October 6th, 2009

Mobile Music & Brass Culture

photo by julie_chen

The annual HONK! Festival is going down this weekend, making Somerville the joyfully cacophonous meeting ground for an international bloc of brass bands (and related ensembles). I missed HONK! last year, out of town, so I’m looking forward to taking it in this time around, especially with the girls, who will no doubt be amused and amazed (and hopefully not too alarmed).

Quick shoutout to Rozele, who chimed in on the treble culture conversation and snuck in a plug for her band, Brooklyn’s Rude Mechanical Orchestra (who I look fwd to hearing at HONK!). I enjoyed her musings about contemporary and historical brass culture & the politics of frequency, i.e. —

it’s making me think about how this plays out or doesn’t in the street-brass world i hang out in (what you could call the live & unamplified wing of globalized ghettotech)… and in other live & un-/minimally-amplified contexts.

lots of the brass music that my circles play (and listen to on record), especially the older stuff, is from contexts where the emphasis was on high, fast and loud, the balkans in particular. and as instrumentation changed over the past century-plus (and recordings began to be made), the highs there got higher and the louds got louder (fiddle to clarinet to trumpet leads in the balkans, for instance). my understanding is that this is partly the same as the tenor-centrism of older opera: the higher it is, the farther it carries, especially over a crowd that’s chatting in the usual conversational range.

a lot of the current bands, though, have serious low end, and often prioritize it in their arrangements. part of this probably has to do with bringing the (’bass culture’) new orleans brass tradition into contact with the balkan side of things. and that change being reinforced by bands covering pop songs that come out of other faces of bass culture (”Push It”, “Crazy In Love”, “Thriller”, &c). and it’s least evident in the most trad-oriented bands, which supports that theory. but i wonder whether it’s also about acculturation to a general bass-heavy mode of listening to music, and whether it’ll change over time if this ‘treble culture’ motion continues.


  • 1. The Incredible Kid  |  October 6th, 2009 at 11:15 pm

    Brass plus low end. Great combo. Bring out the tubas.


  • 2. Kerry  |  October 7th, 2009 at 7:49 am

    Here in Bombay, brass bands – a colonial holdover – are pretty standard fare for most celebratory events, namely weddings and festivals. Not a lot of tubas, they stay firmly in the high range, and are accompanied by a battery of Indian drums. In Bombay, they seem most prominent in Christian bits of town, but that seems to be due to more of a cultural than religious relationship – the Hindus in the Christian areas still use them. The zonal preferences are speculation, though; I don’t have data.

    They’re often a little out of tune, and extremely banged up, but provide some of the mostly lively street music that you find around here; bollywood is so ubiquitous that it’s refreshing to hear other popular music. Not that the brass bands don’t play plenty of bollywood numbers.

    The greatest brass band moment for me recently was when I thought I was approaching one during a festival day, and I turned the corner, got through the crowds, passed the drummers, and search vainly for the horns. Turns out there was a guy playing the horn part through a keyboard that was hooked to a PA system – all powered off of car batteries – on the back of a bull cart.

    There’s some high/low/mainstream culture interplay, though. One of the biggest recently bollywood hits was a wedding song that adopted Indian brass band themes


    Which then blew up in the slums.

    And Bombay’s nothing. In North Calcutta, there’s a street where every storefront is a brass band. It’s quite a sight.

  • 3. nina  |  October 7th, 2009 at 10:03 am

    Sorry, all of a sudden I had a flashback to Push It being played at the Bayou Classic. It is was all brass and boom, I cant remember hearing anything other than that. This weekend we will be having a MAJOR HBCU game and there WILL BE BRASS AND THERE WILL BE BASS! I take earplugs when forced to attend these things because the brass is PAINFUL, but the boom is pretty fantastic.

  • 4. wayneandwax  |  October 7th, 2009 at 10:25 am

    I’m reminded of my favorite scene from Pulse: A Stomp Odyssey. As the Jersey Surf Drum and Bugle Corps face off against the Jackie Robinson Steppers on the Brooklyn Bridge, the alternating clips do a great job of highlighting the “traditional”/drum&bugle-corps (treble culture) approach and the bass-drum centered, crunked up, New Orleansy drumline style (which seems to be, increasingly, the dominant brass band orientation — go hip-hop!). Wish I could embed that video here, but it doesn’t seem to be online.

  • 5. wayneandwax  |  October 7th, 2009 at 10:35 am

    Thanks again, Kerry, for sharing your thoughts from Bombay (I thought it was “Mumbai” now? Talk about colonial holdovers ;)

    As with the quadrille, variants of which can be found all over the world, the brass band is, as you point out, a very interesting study in post-colonial localization. I especially enjoy the “out-of-tune” ensembles, which can produce some really uncanny sounds. A friend from Madison, Jennifer Munger, has been working on brass band culture (musik bambu) in North Sulawesi for years now, and her study seems to touch on a lot of similar issues as mentioned here. Too bad I can’t seem to find anything published at the moment.

  • 6. wayneandwax.com » H&hellip  |  October 7th, 2009 at 11:53 am

    […] no denying that it’s a bonefide D-Town “movement” (the opening brass band bit, per yesterday, was the clincher in convincing me to post this) […]

  • 7. The Incredible Kid  |  October 8th, 2009 at 11:02 pm

    It’s not just the colonialists who still use the name Bombay. I’ve never heard anyone in Bombay speaking English call it “Mumbai.”

    From my blog detailing my visit in January:

    “Every Indian I talked to called it Bombay, and in conversation with them I felt like I would be considered benighted if I said Mumbai. Traditionally the name of the city is Mumbai in Marathi and Gujarati, Bombay in English and Bambai in Hindi, Persian, and Urdu. Since I was speaking English with every Indian I met, we all talked of Bombay.”


  • 8. w&w  |  October 9th, 2009 at 10:07 am

    Thanks for the clarification, IK. I suppose I should put a stop to my current practice of correcting people when they say, “Bollywood”: “Sorry, I believe it should be Mollywood now.”

  • 9. The Incredible Kid  |  October 9th, 2009 at 9:49 pm


  • 10. Josh R  |  October 13th, 2009 at 12:30 am

    When i was in India I heard the term Mollywood being used to describe cinema made in the Malayalam language, from the south Indian state of Kerala.

  • 11. rozele  |  October 16th, 2009 at 10:47 am

    thanks so much for the shoutout, wayne – i hope you enjoyed the weekend as much as we all did…

    and @kerry now has me thinking about the relationships between brass & drums and low & high pitch (not to mention low/high culture) all over again. this was the Honk! year that showed just how central samba is as an influence on the street brass world right now (at least in the u.s., canada, and italy). there were three baterias in somerville (from boston, san francisco, and greensboro, north carolina), but also a ton of samba-based percussion playing in bands with a lot of brass. and that meant a lot of booming surdos at the low end, but also tamborim and whistle high end rhythms. which is, interestingly, very similar to what NYC’s Red Baraat band brings from the south asian brass tradition – substituting dhol for surdo. i wonder whether that’s them being a bhangra-rooted band (and so more connected to punjabi than bombay-area styles?), or being a diaspora band living in a bass-culture zone, or much less complicated than either…

  • 12. wayneandwax  |  October 16th, 2009 at 11:06 am

    yes, we definitely enjoyed walking around Davis Sq on saturday and watching the parade down Mass Ave on sunday. sorry we couldn’t pick you out of the crowd!

    the samba undercurrents (and overcurrents?) were definitely unmistakable! i love hearing all the march music convergences a gwaan in this scene.

  • 13. wayneandwax.com » D&hellip  |  October 29th, 2009 at 1:03 pm

    […] say, party people in the house. Up next: Gypsy Sound System, str8 outta Poland! Bass culture meets brass culture inna Central Square. Be […]


I'm a techno-musicologist, internet annotator, imagined community organizer.

I left my <3 in the digital global, but I reside in Cambridge, MA, where I'm from.

I represent like that.

wayne at wayneandwax dot com

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