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World Bands 101 - A Primer

The European vision of wind and percussion ensembles spread throughout the colonial world as the most efficient accompaniment to outdoor spectacle. The necessities for pomp and grandeur, not to mention volume, of Civil, military and religious functions were filled by groups of horns and drums playing the appropriate marches, hymns, fanfares or processionals. And in most cases, who played those instruments were native musicians. Colonial band masters would arrive, establish a (western) music school and teach the natives the music ‘trade’ with which they could play the colonials music dressed in their colorful military uniforms. This was all very agreeable to the native musicians as the instruments were shiny and loud as were the uniforms. Records of what the native musicians thought of the european music they were required to play are rare, but the simple existence of such a variety of native music adapted to those instruments would seem to indicate an eagerness for finding something better suited to native sensibilities. In some cases such as the african groups descended from missionary bands, their roots in religious hymns are very evident. In others such as the Indian tradition, their roots in english military marches are long forgotten.

Native musicians were attracted to the western instruments for much the same reason they’d been imported . . . . they were shiny and played loud and as such, made for an ideal accompaniment to outdoor festivals, parties, rites, etc. In most cases the use of the instruments for music making outside the european tradition was discouraged, though not unknown. When allowed, the native band musicians would take their instruments home and work those sounds into their own native music. The results were generally full of rhythm, as befits the party music it was, and based on their own unique harmonic realities. When the colonists were finally sent packing, the instruments were part of the detritus left behind, in native hands, finally free to let their vivid imaginations run wild . . . . possibly presenting the only instance of a positive effect the colonials had on their colonies.

The sheer variety of musical styles that have developed as a result of this clash of western technology and native cultures all around the world add to the mystery of why these musics have remained such a well kept secret for so long. The one great success seems to have been with the music that became ‘jazz’ from New Orleans, U.S.A. and that might have more to do with the economic power that that particular colony became and the fascination the rest of the world developed for that colonies culture. Great and inventive styles of wind music have developed in India, Mexico and Surinam as well without attracting the massive attention American jazz has.

This primer is hoped to be a small step toward rectifying the general ignorance of these fascinating musics in western wind music circles in the hope that these might be considered alternatives to the western classical traditions along with american jazz.


No doubt, it will come as a surprise to most people to learn that India is home to a beautiful and dynamic tradition of bands. In a land generally associated with fantastically multi-faceted musical cultures, wind bands would be one of the last sorts of ensembles most people would expect to find there. But there are many. They play primarily for weddings and religious festivals and are highly valued for their ability to make a big loud noise in open-air situations. Their repertoire consists mostly of pop music, which in India is comprised of hits from the prolific film industry. Their instrumentation consists of a solo clarinet, trumpet or saxophone accompanied by sections of trumpets, baritone horns and percussion. As would be expected from such a rhythmically developed culture, the music is very complicated rhythmically with lots of call and response between the solo instrument and the accompaniment. Long sections of improvisation by the solo instrument are broken up by precise exclamations by the accompaniment. Indian bands have been rarely documented by western CD firms but cassettes and CD’s from Indian producers are easy to find in Indian shops.

The Shyam Brass BandSome names to look for in Indian Brass Bands are the Shyam Brass Band of Jabalpur, one of the best examples of this amazing tradition. They record for the Tips label of Bombay and during the summer of 2004 made their 3rd trip to Europe for festivals of World music. Jawa Kaipur Brass Band of Rajastan has a disc out on the Kardum/Iris Musique label. Raj Kemal Brass Band is another band with many cassettes on the Indian market.
More information about the Indian Band tradition can be found in the work of ethnomusicologist, Dr. Greg Booth. An article of his in the Journal of Ethnomusicology circa 1990 provides a wonderful introduction to the realities of this incredible and little known style of music. His book - Brass Baja: Stories from the World of Indian Wedding Bands - published by Oxford University Press (Delhi) will be published in early 2005.

The Indian band tradition also has the distinction of being one of the only world band traditions to have spawned a copy group - Bollywood Brass Band of London has enjoyed 10 or more years of spreading the word about this great voice in world band music including 3 or 4 CD’s.
Click the links below for some MP3 examples of music from India.


Popular bands are a staple of religious and other popular festivals in Andean cultures such as those of Peru and Bolivia. They consist of trumpets, baritone horns, saxophones, tubas and percussion and play adaptations of folk and religious melodies oftentimes accompanying a troupe of folk dancers. Their performances usually include show elements such as choreographed unison movements to add to their market value for the weddings and other celebrations that make for a large part of their work. Many of the musicians are moonlighting military band musicians with a formal musical education and, rare among world band cultures, it is not uncommon to find bandmasters and bandsmen working from written scores. Miranda v.d. Spek is a leading researcher of Andean Band culture, having recently returned from a 3rd extended stay with bands in Peru and Bolivia.
Click the links below for some MP3 examples of music from the Andes


The band culture of Indonesia has the distinction of having survived the gradual disintegration of their western instruments, continuing with instruments of their own fabrication. An extremely hot and humid climate has resulted in the corrosion of the metal of their original colonial instruments and the emergence of native builders of instruments in more or less the same forms. Using plates of tin welded together or woven cane with a kazoo-like mouthpiece, ‘instruments’ are built in basically a traditional form - large sousaphone like instruments pump out a bass pattern, smaller ‘saxophones’ and trumpets’ carry a melody and medium sized ‘trombones’ and ‘baritones’ play accompanying lines to many of the same traditional marches and hymns their predecessors played on colonial instruments in colonial times.


Like Indonesia, Suriname, on the north east coast of south america, was also a Dutch colony with many of the same climate conditions, but where the tradition of wind bands developed in very different ways. Surinamers always managed to replace their western instruments and rather than maintaining a traditional colonial repertoire adapted it to their much more rhythmic native tastes. The religious hymns can often still be heard although played in a manner that would seriously grieve the pastors. In fact, an important part of the daily work of bands in Suriname consists of music for religious festivals and their religion is a unique mixture of christian and native beliefs which requires a band to provide the necessary rhythmic and melodic push toward the trance state that is often the goal of their religious ‘Winti’ rites. The omni-present sousaphone in these bands is often considered the ‘voice of god’ speaking to the entranced faithful.

The Suriname BoysBands in Suriname are generally smaller ensembles of 6 - 10 musicians playing saxophones, trumpets, trombones, baritones, sousaphones (or course!) and several percussionists one of which will be playing the unique ‘scratchi’ drum, a medium sized tom-tom laid on it’s side with a small thick cymbal mounted on top and holding down the peculiar, broken (but highly danceable) ‘kaseko’ rhythm.
As well as existing in Suriname itself, these bands are highly active in the Suriname communities in Holland. One of the leading figures in Holland is Carlo Jones, who, with his Suriname Troubadours as well as with groups such as De Nazaten van Prins Hendirx continues to record and develop this wonderfully vital music.
Click the links below for some MP3 examples of music from Suriname

Serbia, Macedonia, and Romania

Thanks to the success of the films of Emir Kustarica, who has been insistent on the inclusion of his native Serbian culture in his work and the popularity of Fanfare Ciocarlia from Romania, known for their unbelievably fast delivery, the band cultures of southeastern Europe might be among the best known of world band stylings. These are also band cultures with no connection to european colonial cultures as those countries were never colonies. In fact, the band cultures of Serbia, Romania and Macedonia might well be closer to the original roots of western bands in Turkey.
Instrumentations include 2 rotary valved trumpets playing melodies in thirds, another 2 or 3 trumpets playing rhythm, 3 or 4 baritones playing rhythm, a bombardon for bass and one or two percussion players. Often a saxophone or clarinet serves as the solo voice playing very intricate melodies full of trills and other illuminations, in a manner not unlike their Indian counterparts. Odd meters in 5, 7 and 9 are common in the repertoires they perform for weddings and other civic functions.

CiocarliaTrompettist Boban Markovic, often the winner of the annual competition and festival in Guca, Serbia [Official Site], is one of the leading figures in the Serbian tradition and increasingly visible in the programs of european and american world music festivals.

In recent years the village band Fanfare Ciocarlia has been discovered by world music programmers all over the world, have released 3 discs and continue to attract young audiences to the force of their music.

Click the links below for some MP3 examples of music from Serbia, Macedonia, and Romania.


Wind music has long played an important part in the vibrant fabric of Brasilian music. Indeed one of the seminal figures in popular brasilian music was a band master. Pixinguinha was writing music for concert bands in the 1940's that could easily be considered the missing link between the classical tradition and modern samba. Although traditional bands exist all across Brasil, the unique sound of the bands from the state of Pernambuco playing their typical ‘frevos’ at breakneck speed is the most interesting from a world music perspective. These groups consist of saxophones, tumpets, trombones, tubas and a variety of typical brasilian percussion always including the surdo and caixa (snare drum). Frevo music is typical of the region in the northwest of Brasil and makes for an important part of the repertoire for carnival celebrations, arguably the greatest party ever imagined. Today the leading exponent of a brasilian band is probably the Vassourinhas de Olinda, having appeared several times in European festivals and with a disc included on the dutch label, Pan records.
Click the links below for some MP3 examples of music from Brazil.


The rich tradition of brass bands in the state of Sinaloa on the west coast of Mexico shouldn’t be confused with the more well known Mariachi bands that probably form the national musical voice of Mexico. The band tradition of Sinaloa are all wind and percussion groups tracing a shared linage to the Spanish colonialists as well as the Germans who came to Mexico at the end of the 19th century. Once again these are groups providing music for parties and other celebrations. They generally consist of several wonderfully strident clarinets playing melodies and counter-melodies in thirds and trading off that role with a pair of trumpets playing with an equally passionate sound. Rhythmic accompaniment is supplied by a brace of baritone horns, a tuba and several percussionists playing waltzs, rancheros, cumbias etc. often times with unique rhythmic twists and played with an infectious passion and precision.

Recorded examples of groups like Los Pueblitos, Vuelta do Rio, Banda Santa Cruz, Banda La Costena and many others, are widely available in Latino records shops across the southwest U.S.A. The recognized granddaddy of the Sinaloan tradition is Senor Cruz Ligarra and his Banda El Recodo. His influence is often compared to that of Duke Ellington in american jazz. The traditional municipal and village bands in Mexico often display some of the same rhythmic characteristics as the bands of the Sinaloan tradition

El RiconditosThe leading researcher of the Mexican band traditions is Dr. Helena Simonette of Vanderbilt Univ. and her books, 'Banda: Mexican Musical Life Across Borders Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 2001 and 'En Sinaloa Naci: Historia de la musica de banda. Mazatlan, 2004., provide the most extensive exploration to date of this vibrant and exciting world band tradition.
Click the links below for some MP3 examples of music from Mexico.