2 October 2016


In my explorations of traditional jazz, I come across delightful discoveries. The most recent has been the The Neptune Band of Zimbabwe. This band no longer exists but it flourished over 30 years ago. It was exceptional in being an authentic-sounding 'early New Orleans' style band based not in New Orleans but in the heart of Africa. It was also exceptional in that it was made up of four children from one family, their teacher and his teenage son.

Although this band was a new discovery for me, my friend and correspondent John Whitehorn told me he heard the band in the 1980s and he kindly supplied me with some information about them.

So here's the story of how the band got started.

It was created by a gentleman called Cesar Jose Fratantoni. A dentist by profession, he was of Italian descent but grew up in Argentina. He mastered the clarinet and piano and was devoted to New Orleans jazz, particularly collecting and learning from the recordings of King Oliver and Jelly Roll Morton. He moved to Africa in 1971 and took a great interest in African music. Later he adopted into his household five children - Sabina Siankope (who became the band's banjo player) and her four brothers. They helped in the household and he helped them with their education and trained them as The Neptune Band, with his own son - Stephen Cesar Fratantoni - on cornet.

They practised together for two hours every day, with only Mr. Fratantoni and his piano to guide them. (My guess is that Mr. Fratantoni himself had purchased all the instruments.) In 1981, following four such years of hard work, Mr. Fratantoni was determined to take his 'family band' to New Orleans, so that they could be heard there and also learn from the other musicians in the City. He had to obtain a huge overdraft from his bank to fund the trip.

So (with its drummer aged only 11 and its cornet player 15!) the Band went to New Orleans, where it gave some concerts, even including one in Preservation Hall. It was extremely well received. The great Allan Jaffe, the man who owned and developed Preservation Hall, was very impressed. Here he is (second right) with The Neptune Band in a photo taken by Dick House.
And the Mayor of New Orleans formally conferred on The Neptune Band the status of Honorary Citizen.
The Band went on to play at the Breda Festival in the Netherlands in 1981 and also performed in Hanover, Germany, in 1984.

It is Mr. Fratantoni himself who in recent years has put several of the band's recordings on YouTube. Try Chattanooga Stomp (CLICK HERE TO ENJOY IT), recorded when the band was in New Orleans in 1981. Have you ever heard such a delightful, gentle performance?

The members of the band, in addition to Mr. Fratantoni himself on clarinet, were Triwell Sianjkope (17, bass), Sabina Violet Siankope (25, banjo and vocals), Daniel Ndoga Siankope (19, trombone), Stephen Cesar Fratantoni (15, cornet) and Japhet Sikeba Siankope (only 11, brilliant, especially for one so young at the time - percussion).

Mr. Fratantoni obviously set out with a clear policy to play authentic early New Orleans jazz, with plenty of melody, no exhibitionism, strong team-work and ensuring that all instruments could be clearly heard. The effect is that the playing sounds very simple, though of course this simplicity is deceptive. The emphasis is on ensemble rather than prima donna solos. Fratantoni himself said in an interview: 'For me this music is like the baroque Italian music. It is classical. You know classical music is often very simple and it is often difficult to play because it is so simple.' I know exactly what he meant.

They played the music with restraint and respectfully – respectful of the music itself and also of each other: that is what - for me at least - makes the sound of this band delightful and distinctive.

The banjo and bass players are very solid; and the 11-year-old on the drums could serve as a model for anyone wishing to become a percussionist in a traditional jazz band.

CLICK HERE for a historic recording where we see them (in Preservation Hall!) playing Tiger Rag in a gentle manner, the like of which you may never have come across before. It is amazing to think how young they were. How well Mr. Fratantoni had trained them!

Or CLICK HERE for a recording of them playing Steamboat Stomp in 1984.

You can hear them playing Careless Love Blues in Lyon, France, in 1986 BY CLICKING HERE. This performance is again remarkable for the apparent simplicity of the music and also for including the 12-bar Verse which many bands omit. 

And you can hear a relaxed performance of the King Oliver number Snake Rag BY CLICKING HERE.

This is traditional jazz the way I like it. Discovering this band with its wonderful young musicians has brought me pleasure; and I hope it is a pleasure you will also enjoy. There are several more examples of their work on YouTube if you care to explore.
It seems opinions are divided on this band. I'm not alone in my enthusiasm. I have had responses from readers such as these:

Many thanks, Ivan: great. I'd not come across the band before, but they're quite something, I agree. I, too, like their clean, simple and authentic-sounding style - the clip of their Steamboat Stomp is excellent, in my view.... I've been listening to, and enjoying, more of The Neptune Band's offering on YouTube. What a fine outfit! I've particularly enjoyed their version of High Society, seemingly recorded at a well-attended live concert in Switzerland in 1987. It follows a very decent piano solo of King Porter Stomp at 3'40" into the clip: CLICK HERE. 
(Carsten in England)

This is the first that I have heard this band, and yes, they are indeed something special. (Wally in Canada)

I had not heard of the band, but have to say how much I enjoyed their playing. A lovely relaxed,steady tempo that made the music swing!
Sure were something special in my opinion. (Clarinet player John in England)

I saw The Neptune Band several times in New Orleans some time in the 1980s. I heard that Mr. Fratantoni had taught them by playing some of the American Music recordings... but they played in a gentle and constrained ensemble style. (John W. in England)

Fantastic story of this Italian/Argentine/African Dentist and his African (Children) Band. My dentist is a serious music-lover and I have sent it to him as well. Interesting to read this band was at The Breda Jazz Festival in 1981. Thanks for this very PURE STORY and best regards. (Robert in the Netherlands)

What a fascinating story about the Neptune Band! The recording is superb. I'll track down a few more on YouTube later, when I have some free time. (Bill, cornet-player, England)

Lovely stuff! I had never heard of them before. (Randy in Louisiana)

Everyone is entitled to his or her own opinion; and others have not been so keen. One described the band as 'not technically proficient' and another said he would not have bought a ticket to hear them.

Well done. For the chap who announced that he would not buy a ticket, may I have his reservation if it is still available? (W. in Canada)