By Joel Kalkopf
24th June 2021

As the brass band marches along the railway tracks through the slums of Uganda, children follow them, adults watch and dance on the roads alongside them, and those struggling to survive a daily life are inspired. Music is universal - it can bring anyone together, provide hope or build a community. For about 1,000 disadvantaged kids, music is the tool that will empower them to feel confident, alive, and inspired through the amazing work done by the charity, Brass for Africa.

Directed by Philip Sansom & Inigo Gilmore, 'TOPOWA! Never Give Up' is a documentary that follows the "Teacher Band" on their journey from the slums of Uganda to the Cheltenham Music Festival in the UK. But this feature is so much more than that. A title card at the beginning of the film displays the statistic that 70% of children in Uganda have no access to water or education, and whilst there is not a whole lot more in the film focusing on the socioeconomic issues that plague the country, there is enough to really feel what music means to these kids.

Brass for Africa is a charity that began about ten years ago, when a pilot decided to donate his son's old brass interments to underprivileged kids. Since then, it has grown into an organisation that continues to have a life-affirming effect by teaching not only music, but life skills. 'TOPOWA!' follows 12 of these students of music who have mostly grown up in slums, travelling from their home in Kampala to one of the biggest music stages in the world, where they will have the chance to perform with jazz legend, Wynton Marsalis.


The main subjects of the band that audiences get a closer look at include trombone player Julius, who dreams of joining the British Army Corps of Music and meeting his hero, Wynton. There is Sumayya, Uganda's best female tuba player, and Tadeo, who lost his limbs at an early age, and Ivan, the dummer. There are insights into slum life, the charity, the music festival, army auditions, and for almost all of these musicians, leaving Uganda for the first time. Each one of these stories alone could have been their own documentary, but part of the wonder and joy of 'TOPOWA!' is that despite all the various angles, Sansom and Gilmore are able to blend them together seamlessly to present a documentary that is sure to leave you smiling.

So often a documentary will focus on a subject's struggles and hurdles, and leave the joy until the conclusion - but not 'TOPOWA!' Following the band while focussing on a few main characters, the documentary flows with a positive energy and rhythm throughout, emblematic of the spirit these brilliant musicians carry with them every day. Make no mistake, their lives are difficult, all coming from broken homes in one way or another. But they are now all presented with an opportunity and a framework to develop themselves not only as musicians, but as good people.

Following the band while focussing on a few main characters, 'Topowa!' flows with a positive energy and rhythm throughout, emblematic of the spirit these brilliant musicians carry with them everyday

Sansom & Gilmore don't shy away from the grittiness of their surroundings, and it becomes all too clear that these musicians are certainly not coming from paradise. Although you wouldn't know it talking to them of course, as their faces beam in delight whenever they are given the chance to talk, their smiles as infectious as the mosquitos they swat. Music is everything to them, and you will rarely see any of them not grasping on to their instruments for dear life. It is their symbol of hope, their ticket to a brighter tomorrow, their freedom to express.

There is not much conflict in the film, although I found myself feeling extremely nervous when Sumayya is waiting for her passport, or when four of the guys audition to be part of the British army band. It's a credit to the filmmakers, who were able to capture the heart of the band so vividly that as a viewer, I could not help but ride every emotion the band are going through.

It's said Africa taught the rest of the world rhythm, and 'TOPOWA!' certainly shows plenty of that. Radiating with positive energy and backed by excellent production value, viewers will be forgiven for jumping out of their seats and leaning into the beat. The band essentially the score this film, showcasing their talents not only as musicians, but as symbols of hope. The word "topowa" means to "never give up", and what a magnificent and ever-relevant lesson we can take from that.

Looking for more Melbourne Documentary Film Festival reviews? Click here to check out our collection of this year's highlights.
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