Arts Desk reviewed the Milton Court concert -  "The band was founded by Viva Msimang, whose charm and passion, as she introduces the songs, is contagious. They play Latin Jazz, though the label hardly does justice to the richness of their power-packed collective passion, fuelled as it is by making a potent statement about the sisterhood and the spiritual power of music."




"The pleasure that the members of Colectiva take in playing together is tangible, with that sense of mutual respect and shared delight that is so essential to all African-inspired music, in this case further lightened by Latina humour and energy. Sax and flute player Allexa Nava, who had come in as a last-minute substitute, offered a rip-roaring and perfectly constructed solo. Bass-player Alley Lloyd drove the band’s infectious rhythm with both tact and force, in perfect synergy with the remarkable drummer Lya Guerreo who near-miraculously managed to make her kit sound like a pair of timbales, congas, and a whole array of other Latin percussion instruments, all on her own.".

The original line-up of the collective had Viva Msimang (trombonist and founder),  Sarah Wackett (flute-congas),  Nadine Nagen (violin),  Deanna Wilhelm (trumpet), Maria Grapsa (original co-composer of the new single "Under The", keys), Rosetta Carr (bass),  Lilli Elina (keys, congas), a little later they were joined by Lya Reis Guerrero (drums), Alley Lloyd (bass), Poppy Daniels (trumpet), and Allexa Nava (Saxophone/Flute). Currently, the core band is Viva, Alley, Lilli, Allexa, and Lya. The band is described as anti-hierarchical in structure and exists as a vehicle for women instrumentalists to come together through their love of and appreciation for Afro-Latin and Jazz genres, composing collaboratively, in the spirit of sisterhood.


Here is a video introduction to the band and their music filmed at the Milton Court Theatre as part of the Barbican Sessions in 2021.



Answering questions by email, some of them told me that the band has grown organically over time while some members had already played together in other bands on the London Latinx scene or had met on pop sessions and jam nights around the city. Otherwise, it was women's networks, word of mouth, or social media that brought them all together.   Many of the band are largely self-taught, without the benefit of formal music education, and have arrived where they are musically via a number of different routes and to some extent, their diverse journeys distinguish Colectiva from other bands. Allexa Nava learned her jazz with Tomorrow's Warriors and was awarded the Alf Williams Memorial Award (which has been established by Alf’s family to champion future aspiring young jazz artists on Tomorrow’s Warriors Emerging Artist Programme).

While the pandemic interrupted Colectiva's live performance, the time was used productively to do a couple of live streams and it was a good time to record and film from home while creating new music. Also during this period they were able to create the music video for their new single Under The, and release it during one of the slivers of time between lockdowns. As Viva Msimang says "there’s no doubt that it was an exceptionally challenging time all round, but having purpose and community through a project like Colectiva really helped me get through it".  In 2021 Colectiva’s Drake YolanDa award enabled them to record the new single and film "an incredible video with "the best crew they could have asked for". The band continue to write new material that will be included in their debut album that they hope will be released by the end of the year, but they need additional funding to make this happen.


A video of Colectiva playing Under The.




The opportunity to perform at SXSW was an honour and the reaction of the audience was very positive.  Jazz clubs such as the Elephant Room in Austin are rather calm and intimate compared to festivals where the audience has to stand, but the reception the band received was really soul-affirming and they hope to return to the Americas soon.  Colectiva has just completed a British tour performing in cities including London, Manchester, Leeds, Leicester, and Bristol. Upcoming gigs include the London Richmix Flawa Festival on 6th May, Lya Guerrerothe Great Escape Festival in Brighton on 14th May, La Petit Halle in Paris France on the 25th May, 27th May Discovia Fest, Basket of Lights Fest on 11th June.

When asked about the experiences suffered by Yazz Ahmed, Lya Guerrero agreed that similar attitudes "stopped her from going to some jam sessions because that’s the feeling you get when there is too much testosterone around trying to show off instead of actually listening to each other on stage. There are some new jam sessions/events in town orientated for girls, non-binary and pretty much all levels welcome like Higher Ground Jam, Peng Femme, Popola where the vibe is completely different and you can sense that everyone wants to share music and not compete. It is nice to see more instrumentalist girls jumping on stage and it would be very nice if we are all treated the same because at the end of the day we are musicians and gender shouldn’t matter when making music".

Lya Guerrero


A dictionary definition of feminism (e.g. Collins) is the belief and aim that women should have the same rights, power, and opportunities as men.  In a 2014 article, Amy Pearce, Associate Director of London Jazz Festival producers Serious, highlighted that it is usually women who talk about feminism and that while most people would agree that women should have equal opportunities to men, using the word ‘feminism’ seems to be a problem. Amy said "I feel a lot of men sometimes feel uncomfortable talking about gender or sexism. They think, can I talk about this, because I am a man? Hell, you can! You can play a really big part in changing how things are."

Returning to the football analogy much has changed in the way football is enjoyed by both men and women these days. The success that has been achieved in women's football has come about due to training, encouragement, and support for girls, continuing with a supportive and non-discriminatory approach as they get older and providing incentives so that the best are properly rewarded,  becoming role models for those that follow.  But perhaps the most important change has been the attitude of men.

Colectiva are one of the latest examples of how women succeed given an inspiring and mutually supportive environment in which they can thrive and become role models for others to follow.  Whether a band is all male, all female, or a mixture of the two is less important than the music they create, as Viva Msimang says "We want to empower and inspire others to collaborate and create together."

Colectiva are associated with event producers and record company Movimientos and the project Global Local. They are appearing in the Festival of Latin American Women Art on 6th May at Rich Mix, 35-47 Bethnal Green Rd, London E1 6LA (click here).





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