The Heritage and Culture in Music Bands
I was born and raised in a small town in the historic region of South Yorkshire in Northern England. In addition to its rich cultural heritage, strong social ties, rustic beauty and conservative demeanor, my hometown was (and to an extent still is) addicted to band music. And not all types of band music, brass band music. Ever since I was a child, my family (especially my father), my church, and my community was obsessed by the intoxicating sounds of a well-practiced and organized brass band.
This phenomenal brass band tradition in Yorkshire can be traced back to the early 19th century and its roots are deeply entrenched in the region’s coal mining industry. My father and his two brothers were coal miners as was their father before them, my grandfather. Actually, I think I would also have ended up in the coal mining industry if things had not changed for the worse in the early 1990s.
It also follows that I would have ended up in my father’s colliery brass band practicing and performing with my fellow age mates till old age. As surreal as these thoughts appear, they are very probable realities in my community.
Understanding British Brass Bands
Traditionally, British brass bands were orchestral-like musical groups that played a standardized range of brass and percussion instruments. Notably, British brass bands differed from orchestras and typical concert bands, in their choice of musical instruments. Even today, British brass bands are limited to specific instruments, excluding trumpets and French horns.
In practice, a standard brass band had the following instruments, in varying quantities; Soprano cornets, cornets, flugelhorns, tenor and bass trombones, tubas, and euphoniums. Typically, this music ensemble required a total of 27 to 29 instrumentalists. However, actual bands like my father’s consisted of less than 20 players, except during concert performances or contests when fill-in players from other bands were brought in to fill the empty slots in a practice called deputizing players.
The Rise of British colliery bands
In the mid to late 19th and early 20th century, many brass bands in the UK were formed around communities and their respective industries. In mining towns like ours in the Yorkshire County, brass bands were formed as a recreational activity for miners working at a colliery or coal mine. In this light, they are alternatively referred to as British colliery bands.
After their introduction in Yorkshire in the early 19th century, colliery bands became very popular and competitive in their respective regions. According to my father, colliery bands represented a communities’ identity and their music prowess reflected in their contest prizes became a symbol of community prestige and achievement. As such, brass band members, especially successful ones, were viewed as cultural and social icons, much like sports superstars today.
What the Future Holds for Such Music Groups
Now that we have a basic understanding of this enigmatic music practice, let us reflect on my failure to follow in the footsteps of my forefathers in upholding this prestigious family and communal tradition. Despite the alluring promise of creating melodious music and achieving stardom at both the local and national level, I could not join this musical train due to changing socio-cultural, legal and economical leanings.
Perhaps the most influential driver in the downfall or restructuring of the traditional brass (colliery) band industry was the government-instituted collapse of the coal mining industry in the early 1990s leading to drastic economic ramifications. In 1992, the UK government passed legislation that led to the closure of many coal mines around Yorkshire. Consequently, colliery band members were rendered jobless and had to resort to other industries to seek alternative employment and replenish their income.
As such, the socioeconomic glue that was holding the traditional brass bands together melted away. The bands were no longer leisure activities for mining colleagues. As such, most of the colliery bands, including my father’s band folded. The few that survived were restructured and reinvented to adopt a contemporary outlook and to focus on modern music making strategies. Marking a sad moment in time, the colliery band dream died and its strong community bond died with it. As you can see, however much I would like to play in a traditional British brass band, the opportunity is just not there.