Street Bands

Street bands are one of the musical wonders of the world, the sound of celebration from Brazil to New Orleans, the Balkans to Delhi.

An introduction to Street bands

Find links to street bands, street band organisations and street band festivals from all over the world here!

Street bands are one of the musical wonders of the world, the sound of celebration from Ghana to Nepal, New Orleans to Columbia, Rumania to Durham. Our own brass and silver bands come from this world. There are two main types, percussion bands, like samba bands and Dhol drummers, and mixed bands of brass and drums and often woodwind and reeds. 

This music has vernacular roots, it is a music often made by amateurs, but no less rich, vibrant and skilled because of that. It is a music of and for the people, a music for everyone. And it is a functional music – a music for parades, processions, for weddings and funerals, for dancing, for protest, display and ceremony. 

Outdoor music is probably how we started making music.

“The other great context for music is the original one, the outdoor environment and this is the one in which most of the world’s music is produced…it is the context of street music, of the outdoor band or orchestra…of the shepherd with his pipe or of women singing at the village pump. ..It is inclusive rather than exclusive and tends to be free not purchased… above all it blends with whatever other sounds are present” – R Murray Shaffer in ‘The Book of Music and Nature’.

It is the music of public space, it is free and inclusive, you can take it or leave it, but you should probably dance to it.

“The music of the streets has no beginning or end but is all middle. Something is already in progress before our arrival and it succeeds our departure. The dynamics of sound are a product of its position in space rather than shaping by the performer.” – R Murray Shaffer

This type of music has then existed for thousands of years, all over the world.  

Street Bands play important roles in their communities. They serve a multitude of functions, from village celebrations to political actions. These bands play for processions and parades, for dances, rituals, weddings and funerals, civic and state occasions dances and fairs. They also accompany outdoor theatre and circus. It is then a music with a social role and function. You can see this range of activity in US traditions. William J Schaffer in Brass bands and New Orleans Jazz talks of the importance of music in outdoor life. 

“Every village had its silver cornet band and bandstand in the square, Brass bands played for circuses, carnivals, minstrel and medicine shows, political rallies, churches, picnics, dances, athletic contests, holiday gatherings. The Salvation Army employed the small brass band… and politicians and pitchmen of every stamp used brass bands for Bally Hoo. Every military troop, drill team, volunteer fire squad, lodge or social club had its auxiliary band to swell holiday pageantry.”

Music has long been divided between the loud and outdoor and the soft and what we still call ‘chamber music’. Both ancient Greek Music and Medieval music had this distinction.  Hesiod in 700BC spoke of a “A riot of young men revelling, with auloi playing, some frolicking with dance and song”  

In England shawms (large loud oboes), slide trumpet or sackbut and drums were the typical outdoor late medieval dance band and every major town and city had civic musicians called Waits playing these and a variety of other instruments for civic and ceremonial occasions, dances and private parties. They also marked the passing of the hours and could be hired for an early morning wake up call, ‘the Hunts Up’.

People often learnt to play in the military. The militias of the Napoleonic Wars inspired generations of English village bands. In New Orleans here was a glut of instruments and players after the American Civil War. The New Orleans marching bands that grew out of this world were one of the key influences in the birth of jazz and then continued to develop their own unique traditions.

In New Orleans the brass band was a powerful influence on the new jazz. Brass bands gave jazz its instrumentation, its instrumental techniques and its basic repertoire. The influence of the brass bands in early jazz was omnipresent. “To understand jazz, we must begin with its roots, and the taproots of the tradition is the nineteenth century brass band” – William J Schaffer. 

Outdoor music is also the sound of the State, of displays of power and military might. In the nineteenth century military bands were heard all around the world as the sound of the new colonial rulers. But out of this grew street and brass band traditions both inspired by and subverting these colonial models. From Africa to India and the Pacific new brass band traditions thrived, the instruments of the colonial band were capable of playing much more than hymns and marches. 

Wedding bands in North India and Nepal have adapted European instruments and uniforms into new forms. In some of Indonesia’s islands  whole kazoo orchestras mimic the shapes and forms of trumpets, tubas, saxophones and trombones. Rob Boonjaler Flaes’s documentaries and books are excellent introductions to these traditions  and In India bands like the Jaipor Brass Band continue the music.

In the 1960s similarly subversive traditions evolved, often around radical theatre companies like Bread and Puppet in the USA. In Britain the pioneering theatre company Welfare State International worked with musicians like Mike Westbrook, Lol Coxhill and Luke Mishalle, creating a strong, ‘rough and ready’ street band style out of jazz, folk music and song, Latin and South African dance music. New street bands sprang up in Holland, Germany, Italy and Britain, playing for protests, street theatre and strikes. The Dutch band Orkest de Volharding (the word means ‘perseverance’) was founded in 1972 by composer Louis Andriessen and saxophonist Willem Breuker. Other making a noise at protests and demos were the Fall Out Band, ‘The Happy End’, Yorkshires ‘The Peace Artists and the ’ Rhythms of Resistance’. The XR samba bands and XR London Marching Band continue this tradition.

Starting in the 1970s, a strong tradition of radical bands emerged in the USA. Honk Fest, celebrates this movement of socially active honking marching/street bands found all over the USA. Honk Fest started in Cambridge Mass, and now happens around the USA and around the world.

Throughout Europe many villages and towns continue to have their own wind bands. In the Balkans, particularly Romania and Serbia, there is a rich gypsy brass band tradition as typified by the Boban Marković Orkestar and Fanfare Ciocârlia.

In France there are two important street band strands. Firstly the tradition of ‘Fanfare’ and ‘Batterie- Fanfare bands, a community/town band tradition combining reeds and brass with mobile drum/percussion. Secondly a highly theatrical and visual tradition, beginning maybe with Urban sax. Urban Sax were an extra-ordinary saxophone and percussion ensemble founded by the French composer Gilbert Artman. The group take over urban landscapes, performing on diggers, abseiling down buildings, creating vast moving landscape pieces. In the eighties they frequently performed in London. Brittany has its own street band world, especially the Bagad combining the tradition Bombard, a survival of the Shawm with Scottish bagpipes and drums. 

Fine examples of Italian street band music can be found in the film scores of Nino Rota, especially his work for Fellini (Amacord is a great example). Rota also wrote music for La Banda, a remarkable CD by Pina Minafora. Paying tribute to and updating his southern Italian band heritage with arrangements of Bizet, Verdi and Piccini plus new works by Rota, Dutch jazz maverick Willem Breuker and the French tuba player Michel Godard.

Although many traditional bands still exist in Asia, Latin America and Africa, there has been an explosion in contemporary groups forming across Europe and the US over the last twenty-five years. The Dirty Dozen Brass Band heralded new waves of New Orleans band, absorbing new rhythms and attitudes, they are followed by The Rebirth Brass Band, The Hot 8 Brass Band and many others. The HBO series Treme gave front stage to this music and the word they sprang from. The Young Blood Brass Band also gave political edge to the music while Beyonce, David Byrne and others celebrated Marching Band roots.