India

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.

Africa, Indonesia, India…New Orleans

When I jump on a new instrument for the first time, it feels how you’d expect: alien, not quite comfortable – maybe like I’d imagine a hip or knee replacement would feel at first. It’s my third week in African ensemble after a several year hiatus of playing (and building) African drums, and I’ve settled on the dunun as my axe for the semester – specifically, the samba. My spirit loves playing it. This past Monday, a “click” happened somewhere in the land of ambidexterity (left hand on bell, right hand on the head) and instead of following the instrument, I was leading it – (yes, I mean in a spiritual-hippie-granola-crunchy- kind of way). It felt natural and no longer alien – more of an extension of any inherent rhythm I might possess (I know it’s in there somewhere!). I felt its dance.

Along those same lines, in gamelan, we’re performing Baris – I chose an instrument that acts as an intermediary between the colotomic structure and the interlocking parts that exist at the highest densities. I wanted something technically “simple” this time so that I could actively listen to other parts and put it all together like a puzzle – you know, like you’re supposed to. I’ve been playing the gangsa polos part on other pieces which is too fast for me to think realistically about the multiple stratifications happening around me. Yesterday’s rehearsal (and my repetative 4-note cycle) became a meditative exercise for an hour or so – I found myself, after having the part on auto-pilot, paying close attention to the height of my hammer, my grip, the exact placement of the hammer strike on each slabbed key, the space my arm occupied in the air after each strike and whether I was in rhythm with the air itself, and how my body alignment felt in relation to the instrument – as if it were my spine.

In short, it was lovely. Afterwards, we switched to Puspanjali and I tested my spatial knowledge of the gangsa by trying to play sections with my eyes closed or glued to my professor’s hands on the kendang (drum). I had no trouble at all with the phrases that moved step-wise. Once it skipped two or more keys, I found myself striking the air between the slabs – it’s probably best for the ensemble’s sake that I stop intentionally trying to screw myself up. I do enough of that with my eyes open.

(Skyping w/ Viji)

Regarding India, I’m at a standstill in my sitar purchase, or potential purchase. It scares me too much to spend $900+ on an instrument I’ve never touched without having its quality backed by a friend and not a salesman. Speaking of India, an hour ago I sat in a world music room with my “Music of India” class as we skyped with a Karnatik vocalist in Chennai – she taught us a song text and its corresponding tala, a few easier ragas, and workshopped ornamentation. I love technology.

In four hours or so I’m driving to New Orleans for the first time since I started this program and I’ll be there all weekend. I’m looking forward to seeing friends, eating, seeing some of my old students, and doing a bit of fieldwork. Saturday night I’m heading to see Sissy Bounce artist Big Freedia. I can’t wait to get home – some ethnographic notes to come! 🙂

You know you’re in a graduate program in ethnomusicology when…

Your day looks like this:

Since I woke up 18 hours ago, I’ve given a lecture on early jazz, listened to a fantastic lecture on early Scottish/English folk song collectors, spent three hours listening to a lecture on the particular Gamelan music traditions of the Islamic northern coast of Java (mainly Cirebon), participated in a three-hour Balinese gamelan rehearsal, talked for 30-minutes to my ex-African drum-building instructor about coming to do a workshop here, read more about early cultural evolutionists like Morgan (see my last post), edited two friends’ papers, read two chapters in Shadows in the Field, read one chapter in three separate books about North Indian music, reviewed my university’s IRB system, read three articles from Inside Higher Ed, walked the dogs, and responded to several emails about potential volunteer programs in India this summer. I also fit in some random pieces of chocolate from Rome, three cups of tea, a bowl of jumbalaya, and a granola bar. I’ve got three more chapters to read and one more page to write before I get in my car to go home for the day, and I have to be back here in 7 hours. It’s the first full week of the semester.

Indian Classical Music meets the Kids of New Orleans

I don’t use the term ‘classical’ with my students. Admittedly I treat it, sometimes, like it’s a “bad word” – there’s a stigma attached. The age-range of kids I teach is wide, but there’s a good chunk of them who see classical music as ‘evil’ music full of dead white men. Who can blame them with how we teach it? With how I approach it (or don’t)?

This weekend, I introduced them to Badal Roy, an Indian classical musician (see previous post). He came in as our guest artist on Saturday since he had a short residency in town anyway. He is an amazing musician, yet I also realized he is human, and flawed – a good lesson for me, and one I keep coming across with all of these amazing people I’ve been exposed to lately.

My students enjoyed the tabla, and enjoyed Badal – but I felt as though he didn’t talk enough. I wanted more. He walks through the door – a foreign accent, a foreign instrument, sitting on a rug in front of them, playing unfamiliar rhythms. I was itching to hear him teach the kids about the traditions of tabla, about the ensemble settings, the venues for performance, how to learn tabla, the spiritual aspects of playing. He burst that bubble pretty quick. He spent a long time teaching the tabla language, the syllables, the integration of syllables, the transfer of the language to the right hand, the transfer of the language to the left hand, the integration of hands plus syllables, Bol – the way Indian musicians talk about what they’re going to play (instead of “this piece is in B”, it’s “play dha tin tin na”).

As an aside, in the past month I’ve been exposed to Brasilian, West and North African, and Indian drumming – they all have so many similarities. They’re all based on spoken language, they all consider their drums to have an identify, a self.

About 20 minutes into the program, he asked some of the kids to play with him and trade 4 bar solos on their instruments. Well, these kids have no fear. But they are still brand new instrumentalists. Needless to say, it didn’t work out too well and he wasn’t sure what to do. The kids are learning 2/4, 3/4, and 4/4 – not 11, 13, and 17-beat measures. So, as a result I asked him a few questions – gave him a few lead-in things to talk about: i.e. traditions, Indian classical music, his teacher and how he learned, information about ragas…

I was so impressed with his playing, and yet not so impressed with his ability to answer questions. Then again, if his answers are full, then my stereotypes of Indian classical musicians (based on all the previous ones I’ve met, which include some pretty prominent ones) are incorrect – which is good as well as thought-provoking. He didn’t seem as disciplined. He improvised rather than learn specific ragas and rhythms (any in fact). He had a teacher, but was not part of a lineage. All surprises to me considering his impressive resume.

I did learn a bit more about the language of tabla – and appreciated that a great deal. I walked away wanting (of course) to learn more about it, to play myself. I’ve always had an innate sort-of technique for playing drums with fingers rather than palms. Perhaps its early tabla exposure…

I am so grateful to have such great musicians at my fingertips these days. I know I keep saying that but it’s true. I’m so relieved when I find out they’re human.

(***Disclaimer: All of my students in these photos have parent-signed release forms allowing me to post photos & media)