This post builds on the themed issue Brass Bands in the Pacific, the world of music (new series) 8:2 (2019).

Interview with Dan Bendrups (guest editor): 

Brass Bands in the Pacific

by Charissa Granger & Juan David Montoya Alzate


CG & JDMA: Can we consider brass band in the nineteenth century as a globalized form of music performance?  

There’s a comment I remember from Barz and Cooley’s Shadows in the Field describing music globalization as a 500-year old process. From this perspective, the brass band is just one of a series of musical forces that were swept up in the imperial designs of nineteenth century Europe and projected to the world. While this had certain colonial overtones, it’s striking to note the extent to which brass band ensembles and instruments have been adapted to suit local needs and preferences across cultures, including in the Pacific.


CG & JDMA: What do you think were the biggest challenges for adapting eurogenic instruments into the sound worlds of the Pacific?

Most Pacific music traditions revolve around singing. This had certain overlaps with the nineteenth century development of the brass band, with families of instruments designed to match vocal (S-A-T-B) ranges and registers, and which played (and plays) a considerable amount of vocal music, including hymns and anthems. So, I think Pacific peoples would have readily ascertained the vocal qualities of the brass band, while also being impressed with the band’s sheer volume and power to project sound. To be honest, I think the biggest challenges were probably practical ones: how to obtain and maintain instruments (especially, how to deal with corrosion in the humid tropics), and how best to establish ways of learning and musical transmission. As noted in this volume, there are key examples of individual musicians in various Pacific cultures becoming ‘culture bearers’ for brass band transmission in the absence of other top-down, structured education opportunities.


CG & JDMA: To what extent the brass band music in the Pacific has created its own repertoire? Does this repertoire relate to the soaring music, stringbands or other vernacular sounds musicologists have largely studied in the region?

This is a really interesting question. In the main, brass bands have been used by Pacific communities for contemporary music making and not broadly incorporated into ancient or other vernacular traditions. Their repertoires have been fairly static and derivative, using arrangements of Western classical and popular songs and/or religious (hymns) and ceremonial (marching) repertoires drawn from the broader scope of globalised Western music. In this regard, they are not too dissimilar from brass band repertoires within Western contexts, which can also be highly repetitive and derivative. However, I would say that Pacific brass bands have developed their own aesthetics and sonic preferences that make them locally significant. It’s not about the repertoire, but about the way the repertoire is played that matters.


CG & JDMA: This issue suggests that the rise of brass band music in the Pacific took place in a large degree due to two significant colonizing forces: Western imperialism and Christian missionization. Has band music also been contested precisely because of these connections? 

I think the contestation you refer to is reflected in communities that have simply decided not to adopt brass bands. It’s pretty clear cut: where brass bands have been controversial, or have not been seen to address local needs, they’ve ceased to exist or were never adopted in the first place. Elsewhere, they have been accepted as a part of local culture. This said, even where brass bands exist, it’s pretty unusual for anyone to listen to recorded band music – band music is a live phenomenon that goes hand in hand with active participation.


CG & JDMA: You also state brass and percussion instruments signal “presence, power and authority.” How and to what extent these roles have been re-signified by local practices? Additionally, how does this signalling emerge aesthetically?

One really great example of this is in Tonga, where there’s a longstanding preference towards bands being as loud (and therefore powerful) as possible, which has implications for what aspects of sound production the musicians learn to prioritize. I’ve had multiple discussions with brass band leaders from Australia who have been invited to Tonga as guest judges for band competitions there, and it is a challenge for them because they have to try to judge the performance aesthetic from a Tonga perspective, which might be a bit different to what they are used to in Australia.

CG & JDMA: In the case of Samoan brass bands, there is also a reference to local ways of knowing. How do these epistemes manifest themselves, musically or otherwise?

Tia Solomona’s recollections of her grandfather’s work as a band leader are germane to this question. As she recalls in the article, Pene Solomona was frequently sought after in the 1960s and 70s by communities wishing to start their own bands. But the ways in which this happened, and the knowledge exchange processes that then ensued, were all conducted according to fa‘asamoa (Samoan ‘ways of being/doing’) principles – from the initial request for service, though to the method of instruction and capacitation. Again, this is not so much reflected in the music of the bands per se, but in how the band emerged as a vehicle for social music making and community participation.


CG & JDMA: Seclusion seems to be a challenge for bands when getting a full set of instruments or maintaining a complete cohort of players. How do bands cope with it?

This is a problem for amateur, community brass bands around the world, not just in the Pacific! The difference is that, in the Pacific, brass instruments perish more quickly, and are not so easily replaced. The volume presents a really broad and interesting range of strategies for coping with this: from Moyle’s depiction of Samoans currying favour with colonial German administrators to try and obtain instruments, through to Pae Tuteru’s emphasis on trying to engage and retain Cook Islanders in his bands at a young age.


CG & JDMA: How have gender roles been constructed, as in wind instruments being more appropriate for women? Are these gender roles reimagined in everyday experiences?

Gender is an interesting topic for brass bands around the world, and other writers have commented on this. My Australian home town’s community band (established in the 1880s) still had a ‘ladies auxiliary committee’ (wives of husbands playing in the band) to support the fundraising needs of the band up until about a decade ago. In terms of Pacific bands, this volume doesn’t really go into much detail into this topic. As with brass bands elsewhere, there’s a strong lean towards male participation. Solomona does note a perception of wind instruments as being preferred for women in the Samoan context, but it’s not a topic we’ve been able to explore to any greater extent here.


CG & JDMA: As Richard Moyle mentions, brass band music seems to convey some sense of collective agency. How is this agency felt outside the realm of official events? What about communality and conviviality and how these relate to social justice and action?

The key point here is that Pacific brass bands are primarily about community participation. They are not part of a broader music listening/appreciation culture, rather, their primary appeal is that they give members of the community something in which they can actively participate. They promote inclusion because different roles and instruments require different levels of skill/experience, so new starters and young people can often play alongside more experienced players. Whole families can play together.


CG & JDMA: How do brass bands practices, sounding out and performance uphold or disrupt colonial, imperial practices and ideologies? What about redress and reparations (material and immaterial)? Does contemporary research attend to how brass bands are involved herein?

I have only limited knowledge here, but I don’t know of any Pacific community where brass band music directly displaced or disrupted an earlier musical practice. Rather, where they exist, bands seem to have been willingly adopted as a new, novel community activity, and because of this, they don’t seem to sit in the same conversation as other matters of colonial or imperial redress.


CG & JDMA: From the collected texts, we understand that music enables a sonic connection to the historic past and can be called upon to produce a sense of belonging. How does the brass band perform either as a barrier or cleared path to the support of marginalized groups? I am thinking here in terms of politics of inclusion and exclusion.

The most positive aspect of brass band music in the Pacific is that it revolves around active participation. As a musical practice requiring little initial training, brass bands can accommodate a wider diversity of players than some other forms of music making. This sits well in a constellation of cultures that are well known for supporting and promoting inclusion (especially of children) in community music and dance. The main barrier to brass band participation is the practical issue of instrument availability and ensemble location. Beyond this, as with the rest of the world, it’s a question of aesthetics and musical preferences: bands will continue for as long as there are enough people interested in the range of religious, ceremonial and arranged popular music that they play, and the sound that they make.