The Rise and Fall of Colliery Bands
One of my favorite music makers of all time is dying or mutating to something awful. Timeless creations that date back to the early 19th century, British brass bands are authentic, unpretentious and culturally representative melody makers that have entertained many generations in the past. Sadly, one type of these brass bands faces certain extinction. This is the traditional British colliery brass band.
Colliery bands are special brass bands with very deep cultural attachments to their creators and their places of origins. Created by coal miners as pastime fun activities, some of these local community bands were wholeheartedly supported by their communities until their achievements propelled them to national prominence. One such band, which is also my favorite brass band of all time, is the Grimethorpe Colliery Band.
Unprecedented Success and Inspiration from Bands
One of the most iconic brass bands in British history is the Grimethorpe Colliery Band. Formed in 1917 in Grimethorpe, South Yorkshire, England, this brass band was founded as a pastime activity by members of the disbanded Cudworth Colliery Band. Despite its humble beginnings, this band has won numerous accolades in British brass band competitions and veritable honors at the European stage.
Among its many awesome achievements, the Grimethorpe Colliery Band became the first band to perform at The Proms (together with Black Dyke Mills Band). Its troubled future, following the closure of coal mines in Yorkshire, became the basis for the critically acclaimed British-American hit film, Brassed Off, which effectively put the band on the international spotlight.
A Melodious Past which made me Fall in Love with Bands
I was born in a small mining town west of Grimethorpe in South Yorkshire. Since my childhood, I recognized the heritage and economic significance of the traditional colliery bands in my society. We also had a budding brass band in our hometown, but it never became as prominent as the Grimethorpe Colliery Band.
Still, we enjoyed listening to these love-filled men playing their instruments during community marches, in our churches, and even during regional competitions. I accessed, familiarized myself and learned how to play various musical instruments from our local brass band. Founded on an amiable social foundation of love and respect between colleagues and relatives, these bands welcomed everyone to listen to their practice sessions without discriminating on age or social status.
Traditionally, all stakeholders including the members (miners) and the managers contributed a small portion of their salaries to support the band. During regional and national brass band competitions, the whole community rallied their resources towards the band’s success, offering financial, mutual and moral support during contests. All this unconditional fun was swept away with one stroke of the pen, the 1992 coal mine closure law by the British government.
Getting ‘Brassed Off’
All those who watched Brassed Off saw the dire financial ramifications that were rendered onto coal mining regions. The movie offered a vivid depiction of the heritage and economic calamities that befell entire communities following this unprecedented government legislation. Almost all miners, who belonged to various brass bands, around the county had to quit and seek alternative livelihoods. Consequently, many colliery brass bands went under. Those that clung to life discarded their traditional value-based foundations and adopted contemporary profit-oriented music production and performance tactics.
Whereas the traditional brass bands often performed free of charge during community events, just to entertain their friends and families, these ‘mutant’ brass bands sought every penny they could lay their hands on in order to survive. The brass bands have also started doing away with their traditional emblematic classic tunes and are experimenting with funky jazz melodies in a bid to woo younger audiences and players.
Although some brass bands are lucky to secure financial support from corporate or private benefactors, many bands are not as fortunate and hence have already failed or are facing imminent failure. The negative ripples that emanated from the government’s inconsiderate legislation are erupting into a social catastrophe. It is very saddening that our communities will one day lose this invaluable source of entertainment, creativity and cultural togetherness.