Review | Brass Bands of the World: Militarism, Colonial Legacies, and Local Music Making

Brass Bands of the World: Militarism, Colonial Legacies, and Local Music Making. Edited by Suzel Ana Reily and Katherine Brucher. (Soas Musicology Series) Surrey, England: Ashgate, 2013. [268 p., ISBN 9781409444220, Hardcover $109.95].


Reviewed by Jamil Jorge / University of Illinois


The imported [brass] instruments...were more than just material objects: people across the globe adapted them to their own aesthetics, their own place and their own social and cultural realities. Brass band traditions were local re-workings of a nineteenth-century European musi-cultural product (199).


Written by Helena Simonett, these words embody the overarching themes of Brass Bands of the World: Militarism, Colonial Legacies, and Local Music Making. This collection of case studies, edited by Suzel Ana Reily and Katherine Brucher, demonstrates the plasticity of the British brass band tradition around the world. Each of the nine chapters describes different band traditions that recognizably re-work colonial and local aesthetics to become unique band traditions from the military to local amateur music makers.

Trevor Herbert, known for his research in European brass and military music, starts the book with an assertion that bands are localized and should be studied within their own social context. He argues that a historical study of bands is unfeasible because bands are established “as a consequence of [their] relative modernity” (35), indicating that bands are ensembles created in their present social and cultural context. Attempting to understand the historical development of bands runs the risk of resulting in too many assumptions that disregard a band’s present social and cultural context. Herbert’s chapter focuses primarily on British brass and military bands as they developed in what he calls their “performance domain” (33), during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The performance domain refers to the “trends” of the social and cultural period. This idea sets up the rest of the book as each chapter places focus on the performance domains of their present social and cultural contexts.

Although Herbert ventures away from extensive historical detail, the book’s introduction by Katherine Brucher and Suzel Ana Reily provides more extensive historical information for the reader who would appreciate a background on brass and military bands’ development in Britain and their dissemination through colonialism and militarism. They also contribute a backdrop for ideas of ritual, social function, amateur music making, and community establishment in space and place, all of which can be considered a part of Herbert’s performance domain.

The case studies that follow represent a larger scope than is implied by the book’s title; each chapter is about bands, but not exclusively bands with strict brass instrumentation. Some chapters center on bands that include reed instruments alongside brass instruments, and another depicts a flute band from Northern Ireland. The word “band” is most important. Herbert examined the word in the opening chapter, defining “band” as essentially referring to a united group of people (without regard to specific instrumentation) that forms purposefully within a specific community. Instrumental versatility based on the British brass band tradition, spread through colonialism and militarism, merits the compilation of many different band studies that are found within Brass Bands of the World.

Chapter 2, “Western Challenge, Japanese Musical Response: Military Bands in Modern Japan” by Sarah McClimon and Chapter 3, “Battlefields and the Field of Music: South Korean Military Band traditions and the Korean War,” by Heejin Kim are perhaps the most historically based chapters. McClimon fleshes out five historical periods (the earliest being the Edo period beginning in 1850 and ending Showa Period in 1945) and their interactions with foreign musical influences caused by westernization and militarization. Fifes, drums, and bugles outline the earlier periods, as well as the adaptations of western musical aesthetics and notations and the use of foreign musical directors. The chapter also explores symbolic prestige and power that having a successful military brass band could bring to Japan and the steps taken to continue the band tradition under local Japanese leadership instead, thus creating a Japanese style of the western art form with the purpose of instilling Japanese patriotism.

Moving north, Kim calls attention to South Korean military bands by exploring the band’s uses and influences in and outside of the military. Besides the ceremonial functions and moral boosters the marches served in the military, the bands were also a builder of nationalism, especially before and after Japanese occupation. During occupation, there was a sharp decline in North Korean military bands, but through their reemergence post-occupation found military band veterans become music teachers in South Korea’s educational systems, thus imprinting the youth with those military values and aesthetics. Post occupation, the United States military presence in South Korea brought American popular music into the South Korean public sphere; South Korean military bands were playing marches, classical music, and popular music from the U.S. for the public in order to boost morale, nationalism, and support for the U.S. alliance. Consequently, local music reflected this militarization by blending western and local aesthetics.

Like Herbert, Suzel Ana Reily focuses on the present rather than the historical past in chapter four, “From Processions to Encontros: The Performance Niches of the Community Bands of Minas Gerais, Brazil.” Reily, some of whose previous works focus on various band traditions in Brazil, recognizes the versatility of brass bands and how that versatility helped bands find their “niches” in Minas Gerais and around the world. Her chapter focuses on bands de música, wind and brass bands, which are often used for civic and religious occasions, and other public events. In a changing world of new technologies and electronic amplification, the bands de músicas have to change as well to sustain their existence. One particular result is the creation of the encontros de bandas, or “band meetings,” where bands from different regional areas will converge in a particular town to perform for one another. This has ensured sustenance for smaller community bands in towns throughout Minas Gerais.

In chapter five, “Representational Power of the New Orleans Brass Band,” Matt Sakakeeny, examines black representation by distinguishing between older, traditional performance aesthetics and modern, hip-hop-oriented approaches of second line bands. He argues that the black identity of a marginalized people can be expressed through public artistic mediums such as the brass band while remaining cautious that such representation is not representative of an entire ethnic population, but rather certain communities within such a population. Sakakeeny analyzes musical styles, repertoire, clothing and other performance aesthetics as they differ between both traditionalist (Black Men of Labor social club) and modern (Dirty Dozen Brass Band) performers. Analyzing the choices made in each group’s performance domains helps to uncover ideologies of respectable representation of black identity.

Sylvia Bruinders returns to a more militaristic style band while maintaining the theme of racial representation in chapter six, “Soldiers of God: The Spectacular Musical Ministry of the Christmas Bands in the Western Cape, South Africa.” Here, the primarily black Christmas bands have no strict instrumentation (they include brass, wind, and string instruments), but maintain military performance aesthetics (such as marching and uniforms) through band competitions. In competition, the bands create a spectacle of power, discipline, and respectability for racially oppressed South Africans. Bruinders also finds that Christmas bands maintain a neighborly sense of community and nostalgia for the past by traveling during the months after Christmas and performing at the members’ homes, many of which were relocated during apartheid.

In “Composing Identity and Transposing Values in Portuguese Amateur Wind Bands,” Katherine Brucher continues to observe the role of amateur bands in smaller community settings. She writes about the community music school created by the Sociedade Filarmónica de Covões, including its methods of musical training as well as how it operates as a social space for its members. The music-making itself (in lessons, rehearsals and performance) becomes a space of social interaction that builds camaraderie among the members, teaches morals, and establishes loyalty to the band’s particular identity, essentially creating a community within the larger community. Such values are emblematic of the military brass bands that have so far influenced studies in this book.

Chapter eight continues to rationalize community though communitas, which refers to social equality with a strong sense of camaraderie. “Playing Away: Liminality, Flow and Communitas in an Ulster Flute Band’s Visit to a Scottish Orange Parade,” by Gordon Ramsey follows the Sir George White Memorial Flute Band (a fife and drum corps) from Northern Ireland on their annual trip to Scotland to perform in the Orange Parade. While the band works to maintain a high level of respectability in their hometown, the annual trip puts the band’s members in a liminal space that allows violations of normally acceptable behavior and the playing of rowdy “party” tunes. In such a space, ritualistic emotional and transformative experiences create long-lasting memories to establish strong camaraderie among band members.

Up to this point, this book has explored the many ways the band has taken throughout the world. Perhaps the most versatile of all the bands is saved for the last chapter, “From Village to World Stage: The Malleability of a Sinaloan Popular Brass Bands,” by Helena Simonett. Simonett explores the banda tradition in Sinaloa, Mexico whose instrumentation and repertoire is influenced by a multitude of sources. Repertoire comes from traditional indigenous music, but the bands also tackle popular genres of music from around the world. Although amplification aided in the decline of bandas, the brass bands adapted and created technobandas that used electronic instrumentation and drum sets. Both traditional and modern forms of the bandas find varying degrees of success depending on their performance domains.

These chapters are not a historically linear progression, but rather case studies organized by those which remained the most like brass bands in the British tradition through bands that have successfully reconstructed themselves to the performance domains of their communities. Like the band’s versatility, Brass Bands of the World can be utilized to explore different research methodologies. The first few chapters focused on military ensembles primarily uses historical materials and interviews with veterans. Studies like Ramsey’s exercised full participation in the ensemble. Ethnomusicologists could find this book useful to conceptualize various methods of ethnomusicological research ranging on both ends of a historical-participation spectrum.

Brass Bands of the World is an admirable compilation of similar, yet extraordinarily different, band traditions from around the world that should be studied as musical communities in and of themselves. Themes range from nationalism, community engagement, racial and class identity, adaptability and versatility of brass bands. Yet, the most important theme is the concept of the “band,” a group of people that form purposefully within a community within a specific and defining performance domain.



"Sounding Board" is intended as a space for scholars to publish thoughts and observations about their current work. These postings are not peer reviewed and do not reflect the opinion of Ethnomusicology Review. We support the expression of controversial opinions, and welcome civil discussion about them. We do not, however, tolerate overt discrimination based on race, sex, gender, sexual orientation, or religion, and reserve the right to remove posts that we feel might offend our readers.