“She is never bothered by comments expressing shock at seeing a female bass player. This is because the very first woman she saw playing a bass guitar was her mother. At high school, she was the bass player for the big band. Despite enrolling for a qualification in Graphic Design after matric, she found herself playing bass for many musicians as a professional”
Romy Brauteseth grew in a household where her mom and siblings played different instruments that made her dabble on a little bit of everything. The 31-year-old bass player and graphic designer was born and raised in Port Elizabeth. Her mom is a high school Information Technology (IT) teacher and has two elder siblings. She was just 11 years old when her father passed away. The young Romy was somewhat reserved and certainly the baby of the family. “But I was interested in many things, keen to learn and fairly all rounded in my interests”, she told Jazz It Out.
Even though her mom and siblings pursued other careers ahead of music, they have an unbelievable ear for music. The raw talent and inherent ability to pick up instruments and find their way around was always strong. “My family is incredibly musical. It makes a huge impact when one grows up in an environment where music has a daily importance. I guess as far back as I can remember, someone in my home was always playing an instrument so it was only natural that I picked up the instruments that were played in the house”, Romy said.
Her brother was the one who taught her the first chords she ever learnt on the guitar which set her off on her musical path. But before that, she had taken (and given up) piano when she was very young in junior school and witnessed her mom playing bass in church, her brother learning guitar in the lounge with his group of friends, and her sister climbing up in her Royal School grades on piano and flute. “I first played guitar and bass in church actually. I had been playing guitar with my mom for services and one day the bass player couldn’t make it, so that was my debut on bass”, not knowing what lied ahead as a musician then.
The first time she learnt to read music was when she was in the Victoria Park High School Big Band. Along with fellow students at Victoria Park, a combo was formed that would serve as an education of South African Jazz and an introduction in the values and ethics of playing as a freelance musician. The combo performed at small events, weddings and informal venues for years to come. Romy was chosen for the Standard Bank National Schools Big Band in 2005 under the leadership of Graham Beyer. “At the time, I didn’t take music theory as seriously as maybe I should have”, she recalls. However, she excelled in practical and aural which is probably what got her through.
When Shane Cooper was completing high school education at Victoria Park, a need of replacing him as the bass player for the school’s big band was identified. Shane took Romy under him wing while she was preparing to take over his role in the school band. Cooper has had an illustrious career of his own which won him several awards as a bass player including the Standard Bank Young Jazz Artist. Outside the school band, her brother used to play her just about everything from Queen to System of a Down. Kyle Du Preez, who was a trombone player, was the person who shared most South African music with Romy. “He first played the music of Marcus Wyatt, Carlo Mombelli, Zim Ngqawana, Bheki Mseleku and many more”, she told Jazz It Out.
She also recalls some of the remarks that were attributed to her as a female bass player. “Many of the comments I received were around how unusual is it, and how extraordinary is it for a female to be playing an instrument that requires such strength and stability”, she recalls. Those remarks have not ended. “I still get comments about the fact that I am a female bass player. I have come to realize that this is not about what people think that men or women are capable of, as much as it is just people having preconceived ideas based on what they know or have seen. I grew up with a mom that played bass, so my primary example of a bass player is a woman”, she added.
Being chosen for the Standard Bank National Schools Big Band under the leadership of Graham Beyer in 2005 was a major growth spurt because of the competition element involved in getting into the band. “It’s a fairly grueling process and you are immediately exposed to the talent that runs through this country while you are still at high school”, with vivid memories. Beyer whom she knew from Port Elizabeth inspired the young music students with his knowledge and proficiency on so many instruments, as well as his diverse interest in so many genres.
This was a huge experience for Romy where she found herself amongst young musicians who were showing such promise and creativity at such a young age and enough to put her in a place and space of where she was aware what she could be, even though she was still young. “I had to play basslines and try to absorb grooves that I hadn’t been exposed to and at that age, it was the best thing that could have happening to my playing”, she said. With such exposure and participation in the National Schools Big Band, it would have not surprised many if Romy enrolled for a music qualification after matriculating in 2006.
Romy enrolled for a National Diploma in Graphic Design at Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University whilst continuing a freelance music career in various bands, collaborations and theatre shows in and around the ‘Friendly City’. Her mom preferred that she studied graphic design at that time which she saw as a better option for her last born who was also unsure at the time. “I was not aware when I enrolled at NMMU that it was actually an option to earn a living from being a full-time performer”, with a mind of teenager at the time. Graphic Design was spoken about as something to ‘fall back on’, but art was her love and it could have gone either way at that point.
In 2010, she was chosen for the National Youth Band under the well-known composer and bass player Mike Campbell. Around the same time, she obtained her National Diploma in Graphic Design and found herself at a crossroads. “I was lucky in that year actually. But it also depended on who the band leader was, what skills and strengths they were looking for. Besides I was a little older and a bit more used to the performance and competitive elements”, she told Jazz It Out. She rates Campbell as a prolific and very respected figure in the South African music scene. This also gave Romy an opportunity to form relationships with musicians who she would be living in the same city with.
Having decided to pursue music in a full-time capacity, Romy moved to Cape Town in 2011. “If it was not for Gorm Helfjord’s advice and encouragement to move to Cape Town, I don’t think I would have moved in the first place”, she met him doing a theatre show the year before. “Gorm introduced me to Dan Shout and Mel Scholtz, who gave me a chance to play their music long before I was even good enough to do so”, recalling memories of her first arrival in the ‘Mother City’. Romy does not think she would have grown so much in the first little while that she was in Cape Town if it was not for them. “Kesivan Naidoo taught me how much strength I had even when my fingers and brain couldn’t take it anymore”, she added.
In 2016, Romy made the move to Johannesburg. It was then that she began travelling regularly to Europe, the UK and parts of Africa. She describes the move to the ‘Golden City’ as enlightening from many angles. “The audiences seemed more lively, enthusiasts were more present and the amount of people playing their own music in venues that supported them was far greater”, an observation she made on her arrival. Even though the largest city in Africa has gone through a bit of a dip, she still likes the feeling of the place. Most of her international travelling has been with pianist Bokani Dyer and trumpeter Marcus Wyatt. “Obviously those are the two artists I believe in hugely, and I play their music with pride and overseas audiences have always seen that”, reflecting on the experience she has gained.
As a bassist, she has featured in albums “Serenading Ghosts” by Dan Shout, “Maji Maji in the Land of Milk and Honey” by Language 12 (Marcus Wyatt), “District Six” by Andreas Loven from Norway, “Lengoma” by Feya Faku, “Narrative” by Keenan Ahrends Trio, “Neo Native” by Bokani Dyer Trio, “One Night in the Sun” & “Waltz for Jozi” by ZAR Jazz Orchestra, “Dance of the Chicken” by Bombshelter Beast, “Small World” by Small World a Belgian-South African Collaboration and “Genesis of a Different World” by Steve Dyer. She also hopes to release her own solo album in the future but it waiting for the right time to do that. There are a few songs that she has penned already.
Her notable live performances in 2015 include One Night in the Sun – Living Legends Projects live recording with ZAR Jazz Orchestra led by Marcus Wyatt as well as Cape Town International Jazz Festival where she performed with Zoë Modiga, Gavin Minter and Mike Del Ferro from Netherlands. In 2016 she performed at the Standard Bank Joy of Jazz with Nomfundo Xaluva and at Bird’s Eye Jazz Club in Basel, Switzerland with Small World, a Belgian and South African Collab Project. In 2017 she performed at SafariCom International Jazz Festival in Kenyan capital Nairobi with Bokani Dyer Trio. She also performed at Haus der Kulturen der Walt in Berlin, Germany with Deepak Pandit from India.
Still in 2017, she performed at the Vortex Jazz Club in London with Bokani Dyer Trio and at the Standard Bank Joy of Jazz Festival with Zoë Modiga. In 2018 she performed at the Cape Town International Jazz Festival with Keenan Ahrends Quintet and at Festival St. Denis in the French capital Paris. In 2019 she performed at Brotherhood of Breath Tribute Recording and Performance in Cape Town with surviving members of Brotherhood of Breath under Chris McGregor, at B-Flat in Berlin, Germany with Bokani Dyer Trio. She also performed at the popular Ronny Scott’s in London and at the Standard Bank Joy of Jazz Festival in a collaboration between ZAR Jazz Orchestra (led by Marcus Wyatt) and Jazz at the Lincoln Centre (led by Wynton Marsalis).
As a well-travelled artist, Romy has observed that many Europeans will always mention Abdullah Ibrahim, probably because he resides in Germany and has spent many years touring Europe. Artists like Carlo Mombelli, Marcus Wyatt, Bokani Dyer, Kyle Shepherd, Shane Cooper and Buddy Wells have also earned themselves popularity among the European audiences especially the British. Performing and recording with musicians from diverse backgrounds has taught Romy the importance of versatility. “Being able to stretch ourselves as best as we can in different directions has a huge impact on our creativity and understanding of other genres and styles”, she acknowledged.
Waiting, Falling – Bokani Dyer Trio
Romy’s qualification in graphic design did not go to waste. She utilizes it as another creative input into projects that she may not be part of musically in the form of album covers, photographic work and promo material. She has designed covers for many up and coming as well as established musicians such as Keenan Ahrends, Sisonke Xonti, Zoë Modiga, Bokani Dyer, Marcus Wyatt, Paul Hanmer, Tutu Puoane, Shane Cooper and many more. When asked how does she split herself between playing the bass and designing album covers in terms of time management, she said: “I haven’t quite figured that one out. Both fields are very difficult to pick up and let go all while retaining productivity. I find it particularly hard to let design go and pick up my instrument to practice while I am in the middle of an album cover”.
She believes artists are learning how to adapt in their own creativity as a result of coronavirus and the lockdown. This has also affected bank balances and Romy has not really figured out how to approach the new environment that has been thrown at artists in this Covid era and does not spend a lot of time online. “I have learnt that patience is key, and I have learnt that we need to care for one another at a time like this”, she told Jazz It Out. The pandemic has also placed many women in vulnerable situations where they find themselves victims of domestic violence. “It has been a tough time for women. It seems like we have been targeted, and when one looks at the number it can easily get us down”, she added.
Her suggestion is to focus on what brings people together, which in this case, it’s music. “While I believe that men and women are very different, all of these differences can be used beautifully in music and it doesn’t need to have anything to do with who is stronger or weaker, louder or softer. It doesn’t serve us to focus on our differences”, she emphasized. Romy believes every musician has something to say and should strive to convey what they have to say in the most excellent way possible. “This means working hard on your craft, being sure of your strengths, and finding your place in what you do”. While the country is living in this period of uncertainty, she is focusing on her hobbies which include DIY projects – working with wood and making things.
The modest bassist has so many favourite bass players and she finds it very hard to mention them all. “In South Africa we have unbelievable bass players. I appreciate each and every one of them because of different aspects of their playing. That’s the beauty of being a musician – there is no else that possesses the same qualities and the same quantities as I do”, highlighting the importance of innovation in the field of arts and entertainment – jazz in particular. As for international bass players, her favourites tend to go back to the old school. These are Ray Brown, Paul Chambers. She defines jazz as a conversation which is light sometimes, humorous and fun at other times. “Jazz is careful, well-constructed, properly thought out and deep”, she conluded. Her Facebook account is Romy Brauteseth.