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Alternative Bands 101 - A Primer

The idea of building alternatives to the quasi-militaristic and classical tradition of brass and wind bands may have had its start with the ‘pep’ bands formed in the US during the late 1960's to accompany sports events at high schools and colleges. Since the 1920's or even before, these same sports events had had more traditional style marching bands playing marches and school fight songs and marching in formation on football fields during halftime shows. The indoor arena of basketball games afforded the formation of smaller musical units capable of the more lively rhythmic demands of popular music and these groups started building repertoires of the current hits in pop music.

Picture of the Humboldt State Marching BandGradually the larger bands for football stadiums began adopting these same musical values, shed the military style uniforms and marching in straight lines and began presenting themselves with a more creative, wild and nearly anarchic dynamic. Half time formations could still be presented where the band members would run (or scatter) to their positions and the alternative idea of “scatter” bands were formed. Among the earliest of these were the legendary Stanford Univ. Band, known for their powerful arrangements played while running full tilt (including sousaphones) across a football field, and the Humboldt State Marching Lumberjacks, dressed in dark green woodsmans jackets and yellow hardhats. On the east coast some of the schools with bands developing in the same directions about the same time include the Dartmouth College Marching Band, Brown University Band, the Columbia University Marching Band, the Univ. of Pennsylvania (The Huge, the Enormous, the Well-Endowed, Undefeated, Ivy-League Champion, . . . . Oxymoronic Fighting Quaker Marching Band!!), the Princeton University Band and the University of Virginia Pep Band. In the American south, the Marching Owl Band of Rice University dates their scatter transition to 1970

Picture of the Fanfare v.d. EersteliefdesNachtItís unclear whether the American example ever did influence the growth in Europe of young people taking the tradition of ensembles of wind and percussion into their own hands and making something personal with it. Groups of happy, tipsy revelers with horns and drums have been a staple of Carnival celebrations all across Europe for many years. Usually they would be simple ad-hoc groups of friends that would get together before Carnival and learn the melodies of a few traditional and popular tunes and then spend the holidays careening drunkenly through the streets blaring these same few tunes over and over.

The political arm of the alternative social movements growing across Europe quickly realized the publicity potential in bands of people playing ‘happy’ music in favor of various social and political agendas. It was an extremely effective way of calling positive attention to the subject of whatever protest or riot was under way. Other groups were formed by amateur musicians dissatisfied with the limitations of the band tradition and discovering they could play the popular music they liked on the instruments they were playing in the bands. Still other groups were formed to accompany the open air animations of theatre and image being presented at festivals all across the continent. In many cases, the simple fact of an obvious need for loud, portable music that the tradition, because of its inborn conservatism, was unable to meet, gave rise to interesting band alternatives.

The English political theatre group, Welfare State, is a good example of a combination of these impulses. Blowzabella in the south of France were presenting dynamic open-air spectacles with live acoustic music in the early 1970's. The Fanfare v.d. EersteliefdesNacht in Amsterdam grew out of Carnival revelry into a voice for political action.

Many of the amateur alternative bands found inspiration in the european alternatives to the American tradition of jazz ‘big bands’. Groups such as the Willem Breuker Kollektief in Holland, the Vienna Art Orchestra, Hannes Zerbe’s Blech Band in East Berlin, the Mike Westbook Brass Band in England, Pierre Doerge’s New Jungle Orchestra in Copenhagen. These groups were very actively engaged in proposing exciting and distinctly european alternatives to established traditions and provided valuable encouragement to amateur groups.

Currently, the movement of alternative bands in Europe has grown into a tradition of its own. Some groups are celebrating 20 years of existence, gatherings of bands are organized every year, more bands are forming and even some professional groups are being established to explore these alternative directions in bands. Film makers and festival programmers have been attracted to the colorful presentation of the alternative bands and the bands themselves have been producing a wonderfully varied and energetic body of recordings.

In the US, alternative bands outside of the scholastic pep bands for athletic events seem to exist more for the performance experience and seem rarely to be driven by a social consciousness. Groups such as the Get A Life Marching Band in Portland, Oregon are very obviously composed of ex-scholastic bandsmen continuing the enjoyable activity of playing in the band. The Seed & Feed Marching Band in Atlanta, Georgia have their roots in street theatre and maintain a very strong theatrical sense. The phenomenon of 'clown’ bands seem to be more rooted in the tradition of live circus bands that were a staple of the many nomadic circus’ operating throughout the US up until the 1960's. Typically a ‘clown’ band will wear ‘clown’ costumes and do ‘clown’ acts. Research indicates they don't put a very high premium on rehearsing and building repertoire, but the experience seems to be important to those who participate. Their players are often made up of people who played in college or high school eager to relive the experience.

Picture of the Stanford bandRecently other groups have emerged exploring some still more alternative directions - Hungry March Band in New York City presents an unholy cacophony impossible to ignore and Extra Action Marching Band in San Francisco, evidently fueled by more sex and drugs than is healthy for most people, plays a high energy version of band music that should be an inspiration for anyone imagining the future of these groups.

On a professional level, just a few of the groups that have grown out of the alternative band movement include:

The Brasshoppers and Bollywood Brass Band in England, the latter growing out of an amateur interest in the music of the brass bands of India.

L’Occidentale de Fanfare from Bourdeux, France mixing the folk music and instruments of their native Languedoc with jazz rhythms and sensibilities.

Les Miserables Brass Band in New York City seems not to be functioning any longer but in it's time was composed of some of the most accomplished professionals of that center of the universe and played an exciting mix of original material and various world brass band styles.

Tatara, from Hamburg, seems not to have roots in amateur alternative bands nor the slightest hint of social consciousness, but remains one of the benchmarks for musical excellence in band alternatives with their tight, crisp execution of inventive arrangements, very professional improvisors and powerful rhythm sections.

Because the economic realities of keeping large ensembles naturally make them difficult to operate on a professional leval, there are many more and very fine smaller performing ensembles presenting various aspects of world band culture. The films of Goran Brecovic provided an introduction to the Serbian band tradition for audiences and musicians alike and several groups have formed during the past 15 years exploring those sounds. One of the oldest is Zlatne Usted Balkan Brass Band based in New Jersey, USA, has produced several discs and has been invited to the festival of Balkan Bands in Guca, Serbia several times. Slavic Soul Party is based in New York City and uses various Balkan brass band styles as a point of departure for a wonderfully energetic exploration of brass possibilities.

Picture of a performing brass bandDuring the last 20 years a resurgence of interest in the New Orleans tradition in the US has resulted in some of the most exciting developments in wind and percussion ensembles. Groups of young players such as Youngblood Brass Band from Madison Wisconsin, Soul Rebels Brass Band and Rebirth Brass Band from New Orleans, Brass Monkey Brass Band in San Francisco and Black Bottom Brass Band in Japan are taking inspiration from the earlier revivalist bands such as Dirty Dozen Brass Band and mixing those sounds with hip-hop sensibilities. Rapid fire poetry, usually dealing with important social issues get combined with powerful funk and soul powered jazz into an infectious and unstoppable mix.

From Germany Schnaftl Ufftschik in Berlin plays an exciting original music based on a blend of various middle european styles and Top-Dog Brass Band from Dresden is adapting New Orleans sensibilities to their own brand of German funk.

Click on the links below for mp3 files of some of the groups mentioned.
Selected examples of Alternative Bands: