"Think of brass bands and what springs to mind? Mining communities? Industrial action? The Salvation Army? Think again."
Think of brass bands and what springs to mind? Mining communities? Industrial action? The Salvation Army? Think again. Watching a performance now might not
be, exactly, a kicking gig experience, but the traditional British pastime has certainly moved with the times. In fact, venture into one of the numerous rehearsals happening across the UK and you're more likely to find members playing Robbie Williams than the William Tell Overture.
'If you meet an average kid after practice now, he'll probably be checking the football scores on his mobile or going off to play on his Nintendo,' explains the appropriately named Nigel Horne, a banding stalwart with years of experience working all over
the country as a brass band composer, conductor and adjudicator. 'The cloth-cap
image hasn't been relevant for some time, so it's great to get away from the stereotypical view set by the film Brassed Off, or the Hovis adverts. I even think that can give band members themselves a blinkered vision, and prevent the movement from moving on. Although, of course, it is a great tradition so there's no point in changing everything just for the sake of it.'
And what a tradition it is. Brass banding has been going strong since the middle of the 19th century. The industrial revolution saw the formation of collieries, steelworks and ironworks, which meant an increase in the population outside the cities. Since these communities couldn't offer the same level of entertainment to their members, Queen Victoria herself suggested that mines and factories sponsor bands in order to bring 'culture' and foster company spirit. Although, this was also a cunning way for employers to prevent workers from whiling away their spare hours in public houses. As the north of England was the country's industry magnet, more bands emerged here than anywhere else - which meant a bigger following, too, seeing audiences stretch to as many as 80,000 for some major performances. 'The heartland of banding is clearly the M62 corridor,' says Horne. 'The stretch of land from Barnsley, Huddersfield and Stalybridge - reported to be the home of the world's first brass band - across to Manchester and Cheshire is where you'll find the world's top-rated groups. Many people have puzzled over why the standard is so high in these areas. It might be where the money was pumped. But it's not just the quality of the sound and technical expertise that are better, but the devotion, too. Banding is part of family heritage in the north.'
This dedication has been required, as after the miners' strikes of the 1980s, 156 collieries closed nationwide. With communities literally disbanding and money being depleted, the future of the movement was in jeopardy, a story viewers of the film Brassed Off will be familiar with. Horne credits the survival of the movement with its willingness to adapt to the times, thus attracting new members. In 1968, the Black Dyke Band showed its forward thinking by releasing a single on The Beatles' Apple Records label, which had as its A-side an instrumental composed by Lennon/McCartney, and as its B-side a version of Yellow Submarine. Further collaborations have included those with Tori Amos, Peter Gabriel and The Beautiful South. Other contemporary artists have done their bit, too; for instance, Mark Ronson's use of the tenor horn has done the instrument's popularity wonders.
For Horne, though, the percussion section holds the key to modernising. 'Because brass instruments set in place what constitutes a brass band,' he explains, 'composers, who want something new, often turn to the percussion section for the variety. It's also a great way of bringing the music up to date. We even use African or South American drums for compositions that have evolved into Latino rhythms.'
This kind of progression is a key consideration when it comes to the National Brass Band Championships, the climax of which takes place at London's Royal Albert Hall. While at one time the contest material would have been a selection of famous works, overtures or opera compilations, nowadays the programme's compositions are less rigid - although the judging is not. 'It's completely impartial,' says Horne. 'You don't
even find out who's won until afterwards, which means it's always just about the music.'
And it's this fact that has kept banding going strong for more than 150 years: no gimmicks (aside from the occasional tribal drum), just simple music. Facing the music helped the miners through their economic crisis, so could a bit of band aid be the tonic for our own recession?
Brass band events
Boys brigade in Scotland 125th Anniversary Tattoo
Braehead, Glasgow, 25 April
Many buses leave from Buchanan Street bus station to Braehead - including the 747. The bus station is a short walk from Glasgow Central station
Cetham's Percussion Day
Manchester, 9 May
Take the tram from Manchester Piccadilly towards Bury and get off at Victoria train station
89th Spring Brass Band Festival
Blackpool, 9 May
The Winter Gardens is a short walk form Blackpool North train station
English National Brass Band Championships
Guild Hall, Preston, 27 June
The Guild Hall is a 10-minute walk from Preston train station
Durham Miners' Gala
Durham city centre, the Old
Racecourse and villages around Durham, 11 July
The Miners' Gala takes place at various locations around Durham city centre - all of which can be reached from Durham train station
Great Northern Brass Arts Festival
Bridgewater Hall, Manchester,
Take the tram from Manchester Piccadilly towards Altrincham and take off at St Peter's Square