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.

bogus standards of competence, musical inhibition, dog howling, and Wagner

I’ve had young students whose parents are excited about enrolling them in lessons because they feel as if they can live vicarious musical lives through their children.

That is, they believe that they harbor absolutely no musical talent, but have always wanted to try. I’ve tried my best to convince them that it’s never too late to try, and that it would help motivate their kids to practice if they struggled alongside them. In fact, I’m proud to say that this week alone I’ve had two parents call asking for phone numbers to private teachers because they have decided to start playing, or continue where they left off years ago.

I strongly trust that inherent musical ability is a trait of humanity. So often, the concept of musical ability includes a bogus standard of required competence. I grew up in central Massachusetts where it’s okay to be a young kid starting off on a trombone – cracking notes, making the dog howl, annoying the neighbors, and interrupting mom’s show on TV. Yet after a certain age, you’re either very good or you’re not. You choose to continue by playing in ensembles, pursuing it in college, or you give it up entirely. There seems to be no middle ground – playing for the sake of playing… for the sake of having fun. There are exceptions for those who play in community ensembles – and it’s for that reason that I believe they’re so important to prize – and fund (but that’s another post).

In general, the American population is creatively inhibited by their own standard of musical competence. As we are a conflict-ready society, I can only imagine what would happen if instead of communicating with words, Americans were able to sit in musical ensembles and juggle their emotions with the help of little black notes and the expressive qualities given to them by composers.

The manic folks would love Baroque terraced dynamics, the white collar folks who have trouble emoting would delve all over the emergent Classics & Romantics, those folks who dig reality TV would slice into transcriptions and arrangements of Wagner’s Ring Cycle, and all the true professional geeks would become giddy over the 2nd Viennese School and their mathematical composition techniques. I feel like it would be the equivalent of a ‘cookies & milk break’ every day for Wall Street execs – a good and necessary idea for a thousand and one reasons (plus it would drive up the Oreo stock).

Perhaps that’s one reason why New Orleans (and its music) is so different. There are no required standards of competence. Ever (at least on the level of community music). If you want to pick up a fiddle for the first time and screech that bow across a string or two in the middle of the street, do it. Instead of telling you not to quit your day job, people here would rather dance to it – then they’d either join you or give you a shortlist of musicians to jam with and learn from.

Read more about innate musical ability in the text of British ethnomusicologist John Blacking: How Musical is Man?… published in 1973.