The musician wowed the crowds at the 2023 Wave Awards – dubbed the 'Oscars' of the cruise industry. Credit: AG Studios

Star on board: YolanDa Brown OBE DL

Author: Kaye Holland

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Saxophonist and broadcaster, YolandDa Brown OBE DL, on breaking down music genres and the joys of cruising

What was your first cruise holiday and where did you go?
It wasn’t a holiday but my first cruise experience was with Cunard, onboard the line’s Queen Mary 2. And I tell you, as soon as I stepped on board, thought: “This is me. This is my life now.”

The cruise started in Port Elizabeth (South Africa) and we sailed to the Reunion islands. Since then I’ve sailed with Cunard, for work, many times and have done several transatlantic crossings too. Some people aren’t sure about transatlantic crossings, but I loved being onboard for seven days. You have time to take advantage of the ship – it’s fantastic. I’m hooked now.

What do you love most about cruise holidays?
I love meeting people, I think that’s the main thing. You just meet so many fascinating people who are all at different stages of their lives. And everybody wants to share – you'd never get into a lift and it's silent. Whether you get into a lift or walk along the deck, someone will stop you and chat.

Or you might just sort of be out looking at the scenery, and then you just strike up an amazing conversation. Then, of course, there’s the decor onboard and the entertainment and the food… everything is brilliant.

What would be your ideal cruise destination and why?
I’d love to do a sunny Caribbean cruise so that's definitely on my list. And then, the polar opposite, I’d like to cruise to the Norwegian fjords. So one hot destination and one cold destination.

The Caribbean is one of the world's most popular cruise destinations. Credit: Shutterstock

What’s the best (and worst) thing ever to happen to you at sea?
Nothing has ever gone totally wrong when performing on a Cunard ship which I’m thankful for, especially as on Cunard ships the theatre is always right at the front of the ship. So when it's choppy waters, you are going up and down, up and down. On one transatlantic sailing, the waves were multiple metres high, and, of course, that had to be the night that I was performing.

Fortunately, I move around a lot in my act anyway but I'm always in heels so I was a little bit nervous that I might stumble off the stage at some point, but all went well.

The best thing that has happened? Visiting China and Japan. That was just amazing.

Do you sail solo?
Usually, it’s just my manager and myself, and then I meet the orchestra on board who are always wonderful. However, to celebrate 15 years in partnership with the Prince's Trust, Cunard ran a special sailing onboard Queen Victoria.

As I am a Prince’s Trust ambassador, I was invited onboard and was able to take my husband and two girls who are aged nine and three. It was my cruise with the whole family. I also had two friends, who were celebrating their 25th wedding anniversary, join us so it was kind of cool. My girls were looking for Jerome the butler when we got home!

Aside from your family, who would be your ideal travelling companion and why?
My good friends from university. I’d love to share some time at sea with them just reminiscing. I also like travelling by myself, so I think I would like to try a cruise by myself at one point. You can sleep until when you want, eat when you want, get off at the ports of your choosing…

YolanDa Brown picked up an honour from the King at Buckingham Palace earlier this year. Credit: AG Studios

What’s your top travel tip?
My top travel tip – but I have yet to practice what I preach – is to plan your trip in advance. Research what you’d like to do in each port and make the effort to disembark and explore. It’s very easy to become so enthralled with the ship that you get into a sort of a relaxed state and stay onboard.

What do you like to eat and drink at sea?
I have to say even though the buffets are incredible and offer so many different cuisines, I love Cunard’s table service, particularly in the Queen’s dining room. I’ve enjoyed some really wonderful themed meals there.

Who’s the most famous person you’ve ever met at sea?
Well, I guess it would be this last voyage for the Prince's Trust. I was onboard with Julian Joseph and Myleene Klass, and it was really lovely to meet them and have a nice dinner with them.

How did you get into music?
I started playing the piano at six and the saxophone at age 13. I’m not from a musical family although my dad has an amazing record collection. So growing up, I heard every genre under the sun, from classical to opera to jazz to funk, reggae – my parents are from Jamaica – soul, you name it.

So now, as a composer and as a music creator, I can't just stay in one genre. And I love that Cunard allows me to bring myself and bring my mix of reggae, jazz, and soul onboard. And that's all because of my upbringing.

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You received your OBE earlier this year. Tell us a little bit about this experience…
I was announced on the King’s first New Year Honours List and then received my OBE in March and it's just an amazing experience. It came after I played at the Commonwealth Day ceremony at Westminster Abbey the day before.

So at Buckingham Palace, at the reception, the King said "Ooh you made it back again, did you?" We had a great, laid-back conversation talking about our passion for music education, and the next generation. I enjoyed it very much.

What’s next for you, YolanDa?
I’ve just finished performing at the Wave Awards where I played Bob Marley’s Is This Love as well as How Deep Is Your Love.

In early 2024, I am opening a new live music venue and restaurant in Islington called Soul Mama. It will be a wonderful mix of African, Caribbean, and Brazilian-inspired food with great music. My experience performing on Cunard ships has certainly helped inspire Soul Mama.

YolanDa Brown has performed onboard Cunard Queens across the world. Credit: AG Studios
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About Kaye Holland

Kaye is a London-based wordsmith who has written for a range of publications including The Times, The Independent, The I, Culture Trip, The Sun, and ABTA among others. In June 2022, Kaye joined the Real Response Media where she looks – together with Lucy Abbott – after the World of Cruising website. Want to get in touch? Kaye can be reached at: [email protected]