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Hannabiell: Bass trombonist, force of nature and festival favourite

Festival season brings out the best in Hannabiell. David Whetstone meets a musician who gets everyone moving

Hannabiell at the Vamos festival 2014
Hannabiell at the Vamos festival 2014

So who was making the most noise at the launch of the ¡Vamos! festival of Spanish- and Portuguese-speaking cultures on Newcastle Quayside?

No contest. Hannabiell Sanders, who describes herself as an African American Jamaican living in Newcastle, transcended language and culture barriers with the aid of her willing accomplice, Tyler.

Tyler is a bass trombone, a mighty beast almost as long when fully extended as Hannabiell is tall. Together they are a force of nature, sending out compelling rhythms to animate an audience.

The pair have performed with The Drifters, Kathryn Tickell (for the 2012 Cultural Olympiad), New York-based Harlem Symphony Orchestra and ex-Newcastle United player Nobby Solano’s band, The Geordie Latinos. As champions of music they are nothing if not versatile.

As other ¡Vamos! participants swayed and tapped their feet, Hannabiell kept going. On a grey day she summoned up rhythms more suitable to sunshine.

When the music stopped, she didn’t look even slightly tired. She could, she confided, have kept going for hours, the result of a thorough musical grounding in a succession of tough schools.

“I’ve been playing trombone since I was nine,” she told me as those finnally released from her musical spell began to disperse.

Casting her mind back to childhood days in New Jersey, she recalled local high school students coming to demonstrate their instruments to the younger, elementary school kids.

She told her mother after scrutinising all that was on display: “I want to play the long slidy thing.”

Dave Charlton Hannabiell of Hannabiell and Midnight Blue at 2012 Vamos festival launch
Hannabiell of Hannabiell and Midnight Blue at 2012 Vamos festival launch

There was some doubt over whether her arms would be long enough but she took up the tenor trombone and later graduated to the bass.

She studied music at Norfolk State University, Virginia, a traditionally black institution where the notion of protest music was well understood, and joined its Spartan Legion Marching Band.

The name is a clue to the approach. “We practised every day,” said Hannabiell.

In 2001 she became a member of the even more scary sounding Cadets of Bergen County drum and bugle corps, information she imparts as a soldier might own up to SAS membership.

“That was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do in my life,” she confided.

“We practised for hours, playing music while we made beautiful patterns in a field, and that is why I could now play all day.

“My background in music was pretty intensive.”

She completed her American education at Rutgers University, New Jersey, where she ran music workshops and projects before graduating with a teaching qualification.

“I’d say my enthusiasm for working and playing together, the desire to make things happen, came from Norfolk State University and my business knowledge came from Rutgers,” she said.

Hannabiell taught in the United States and then, for a time, in South Africa, all the while honing her skills on the bass trombone.

Finally she came here.

“I’ve been in the North East for the past five years,” she said. “I came to pursue my Masters and then embarked on a PhD in music performance at Newcastle University.

“This is the last year and I’m writing it up now. I’ll apply to stay another year.”

Hannabiell – winner last year of a Journal Culture Award – and her partner, the artist, performer and musician Yilis del Carmen Suriel, are both from New Jersey although Yilis was born in the Dominican Republic, moving to the United States at the age of nine.

Yilis also enrolled at Newcastle University where she attained her BA and Masters degrees in fine art.

For seven years the pair have worked together as The Ladies of Midnight Blue, describing themselves as an Afro-Latin percussion and brass duet who have performed all over the world for festivals, charity benefits, peace rallies and protest marches.

Yes, if you want to protest in style, these particular ladies can help to make it happen.

Recently they returned from a 40-day trip to Malaysia and India where they performed for huge, enthusiastic audiences.

You can hear them again at their own festival, Harambee Pasadia North East, which is taking place for the second year running at The Barn, Easington, County Durham, from May 23-26.

It is described as “a four-day family camping extravaganza in celebration of diverse cultures, foods, music, artists and fusions of the African diaspora”. You can opt to camp on the farm, go on guided forest and beach walks, attend African drumming, salsa dancing or capoeira workshops and enjoy live music from Too Spicy, Nansady Kelta, the 10th Avenue Rhythm Band, The Larks and others – including, of course, The Ladies of Midnight Blue.

For Hannabiell and Yilis this year’s event marks the launch of their new company, Creative Visions and Rhythms, which aims to bring people of all backgrounds together through music and art.

“It will be great fun,” promised Hannabiell. “Last year we expected about 150 people and we got 215. This year we’re expecting between 200 and 300 people and we’re looking forward to playing. There will be music and workshops and big beach games... that’s a big American thing! It’ll be great to get a lot of people hanging out together.”

It really sounds like fun. There will certainly be a lot of music and a lot of energy will be expended.

All ticket, camping and performance details for Harambee Pasadia North East – along with forthcoming appearances by Hannabiell and The Ladies of Midnight Blue – can be found online at www.hannabiell.com

You can also see Hannabiell in the ¡Vamos! mardi gras procession up Northumberland Street at 12 noon on June 7 – www.vamosfestival.com – and at the Newcastle Community Green Festival in Leazes Park on June 8 – www.newcastlegreenfestival.org.uk

And if you really can’t wait that long – she’s in demand, this young lady – Ladies of Midnight Blue will be entertaining tonight (7-11pm) as part of The Late Shows. Catch them at the venue known as North Wing (School House Rocks, Uptin House, Stepney Road, Newcastle) where you will also be able to see a print exhibition by Yilis, work by other artists and a screening of People Like Us by film-maker Tina Gharavi.


David Whetstone
Culture Editor
Graeme Whitfield
Business Editor
Mark Douglas
Newcastle United Editor
Stuart Rayner
Sports Writer