How English Brass Band Music Traveled to India and Back Again
by Teed Rockwell
Rahmania. The Bollywood Brass Band. Emergency Exit Arts. available at www.bollywoodbrassband.co.uk
Fanfare Du Rajastan. Jaipur Kawa Brass Band Iris Music. available at www.amazon.com
Disco Bhangra: Wedding Bands from Rajastan. Avant (Japan) available from Down Home Music Store 10341 San Pablo Avenue El Cerrito, CA 94530 (510) 525-2129
During the British Raj, marching bands were considered one of the primary ways of imposing the “civilizing” force of European culture on the Indian populace. In the days before wireless communication, the bagpipes were the only way that thousands of troops could immediately be informed of their commander’s orders. Each bagpipe melody was a signal with a specific military meaning, such as halt, attack, retreat, etc. And military parades, with thousands of soldiers marching in lockstep to the sounds of brass bands, were an effective way of expressing the power of the British Empire. For this reason, thousands of Indian men and boys were taught to play a variety of western band instruments: bagpipes, trumpets, clarinets, tubas, snare drums. And when homesick British soldiers wanted to hear something to remind them of England, these same musicians could be pressed into service to perform at dances and Sunday concerts in the park. When they performed they wore uniforms that combined elements of both English and Indian military finery: brass buttons, gold braid—along with silk sashes and turbans!
Today the British military presence in India is only a memory, but surprising manifestations of the old marching bands’ influence can still be found. Sonoma State musicologist and khyal singer Laxmi Tewari once showed me a picture of an Indian man in a loincloth sitting on the ground next to a tabla player, playing a bagpipe made with beautifully embroidered Indian cloth. I asked Tewari “Is there a bagpipe gharana in India?” “Actually, that man’s grandfather played bagpipe in a British marching band”, said Tewari. “When the British left, they let him keep the bagpipe, and it was passed down through the family since then. The original cloth was a Scottish tartan, but it wore out years ago. He plays Indian folk tunes on it, mostly.”
But by far the biggest impact has been the persistent popularity of what are often called “Band Parties”. Traditionally public celebrations were accompanied by the music of folk drums and Indian wind instruments—the shennai in the north and the nagaswaram in the south. But now almost every important occasion in India is accompanied by a large aggregate of brass and reed players, who march through the streets letting everyone know by sheer volume and enthusiasm that something important is going on. These bands are considered an indispensable part of most Indian weddings. They also play on holidays like Diwali and Ganapati (the annual ten day festival honoring Ganesh).
Since the departure of the Raj, British spit and polish has been replaced by the Indian entrepreneurial spirit. In any large Indian city there will be up to 100 brass bands competing for business. They tend to be in a particular area of the city and each has its own shop, which is basically a small room opening onto the street that displays pictures of the band and uniform choices. The band itself however, is an extremely amorphous unit, whose membership and size fluctuates depending on who is available and how much the customer is willing and/or able to pay. The person who manages the band is the most accomplished player, and owns the uniforms, which have the same Anglo-Indian military style as the old army bands . The manager usually plays improvised lines on clarinet or saxophone, and is often a fairly accomplished musician. But the rest of the players are picked up for each individual job, and often have to be supplied instruments by the manager. In fact, in the larger jobs many of the “musicians” can’t play at all, but only carry instruments to give a sense that a really big band is playing.
The Album “Disco Bhangra” features recordings of several such “band parties”, with varying levels of technical competence. This music has clearly taken on a life of its own since the British left. “God save the Queen” is no longer on the set list. The primary repertoire is Indian film songs, including one with the English Lyrics “I am a disco dancer”. Each band usually accompanies a singer amplified by a squawky, echoing, battery powered P.A. system carried on a hand drawn cart, usually decorated with Christmas tree lights powered by the same battery. And although there is some expressive playing by an occasional lead clarinetist, it’s obvious that most of the other musicians are making educated (and not so educated) guesses as to what parts they are supposed to play next. The result is more listenable than you might think from this description, but it is definitely not music for the compulsive perfectionist.
The Jaipur Kawa Brass Band is in a different class altogether, featuring performers who have played together for years. Admittedly their arranged unison lines are not always perfect. But their rhythm section has powerful and tight interactions between bass drums and cymbals, and the horns and reeds have a wild expressive vibrato reminiscent of the gamak used by khyal singers. It isn’t classical music, but it has an authentic intensity that could have arisen nowhere but India. Understandably, this music has started to appeal to lovers of western brass band music, and the Jaipur Kawa band is now one of many such groups that has been well received in England and Europe.
Another such group was the Shyam Brass Band, who collaborated with an English band that was then called Crocodile Styles. These Brits were so enthusiastic about this new style of music that they renamed themselves the Bollywood Brass Band, and begin learning the Shyam Band’s arrangements of Indian film songs. At one of their concerts, a well-to-do Indian gentleman asked them if they played weddings. That first wedding performance led to more and more offers, and soon they had all the paraphernalia of an Indian Wedding band—including an Indian dhol drummer, and those nifty Anglo-Indian band uniforms with turbans and sashes.
And so band party music has come full circle. Once played by Indians hired by English in India who wanted to be reminded of England , it is now played by English hired by Indians in England who want to be reminded of India. And these English (who have last names like Cohen, Jago, and d’Amonville) are certainly going to take this “traditional music” in new directions. The band’s first (self-titled) album was a faithful reproduction of their wedding party performances. With their second album “Rahmania”, they collaborate with a percussion ensemble called Sambhangra, which combines Indian and Latin percussions, to create arrangements of the songs of film composer A.R. Rahman. They are also using the recording studio to create techno remixes of their own songs. Will their customers object to this innovation? Not Likely. How can you capture Rahman’s unique Bollywood sound without drum machines and synthesizers?