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Brass Pop
Brass is beautiful

LaBrassBanda, pioneers of brass pop
LaBrassBanda, pioneers of brass pop | Photo © Stefan Bausewein

Brass music is not everyone's cup of tea. According to statistics, only 18 percent of music listeners in Germany like the sound of brass instruments and twice as many can't relate to it at all. Yet, brass bands now fill large concert halls because it doesn’t always have to be traditional.

Historians like to invoke the Janissaries. After all, the elite troops of the Ottoman Empire, who in the early modern period made it to the gates of Vienna, not only taught military strategists the fear of God, but are also supposed to have followed predecessors from the time of the Crusades and been carrying, along with numerous drums, horns with which they spurred on their fighters. This still inspired Mozart, but when in the nineteenth century brass and marching bands bore brass music into public space, the frightening element had long ago given way to the harmonious.

Further, more and more trumpets, horns and trombones produced industrially and at low prices spread in no time at all beyond parades and open-air concerts into the farmhouse parlour and onto dance floors. Individual countries developed specific traditions, ranging from the Prussian military bands and the fanfares of the Balkans to the bandas of Italy, popular music orchestras that played almost anything that delighted the public.

Starting-point: brass band

In twentieth century Germany, the equation emerged in which brass music equals traditional popular music, especially after the Second World War when everything military was under a cloud. The good old farmhouse parlour and the club became the refuge for amateur trumpet players and lovers of horn instruments. Particularly in southern Germany and the Alpine region, brass bands are still part and parcel of cultural life. Their clubs are often supported by towns and cities and many an accomplished trumpeter, such as Matthias Schriefl, Thomas Gansch or Stefan Dettl, gained his first experience and basic motivation in the local brass orchestra, only later to land at a different musical location.

Dettl, for example, has been a singer and third trumpeter for a brass-pop hybrid band LaBrassBanda for ten years, which beyond Schunkel parties in hit parade mode, now fills big halls while remaining conscious of its roots. “The brass music scene has a lot to do with social get-togethers”, observes Dettl about his own artistic socialization. “It’s important that you meet once a week and have your friends. One friend is in the same profession, another is somewhere else entirely, everyone can learn from each other. This is very important in brass music and guarantees our connection to the tradition. Music is a meeting place and something that helps you get on. That’s the main point.”

From Ska to Techno

Beyond this, the world beckons. Music today is a multi-cultural and polystylistic repository of stimuli, the boundaries between genres have fallen. If you listen to jazz, you can also enjoy Grunge; if you like Bach, you can also romp to Electronica. Everything is possible and brass music too has helped itself to this international scope. LaBrassBanda from the Chiemgau region joins in a polka with Ska, Reggae, Cumbia or African music. The name of the Munich band Moop Mama refers to the marching band from Louisiana and cuts the music with Funk, Pop and Hip Hop. The Express Brass Band, also from Munich, makes reference to the cosmic jazz of Sun Ra, but also takes up stylistic elements of Soul, Afrobeat and oriental originals.

The former Schäl Sick Brass Band Band from Cologne also employs North African rhythms, the Hamburg combo Meute explicitly refers to Techno in their use of acoustic instruments and the Romanian band Fanfare Ciocarlia, which became known through the Berlin label Piranha, incorporates Screamin’ Jay Hawkins into its programme along with the gypsy sound. The roots of the Sogenannte Linksradikale Blasorchester (i.e. So-Called Radical Leftist Brass Orchestra) reach back, with avant-garde collateral lines, into the Frankfurt Sponti political scene of the 1970s, which the Bolschewistische Kurkapelle Schwarz-Rot (i.e. Bolshevist Spa Orchestra Black-Red) in Berlin countered from the 1980s to 2010 with a programme of workers’ song and political pop. Since 2012, subsequently founded bands such as the Sogenannte Anarchistische Musikwirtschaft (i.e. So-Called Anarchistic Music Economy) have been drawing on these founding members of Progressive Brass.
Meute: Kerberos, source: Youtube

Enthusiasm for the brass sound is by no means a purely German or European phenomenon. As early as the 1990s, marching bands such as Dirty Dozen Brass Band and the Rebirth Brass Band from New Orleans attracted attention and were rapturously received in Germany by musicians such as the former bassist of the Krautrock band Guru Guru Uli Krug, leading in 1992 to the founding of Mardi Gras.bb. The popularity of Emir Kusturica’s films kick-started the ensembles of Goran Bregović and Boban Marković, which in turn showed other sorts of folkloric brass bands how naturally their own sound could be transferred to the present. In New York, London and Jamaica Ska brass was rediscovered, Mexico Tijuana sounds landed in DJ mixes, and Soul, after years of synthetic tones, treated itself again to genuine brass sections.

Critical grass roots

Brass is beautiful, but not every folk musician who thinks out of the box feels comfortable in a party environment. For example, Kofelgschroa from Oberammergau. Named after the “cry” (Schroa) of the nearby mountain Kofel, a pun that can mean both song and rumour, the quartet initially played traditional folk music before turning, with the help of Notwist trumpeter Micha Acher, to sometimes critical, sometimes humorous lyrics and improvisationally extended sound forms, but without detaching itself from its regional roots. It is therefore more in succession to satirical folk musicians such as Biermösl Blosn, disbanded in 2012, and the self-proclaimed Gurkenkönig (i.e. Cucumber King) Georg Ringsgwandl, which though not a brass band, had lyrics that pack a punch. The Unterbiberger Hofmusik in turn sees itself as a musical link between Bavaria and Turkey. Another pioneer of this trend is the multi-instrumentalist Hans-Jürgen Buchner, who in the 1980s already combined basic Bavarian sounds with weird lyrics, pop sounds and elements of World Music in the combo Haindling. He is now one of the dinosaurs of the scene and the star of festivals such as the Brass Wiesn in Eching near Munich, which brings together brass bands and an audience of various stylistic backgrounds.

Brass music therefore never completely disappeared; it remained productive in individual niches and preserved its essence in traditional contexts. New is the reframing of identity-creating local kitsch as supra-regionally communicable and consumable party jamboree. That it could come to this is owed to the interplay of global trends harking back to styles and instruments that are felt to be authentic as well as the changed social status of young musicians, who in the alternation of regional habits and global impressions orient themselves towards greater artistic openness.

Moreover, the average musician can now play with greater virtuosity than decades ago because he or she is better trained. In comparison with the former regional scene, musicians today participate in tougher national and even international competitions and need unique selling points in order to sustain the favours of a fast-clicking audience. Furthermore, after the general collapse of the record and CD business, the flourishing concert business, which has become an essential source of income for many artists, prefers bands with a beguiling live presence. All these are factors that could benefit brass music pop as a global-local phenomenon for a long time, provided it takes itself seriously with humour and remains aware of its identity.