Connections and Complexities in Brass Band Music

Submitted by Adam D. Ketchum on Friday, 9/24/2010, at 4:32 PM

The music of Brass Unbound was unique and a distinct pleasure to experience.  While listening, I was struck by the way various regions appropriated what was originally a strict European form of music for their own cultural purposes.  The regional influence was very apparent.  For example, the track “Gurans Ko Phool Siuri” conjures up the almost cartoonish image of a snake charmer playing in the streets of Mumbai.
    Two other tracks that struck me were those performed by The Peace Band of Ghana.  The brass bands infiltrated Ghanian culture primarily through missionary workers.  These missionaries saw the traditional African music was sinful.  What seems to be their primary complaint against the music was what they considered crude dancing, supposedly spurned on by so-called evil jungle beats (a concept which persists; even today, some sects of Christianity reject Rock music because of a pounding African originated rhythm which they suggest leads to sinful rhythmic physical activities).  In the two songs by The Peace Band we hear a clear divide between sounds deemed appropriate by European Christian missionaries (Se Yehowa Hyera Wo, which is more melodically driven and has almost repressed percussions), and a more traditional African based sound (Kpanlogo).  The later of which features the percussion in their full glory, and almost chant-like vocals.
    The track I enjoyed the most from the Brass Unbound CD was “Mini Mini” by TRIS-kapal from Surinam.  I was drawn to this track due to a familiarity with Mambo music.  Anyone who has listened to this Cuban Jazz will easily hear the sonic similarities between it and Surinamese brass band music.  The best way to demonstrate this, of course, is to allow you to listen to a song by a Mambo artist.

Mambo standardMaracaibo Oriental -_ Tojo _ Y Su Orquesta
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This is a standard of Mambo music and an enjoyable example.
    The fact that this song (which is a Cuban) features the name of a Venezuelan city (Maracaïbo), shouldn’t be a surprise.  After all, Cuba is very close geographically to Venezuela.  However, it is a good springing point from which we can jump into the complexities of the global nature of brass music.  In “Maracaïbo Oriental” song we have a Cuban brass band (whose instruments are European in origin) talking about a Venezuelan city, but this is only scratching the surface of the complexities.  If we return to TRIS-kapal we can see another example.
    A quick google search of “TRIS-kapal” and “Surinam” will net plenty of results in Dutch.  This makes sense.  Dutch is the official language of Surinam.  However a crude translation via google will reveal that the text found here is describing TRIS-kapal’s popularity in the Netherlands.  It came as quite a surprise to discover that Europeans were favoring music from a former colony, especially when the form originated in Europe.  You have to wonder what the Dutch think of this “fake” dutch music.
    “Fake” international music is always surprising.  An astute student in our class made the observation that the Brass Unbound contained a fake transnational band (“African Market Place” is the track being referred to).  It was ostensibly an African brass band, but in actuality it was recorded in Germany.  Another example “fake” transnational band that immediately sprung to my mind upon reading this discovery was the fake Mexican brass band Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass.  Herb Alpert was a major figure in American music (he’s the “A” in A&M Records).  At one point he visited Tijuana, Mexico and heard a brass band.  This inspired him to create his own.  Curiously, he didn’t recruit any actual Mexicans, or even anyone of Hispanic descent.  His band was completely Caucasian.  This creates an interesting regression of origin.  American Alpert took music from Mexico and made it his own.  However, Mexican brass bands themselves are examples of a local population which appropriated another cultures musical traditions and made it their own.  In this we we see the complexities of the globalization of brass music.  At the risk of sounding incredibly clichéd, things aren’t always what they seem, and it’s important for us to remember that when approaching unfamiliar territory (such as these brass bands).


    For those interested in listening to Herb Alpert’s band, here are several interesting selections to compare to each other, as well as other brass band music.


This was the first song by The Tijuana Brass, and sounds authentically Mexican.  Later the songs took on a more poppy sound, such as those found on the landmark album Whipped Cream & Other Delights. 

This may be familiar sounding as it is a pop standard. 

Later, on Whipped Cream you hear “Peanuts”.  This track features a distinct Oompah Band sound.  In fact, if one were to be introduced to The Tijuana Brass through this song, you’d probably find the bands name inaccurate.