Roland Users Group
In preparation for her first solo-billed concert tour in 2007, megastar Beyoncé Knowles set out to put together an all-female backing band comprised of the finest musicians she could find from around the world. Some 1,000 players participated in first-round auditions held in major U.S. cities, from which a small, select group was chosen to travel to New York and vie for the final spots in the ensemble.
Almost by chance, Texas native Brittani Washington received a last-minute call to go to the Houston audition. At 20, she was already a musician with a lifetime of experience, playing in her parents’ church five days a week since the age of six. Her impressive musicianship and youthful enthusiasm duly impressed Beyoncé’s team, and she went on to land one of two coveted keyboard spots in the singer’s touring group, which she stills holds.
Brittani has a long history with Roland keyboards, and both her and bandmate Rie Tsuji play Fantom-G instruments on tour with Beyoncé. I had a chance to talk with Brittani shortly after she returned from a brief tour to promote her upcoming second solo album, which will showcase her singing and songwriting skills, as well as her keyboard playing.
What’s your role in Beyoncé’s band?
I’m a “bancer.” [Laughs.] I play the keyboards, and I dance. Band—dancer—bancer. That’s what I do. [Laughs.]
Your parents are pastors, and you started playing in their church at a very young age. How did that come about?
Actually, that’s pretty funny. I was six years old, and we had an old piano in our house. When my mom [was out of the house], I would dress up like Diana Ross and put the whole shebang on, like a show for myself, till someone caught me. They said, “You can be Diana Ross.” But I said, “It sounds weird without the music, and I don’t have anybody to back me up. So, let me just try to learn it myself.” This is at six years old! [Laughs.] So, I went to the piano and I played “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” and my mom heard me playing the song. She said, “God’s given you a gift, and you have to use it.” So, I went to church that Sunday, and I played [the song] at church. After that, I played every Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday, and Sunday at six years old. [Laughs.] I got my first paycheck at seven. I was playing for their church for about 18 years.
How does that help you now with Beyoncé?
Well, Beyoncé’s very spontaneous, and her music is very spontaneous. Even though she has a record out, we’re not just going to play the record—we’re going to play intros and outros and segues. So, we’re very creative in our thinking of how we’re going to do the show. She might say something like, “Quick. I need an intro to this.” In my church, there were a lot of people who wanted to sing, and I didn’t necessarily know all the music, so I had to follow them. Doing that at a young age, following people and learning where to go musically, it kind of helped me a lot with this gig.
How would you describe your style and your approach to playing?
Very soulful. I’m an old soul. I love Marvin Gaye. I love Al Green. I love chords; I love full chords. I love music, so I would describe it as more of a feeling for me. You know, I’m trying to express myself through music. Not necessarily so busy…you know, it’s very soulful, and it’s from the heart.
Tell me how you landed the Beyoncé gig.
I landed this gig…I was going to say it was accident, but it wasn’t an accident. It was meant to be. One night my sister called and she said, “Some girl is calling around town asking for your number.” Her name is Marcie Chapa, and she is our percussionist. So I said, “Give it to her. I don’t know who she is, but it must be something important.”
She wanted me to go to the audition with her the next morning; this is the night before. She said Beyoncé’s having all-female band tryouts, and [that I should] get this DVD, Live at Wembley, to learn “Work It Out.” I left my house around 9 p.m. that night and went to Walmart, picked up the DVD, set up my equipment in front of the TV, and started dancing. And I’m like, I need to do something with my hair, because this is Beyoncé! [Laughs.] Women are supposed to be hot, and women are supposed to be glamorous and strong, and the women empowerment thing she talks about, and I’m like driving myself crazy. I know the music; I can pick up really easy. That’s what I got from church. But, as far as the look and how I’m playing it, that’s the part I was worried about.
I learned the piece [and] went to the audition the next morning. It was so intimidating. [There was] a light that came down, and everywhere else around the room was just pitch black. The way I was dressed, they didn’t take me seriously. I was 20 years old, and I looked like a black Madonna, basically. [Laughs.] I had this long ponytail, tights, fishnet stockings, heels, makeup, just feeling like yeah, I’m about to kill this show. So, I went to my keyboard, and they’re like, “Okay. Just play anything you want.” And they start talking amongst each other, ignoring me. So I’m like, “What’s the problem?” [Laughs.]
My dad’s favorite song is [sings “If You Want Me to Stay” by Sly and the Family Stone], so I played that. At first I kept it real simple, trying to climax to the grand finale slowly. I just started off with a simple bass line as they were talking, and that’s when I started soloing. One guy stood up and was like, “Really?” And then I started getting into it, and I took that ponytail and I started swinging it around. [Laughs.] Of course, they asked me to play a slow song, too.
Some guy in the background said, “She’s the one.” And the other guy’s like, “Shhh. You’re not supposed to tell them that.” [Laughs.] This is all going on in my audition. So, they’re like, “We’ll call you next Thursday. That’s when you’ll find out.” So, Thursday came, I had a gig, and no one called me until two o’clock in the morning. And, that’s when I find out now I’m going to New York to audition for Beyoncé. It was a long process. [Laughs.]
What Roland gear are you using on the tour right now?
We were using the Fantom-Xs. Now we’re using the G7s and G8s. They’re really, really great for getting your sounds, getting around to the sound banks. It’s really easy for us. Before we got the Rolands, we were using something else in rehearsal; I told Rie [Tsuji], who is our other keyboard player, that I could get around better with [a Roland] and I’m going to switch, and she ended up switching [as well]. And they’re really pretty keyboards, so that makes a difference. [Laughs.] They look good on the stage, so that’s all we use, top and bottom. I like the sounds. The piano sound sounds the greatest to me.
What parts do you normally play in the show?
When we started off, we were trying to get grips of who did what, having two keyboard players. That was the easy part, our parts that we played. Now, I love doing auxiliary [parts], because it’s so much fun, especially when you’re playing four keyboards as opposed to two. I have a sound here, a sound there, a sound there. I play a mixture of piano, synth brass sounds, and synth bass sounds. It’s a mixture.
What’s next in your future?
I just finished a tour, helping promote my album that’s coming out this year if I ever stop moving around. And I partnered up with Modern Music School; it’s a company from Germany. They take [high-profile musicians] and go to different schools, and try to encourage students to practice more and rehearse and just get into their instrument without slacking. Oh my goodness, I’ve met a lot of kids.
You have a lot of fans out there on YouTube™ and social media. How do you feel about that?
I try not to get a big head. I’m just doing my job, feeding myself.
It validates what you’re doing. It must be good.
I hope so. It’s what I’ve been doing for six years. I hope it’s inspired somebody out there to do music. I actually want to, with my album, bring music back. Because the more technical stuff gets and the more computerized, they’re like, “We don’t need you anymore. We have Pro Tools’ spacebar.” I want to feel the music.
I’m a singer and a player, so when I’m recording, I always try to get live instruments. If they’re live on the track, you have no excuses to not have live players on the stage. I make sure I do my part and have real musicians come in. That’s why it’s taken so long. [Laughs.]
I think that people realize that live shows are more exciting. There’s a whole group of kids who grew up not really hearing live musicians, and now they’re seeing them play live.
And they appreciate it. I think music is gonna be here strong enough for itself. And no matter if you’re five now, or you were five in 1988, it’s just music. I went to Sade’s concert, and the saxophone player got more screams and more hollers than Sade did! [Laughs.] He played the guitar, he played the saxophone…he had a whole band to himself.
More kids are appreciating what it means to be a musician.
I always appreciated rock music and country music for that. I give a lot of respect for those genres of music, because it’s live and it’s real. I don’t knock the whole computer/electronic [thing]…I don’t not like it. [Laughs.] I just really appreciate live music. For one, it’s good for the economy—people are getting gigs, people are booking studio time, people are buying instruments. It gives everyone a fair chance, a full-circle fair chance. That’s why I want to do my part and make sure music is still around.
Are you using Roland gear on the new record?
Of course! [Laughs.] I know how to program Rolands—I know how to set the sounds, I know how to create sounds. And this was all stuff that I learned how to do myself, so I feel comfortable with it. Sometimes I’m a programming fanatic; I told my tech one time, “Watch me work.” [Laughs.] He’s like, “Don’t do everything, because I’m not gonna have a job.” [Laughs.] But I’m a good programmer. As a matter of fact, I programmed my own keyboards for Black Girls Rock! Awards Show.
How do you like your Roland keytar?
I love the sounds. I love instruments that look good. It’s light, and it’s not heavy on my shoulders. I can’t wait to use it on tour. It sounds amazing. Light is important for us, too, because we dance a lot. Anytime we’re using keytars, it’s because we’re dancing.
Do you have any final words about Roland?
Roland has been good to me over the [years]. Actually, you know, the first keyboard that I ever played [was] the JUNO. That’s the keyboard my dad bought me for church. I ended up playing it on my tour, because I was waiting for my other keyboards to come in. And they had the JUNO, and I’m like, “This is a special moment you guys.” [Laughs.] I knew the sounds, I knew where to go and everything. It was cool. But I’ve been with Roland for a long time, even before Beyoncé. I used to haul the 88-key Fantom around, up and down the stairs, going to gigs. It’s been really cool. I love Roland, and I’m not just saying that. [Laughs.]
Brittani’s first solo album, Pink Polish, is available on iTunes.