Brass Band Music – What is it?

There has been a recent petition filed online for Classic FM to ‘stop ignoring brass band music’. Now, this is not a new complaint, and Classic FM is a far from flawless representation of classical music, ignoring vast quantities of repertoire in pursuit of the popular favourites and what people expect to hear from their station, but the sentiment set me to thinking about how little the general public understand about the brass band world and our music.

When I say I play in a brass band, I’m often asked “so what music do you play? Arrangements of popular tunes?” While the answer must at least in part be ‘yes’, as arrangements do make up an important part of every band’s library,  it isn’t at all a fair representation of what brass band music is. Brass bands thrive on the music which is written specifically for them; and there is a great deal of that out there which is overlooked by both Classic FM and BBC Radio 3. For example, one of my favourite brass band composers is Edward Gregson, and while Radio 3 did broadcast the ‘Edward Gregson at 70‘ concert last year, this was a concert featuring entirely orchestral works. Glorious, but overlooking a much-loved part of Gregson’s career and one which contributed to the bedrock of the brass banding world, that of contesting. (More on that peculiar tradition to come in a subsequent blog post).

One example of Gregson’s work is below – The Plantagenets, a piece I encountered both in a Youth Band and a University Band.

If you listen, you’ll resurface 15 minutes later with a better idea of what brass bands are about. You’ll see it’s not all tea and cake in the garden playing an arrangement of Yellow Submarine. It’s not a pointless restriction of the range of colours which an orchestra can offer – a criticism I have heard several times – it’s a classical genre of its own; versatile and beautiful, and one which millions are blindly unaware of.

The piece chosen for the Championship section in 2017 was composed by Herbert Howells, a household name for anyone with an awareness of classical music; but I would warrant not a name which springs to mind when one mentions a brass band.

That low level of awareness will continue if the brass band world doesn’t put in the effort to raise awareness of its music, so it is reassuring to see this topic resurfacing from time to time. However attacking Classic FM won’t achieve that goal, because the station serves its own purpose; it raises the awareness of classical music to those who wouldn’t otherwise know where to start. A bit of searching on ‘classic fm + brass band music’ threw up a short article on the Guardian website, from 2011. The article itself consists of harmless musings on the writer’s discovery that classical music isn’t all that bad when one’s forced to listen to it while at the dentist – and if classical music can reach souls like this via Classic FM then that’s great. More discerning classical music fans will always know where else to look, be it BBC Radio 3 or a niche station; perhaps hosted online. A couple of brass band channels exist online (Brass Band Radio and All Brass Radio) but these are fan-made, for the fans, and won’t promote brass band music to a wider audience. To ensure that brass band music is known and appreciated by classical music listeners, its classical repertoire must be included among the more usual orchestral repertoire on  mainstream stations.

The Guardian article does contain a gem of a quote from Alex James: brass bands are the “musical equivalent of freshly baked bread, but mixed with heavenly clouds and fresh roast coffee, not to mention rolling verdant valleys”. We may take from that that the sound is homely and comforting, and of course there must be some traditional nostalgia inferred. Brass bands have been part of the British scene since the mid-19th century, and although they aren’t seen as ‘cool’ (which of our traditions are?), they are popular in a village fête setting, or for providing festive cheer at Christmas.  If one arrangement of a popular  hit  at an informal event encourages one listener to investigate brass bands further and to discover what we are really about, then that’s our best way of promoting the movement (at least until classical radio stations are more inclusive), and eventually the music specifically written for brass band – the music which in my opinion showcases the traditional bands’ qualities more perfectly than anything else. (Having said that, I did enjoy playing an arrangement of Mark Ronson’s Uptown Funk last week…)

If you want to head out to hear a band play for free, then the best weekend to do so is July 7th-9th, which sees BrassFestUK – a movement to get as many bands as possible all playing a free concert.


Postmodern Jukebox – Oxford 2016

If you’ve not yet come across this online sensation, let me start by introducing this band. A collection of virtuoso musicians from the USA, Scott Bradlee’s Postmodern Jukebox take modern popular music songs and re-create them in vintage style, ranging from ’20s jazz to ’60s rock and roll. The result is an energetic sound which completely revitalises the repetitive synthesised tracks of many modern songs, especially those which we are forced to listen to in shopping centres and bars. The aim of Postmodern Jukebox is to transport these well-known songs of the current era back to the ‘Golden Age of music’, and in so doing they have attracted an increasingly large crowd of fans from all ages – youngsters who are impressed by hearing a new version of a favourite song, and those from an older generation who are delighted with fresh music in an already beloved style, tried and tested over decades.

Scott Bradlee is an American musician, pianist, composer and arranger known12821576_1004605552919673_6020786467098696226_n for his viral videos on YouTube, and this is where his Postmodern Jukebox have found their fanbase, so the atmosphere of anticipation in Oxford’s O2 Academy was high, as so many fans looked forward to seeing in the flesh the stars of the jukebox videos previously streamed online. The Oxford gig was sold-out, with little space for the dancing which the band’s music was crying out for. Help was at hand, however, as the presence of Sarah and her incredible tap-dancing provided enough dance skill for the whole room – her rhythmic steps clattered on the stage with as much precision as any drumbeat. Visibility was still a little bit of an issue as the audience craned necks to see – the group would have been better able to show off in a more open and spacious venue.

The compère of the show was the incredible LaVance Colley, whose best song in my opinion is his cover of Beyonce’s ‘Halo’, reaching incredible pitches. Other stars of the show were Sara Niemeitz, Cristina Gatti, Casey Abrams, and Maiya Sykes on vocals, with Lemar Guillary on trombone, and Stefan Zeniuk on saxophone & clarinet. My favourite moment of the night was when the band subtly started playing the ‘Star Wars’ theme, before launching into the melody of ‘Cantina Band’ – if ever a film track was designed to be played by Postmodern Jukebox it was this one! The band have proved that they can carry their internet fame beyond the confines of a computer screen and can put on a brilliant live show; I am sure their popularity will only increase.

WOMAD 2015: The Drumbeat Goes On those not in the know, WOMAD is the World’s Festival. It showcases some of the greatest musicians from across the globe – the only drawback of which being that there is simply not enough time to see and listen to everything, as my good friend RC and I discovered.

We did our best:

Arriving at the arena after the horrible experience of pitching our tent in the driving rain, we were sucked straight into the Siam tent by the sound of Mahotella Queens – a band I was unfamiliar with but have since discovered are one of the great stalwarts of the world music scene, originally formed in 1964. None of the original singers remain, but judging from the sound, the sights and the response of the audience at WOMAD, Mahotella Queens will be entertaining the world for another fifty years and more.


After this welcome to the festival the first item on our agenda was to head straight across to the much fêted ‘Taste the World’ tent, a stage where the artists not only perform in an intimate setting, but also answer questions about their music, lives, and the cuisine of their country – all while a dish is being prepared just behind them. This was the perfect setting (save for perhaps the desert) to hear Tinariwen performing their Tuareg blues. Some might describe their stage presence as quiet and unsmiling – the atmosp inside the tent was relaxed, and the band members enjoyed answering questions and explaining more about their music and the Tuareg way of life to a rapt audience. This National Geographic article explains and investigates the situation in North Africa. When asked if there could ever be a Tuareg state, band member Eyadou Ag Leche answered ‘Yes, certainly it is possible, but only with patience.’ The attitude of calm and patience which surrounds Tinariwen is only made more remarkable by the context of the North African struggles; and serves to show that the spirit of the desert is what is most valuable to the group.

Returning to the arena saw us wander past Canadian group Sagapool‘s energetic Gypsy-style performance where we couldn’t help but stop to listen (and shelter from the unceasing rain).

By the time we paid our first visit to the Open Air Stage we were so thoroughly drenched by the rain that I barely noticed it while Bellowhead were performing. It was great to have some old English songs represented at the world’s festival and this contemporary folk band exceeded my expectations, creating a vibe of great energy which soon got the entire crowd dancing. I am glad to have got the chance to see them in action especially as they have announced their disbandment next year in 2016.

After again appraising Tinariwen from afar and counting myself lucky to have heard them earlier at Taste the World, I managed to get across to the BBC Radio 3 Charlie Gillett stage to join RC for a couple of haunting songs by the edgy Ibeyi, the French-Cuban twins who have taken the internet by storm, with 3 million YouTube views on just one track, River, from their debut album.

The evening’s line up saw our second timetabling dilemma of the weekend. deliberating between catching the world-famous masters of hip hop, De La Soul, or heading over early to the Siam Tent next door. After a compromise of enjoying to two or three numbers by the Long Island band, whose set had what felt like the entire arena partying in the mud, we retreated under cover and claimed our front row spot for one of my favourite artists, Massi. The decision was a good one. Her unique voice, coupled with our closeness to the stage, gave the experience the intimate feel of one of the much smaller tents. Hearing songs I been playing on CD for over 10 years performed live by this amazing Algerian singer was an incredible experience, and Souad’s relaxed demeanour and casual rapport with her band made it even more enjoyable. The closing song Ya Wlidi banished any teeth-chattering cold and fired us up for the wade back to the campsite and a surprisingly good night’s sleep, despite hearing the distant closing chords of the brilliant Cambodian Space Project, whom we assumed to be the third casualty of Friday’s timetable.

On Saturday morning the act which caught our attention was the Kakatsitsi Master Drummers From Ghana – definitely master drummers but also master dancers; the joy and expression which the entire group put into the drumming, singing, and dancing was tangible. Stopping by a stall for an excellent Pad Thai and eating while sitting on the (unbelievably) dry ground while listening to Cheikh  confirmed the fact that today was going to be a good day. The Senegalese artist’s music felt difficult to pin down as a particular style, but contained a fair amount of gentle reggae beats which lifted the mood of the entire arena.

We headed back to the BBC Radio 3 Charlie Gillett stage where we’d seen the Ghanaian drummers to hear the most traditional music of the weekend, that of the Shikor Bangladesh All Stars. The highlights here were without a doubt the beautiful singing voice of Baby Akhtar and the mastery of Jalal Ahmed’s bamboo flute playing; a mystical sound.

The next group we encountered was the South African a capella trio The Soil. It is testament to their skill that they managed to hold the Big Red Tent crowd despite ‘only’ being three people with no supporting band or instruments. I would have liked to hear more of them, top of our list of priorities was to hasten over to the Taste the World tent, where we had discovered that Cambodian Space Project would be performing. As early birds we grabbed seats at the front and our anticipation was amply rewarded by the show to follow. In contrast to Tinariwen the previous day, Cambodian Space Project treated the show more like one long improvisation, at one point deciding to just make up a new a song. With band members from Sydney, Phnom Penh and the UK, one audience member asked ‘When do you rehearse?’ – the answer was along the lines of ‘we don’t’, and they don’t need to. Channthy’s vocals sounded as perfect whilst she was cooking up a steak salad and dancing behind the kitchen counter as they do on the album recordings, if not better. We were left singing Dance Twist to ourselves for the remainder of the weekend!

Back in the arena we caught the end of Red Baraat’s show in the Big Red Tent, and instantly knew that an appointment at their Rhythm Workshops gig the following day was compulsory. Red Baraat is a jazz/Bhangra band from Brooklyn, bridging the two cultures to create an absolutely fantastic sound. Think Bollywood meets American Jazz Club.

Stopping by at the Siam Tent before heading to our tent for a well-earned nap, we saw Mbongwana Star, a Congolese band whose sound was a combination of electronics, guitars, vocals, and of course drumming. On our way back to the arena after a snooze we encountered the Hot Potato Syncopators, whose traditional banjo sound strummed out classic melodies from the ’20s, ’30s and ’40s, and including some umbrella-balancing to boot. The real star of the night however was the Egyptian Project, act who was worth settling down on the muddy ground a good three quarters of an hour early for. They were similar to Tinariwen in outward seriousness at first, but as the music began to flow, there was a huge sense of personality about each of the band members. As was almost becoming standard, there was a percussion break with the drummer entertaining us solo for a good few minutes, demonstrating the versatility of the instrument, and the skill with which he played. Egyptian Project’s mesmerising electronica was the perfect end to the evening, leaving the audience shouting for more.

Sunday saw the return of the rain, but that was offset by the return of Red Baraat at the World Rhythms Workshop, led by dhol-playing Sunny Jain. Sunny explained the music to an audience which filled the tent and crowded outside. Pros by this point, RC and I occupied seats at the front and spent an amazing hour learning how to dance Bhangra-style and learn about the different rhythms and roles within the band.

Brass was one of the main themes of the day, for next up was the Macedonian Romani Kočani Orkestar, and with a brief interlude spent listening to Ghost Poet, we took up position in the Big Red Tent for the James Brown-inspired Osaka Monaurail. Along with Red Baraat and Cambodian Space Project, this group was one of my top discoveries at WOMAD. Having no idea what to expect, besides ‘funk’, the energy and comedic value of this group was a reward – as was the lead singer’s humble thanks to the crowd for choosing to come to see them. The tent was; and the award for the most enthusiastic dancing goes to the audience of Osaka Monaurail.

After the bizarre energy of Osaka Monaurail it was difficult to get into the music of Laura Mvula, which had a comparatively mellow atmosphere. Her songs however have a well-crafted sound, created to be beautiful and meaningful. Sing To The Moon was a song she sang at the piano with no other accompaniment, but for most other songs Laura was joined on stage by her brother and sister on cello and violin respectively. We ended the night at the Big Red Tent with Shy FX & Stamina MC, experts at the decks, for a party fit to end the weekend.

With such a huge variety of artists, stages, merchant stalls, cuisine, and activities on offer, WOMAD really did make us want to be everywhere at once. I can hardly wait to find out who will be on the line-up next year already, though having experienced WOMAD 2015 I feel confident that no matter who’s there next year, it will be an incredible show of talent from across the globe.

These pictures are not my own. All photo credits available as alternative text.