Brass Band Parallels: From India to New Orleans

Red Hot Brass Band at New Orleans Jazz & Herit...

Red Hot Brass Band: NOLA

In 1990, Gregory Booth published an article in the journal Ethnomusicology (34/2) called “Brass Bands: Tradition, Change, and the Mass Media in Indian Wedding Music”.  Sixteen years later (in 2006), he turned this fieldwork into a book called Brass Baja. Booth discusses the context of a baraat (sometimes seen as barat), “a procession from the groom’s house to the home of the bride.” (1990, 245) These processions are typically accompanied by brass bands.

As the author discusses to great length in both the article and book, there are a lot of interesting questions to ask about these brass bands. The concepts of tradition, acculturation, identity, nationalism, musical migration, and the general exchange of music and musical ideas can be brought to the table here. There can also be parallels drawn with the brass bands of New Orleans. Certainly this is indicative of their early European/UK roots wherein brass bands would be sponsored and associated with specific areas.

Later in 19th century New England (U.S.), these brass bands, having migrated from Europe, were woven into the fabric of the Industrial Revolution – I can retrace this to my own roots by looking at the South Barre Brass Band, and the Barre Wool Brass Band (both in Massachusetts), both of which have familial ties. For many years I performed in the Quabbin Community Band, a group that evolved out of the two brass bands above that still maintains its roots by performing the works of its original bandleader, Severino D’Annolfo.

Booth recalls major Indian cities as having between 30-100 uniformed brass bands, and that they “band together” in certain areas of the cities – territories, if you will.  This is certainly not unlike the brass bands of New Orleans, which are often decorated and territorially sound. That is, in New Orleans quite often, the brass bands are defined by their neighborhood associations.  Their band names and lyrics are wrought with these neighborhood references.

A distinction of the Indian brass bands however, is that they generally have ties to a physical space in which to store their horns, their instruments, and likely as a place to rehearse. According to Booth, they have these “shops” that are clustered together for pragmatic reasons: it is a place where potential patrons can find the group and hire them for their services. While New Orleans brass bands typically play for funeral services, these Indian brass bands play for weddings.

State Police Brass Band (India)

Notably, instrumentation between these groups are very similar: percussion, sousaphones, clarinets, saxophones, trumpets, and trombones are the commonly seen axes. Certainly there are more parallels to unravel.

As a brass band enthusiast, and dare I say “scholar”, it would seem that a potential study hangs here – I can imagine there are more lackluster topics to attach yourself to in comparison to this. So I’m adding it to my list.

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