Frozen brass

Wind bands, and brass bands, continue to play a major role in the soundscape of many cultures around the world (cf. trumpet tag; for early wind bands in Europe, see here).

A splendid project by Rob Boonzajer Flaes, with Fred Gales, Ernst Heins, and Miranda van der Spek, resulted in 2 CDs issued on Pan records in 1993:

  • Frozen brass: Anthology of brass band music, #1: Asia
  • Frozen brass: Anthology of brass band music, #2: Africa and Latin America.

They’re magnificently ear-scouring. Both are on Spotify, and the Asia tracks are on a YouTube playlist:

The liner notes give perspectives:

In the times of colonialism, when European soldiers, traders,and missionaries set out to occupy large parts of other continents, they were accompanied by brass bands. The brass band stood for more than just instruments, uniforms, and songs. The martial appearance, the loudness of the instruments, the discipline of the musicians, and its mobility made it a proper symbol of the culture of the conquerors. Technological developments, strict training, rationality, and standardization had produced this ensemble: a band that could play anything in the temperate scale, everywhere, and always in time; a multi-functional ensemble suitable for emperors and military campaigns, enlightening the masses and evoking edifying religious feelings.

The brass band conquered the world as a well-devised formula, as a musical weapon, and a thunderous proof of Western military and religious superiority. Western habits and customs were forced upon the colonized; traditional music, dances, and instruments were forbidden; and local musicians were trained on brass instruments to perform in church, in school or at public events such as national holidays, royal birthdays, and visits of dignitaries. But of course sooner or later, someone discovered that a brass band could do more than merely reproduce Western classics, and enterprising musicians started to use the instruments to music a local audience would listen to, dance to, and—even more important—pay for.

The rigid and uniform colonial brass band came to terms with local music, leading to a wide variety of popular band traditions. Musical hybrids developed, not as part of any grand cultural tradition, but as an ingredient of local popular culture. Nowadays in many countries brass bands (or brass band derivatives) have become indispensable for weddings, circumcisions, processions, funerals, and even for communicating with spirits and inducing trance-like states.

Similar musical hybrids, for example the Bleh music from the Balkansklezmer from the Jewish communities of Eastern Europe, and—most famous of all—the development of jazz in New Orleans attracted the attention of the recording and writing industry. Outside Europe and North America, however, brass bands are only locally known.

The African, Asian, and Latin American brass bands are in many ways different from their western counterparts: the instruments may be worn out, or replaced by replicas; traditional drums may be added; and the uniforms can be anything from the local postman’s cast-offs to the most elaborate pieces of art. Marches and hymns are replaced by local tunes, mesmerizing rhythms, or decorous funeral music: tokens of the creativity of thousands of nameless plodders who made the brass band formula their musical way of living.

CD 1 contains tracks from Nepal, India, Indonesia (Sumatra, Java, the Moluccas, Sulawesi), and the Philippines; CD 2 has examples from Ghana, Surinam, Bolivia, and Peru. The notes give useful introduction to genres and bands.

For a taste, how about this Batak hymn from Sumatra, for the second day of a 1992 Protestant funeral:

Such tracks are not mere curiosities, but a window onto the soundscape of social life. Of course, audio recordings can only hint at the “red-hot sociality” of people interacting for communal activities—indeed, at the moment one misses social interaction altogether.

* * *

CWZ big band

Chang Wenzhou’s big band plays for village funeral, Shaanbei 2001.

Brass bands also became common in major Chinese cities from the 1880s, introduced by such Westerners such as Robert Hart, and in the Republican era warlords used them for their own armies. Since the 1980s they have developed out of folk shawm bands (my many posts on which start here), such as in Shaanbei (see my Ritual and music of north China, volume 2: Shaanbei, ch.9, and DVD).

Left: funeral procession, Quanzhou 1990;
Right: Catholic band, Gaoluo village, New Year 1995.

As a bonus, here’s a wind band on ice in Tuva—opening with a Tsam masked ritual procession, to boot:

This rather pre-empts my plan to stage the Matthew Passion On Ice.

One thought on “Frozen brass

  1. Pingback: A sporting medley: ritual and gender | Stephen Jones: a blog

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