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Chav or Trad.- Where Does Whit Friday Go From Here?

One conversation that I have seen cropping up in the banding circle time and again is how our movement should adapt to modern times. Brass Bands have been around for well over a century and Whit Friday is one of our most traditional events that still attracts a decent public audience. However, it still runs the risk of becoming like so many of our other contests- publically ignored. Suggestions on how to keep our movement relevant and how to encourage more people to get involved has been met with mixed responses, so I thought I’d throw my cap into the ring as a young(ish) person in the banding world and this will be the first of a few posts where I will explore the potential evolution of banding.

I understand that my opinion may not be to everybody’s taste, but if we all had the same views, the world would be a very boring place.

I’d just thought I’d start off by explaining how I first became involved in brass bands and its music, so you can see where my opinion is coming from. I’m not from a banding family. I wasn’t listening to Eric Ball from the age of two or watched my parents play in a concert whilst sat in my pram. I don’t come from Saddleworth or Tameside, so I wouldn’t have been sat on my Dad’s shoulders, watching the Whit Friday marches. My first exposure to brass bands was watching a St Helens Youth Band concert/workshop when I was around six. My mum was keen to find an interest for me outside of school. I’d tried the hobby that most young girls do- ballet- and quickly discovered I had no interest nor possessed any talent in dance.

One thing I’d always seemed drawn to as a kid was music. I’d regularly be found plink-plonking on the church piano, attempting to figure out a melody by ear that I’d heard on the radio or a CD in the house. It was the suggestion of a next door neighbour, whose daughter played in St Helens Youth, to take me along to the workshop and see if I liked it. I don’t necessarily remember the music (we’re talking nearly twenty years ago), but the interactive concept of the concert was something that I now think was crucial to my start in brass bands. For the last piece, they let the children from the audience pick a percussion instrument and join in. I picked a triangle (my go to percussion instrument, as you may have read in other posts) and loved playing a little part in the performance- which for an incredibly shy child, as I was back then (honestly, I know it’s hard to believe now, but I was) was an achievement. I was hooked. It was fun, it was different and started my journey in the banding world and it’s music.

I’m now twenty-two and have been playing in bands for nearly 16 years. I am a self-confessed band geek. If you cut me open, I will bleed Resurgam. I’ll happily go and listen to a brass band, regardless of what is on the programme and I don’t mind listening to umpteen renditions of the same piece at a contest. This is due to progressing into contesting bands and being introduced to traditional brass band music when I had enough experience and ability to appreciate it. As my interests in banding grew, I watched bands such as Black Dyke and Grimethorpe, so by the time I was in my mid-teens, my musical horizons were well and truly broadened. However, I’m telling you now, if my first experiences of brass band music had been Labour and Love, Rhapsody for Brass, Knights Templar, The Cossack…etc, I would have probably stopped playing as soon as I hit High School. I had (and still have) a relatively short attention span when I was a kid and just simply wouldn’t have appreciated the beauty of traditional brass band music when I was young. One of the first pieces I ever learned to play on cornet was ‘Is This The Way to Amarillo’, a song that had been made relevant again by Peter Kay around the time I started playing. Other pieces that started my banding career include, Abba’s Mamma Mia, Bohemian Rhapsody and a piece called ‘African Funk’ that involved wearing jungle animal masks- it was fun, it was relevant and therefore spurred my interest, without which my banding career would have been incredibly short lived.

One particular musical outfit I think is the perfect example of how banding can evolve into something that is a little more relevant in the 21st Century whilst still upholding some banding tradition is a group of incredibly talented and musically accomplised brass banders, who donned the chavviest of outfits and played a version of DJ Sammy’s Heaven as a road march at Whit Friday. Chav Brass have become something of a phenomenon and it cannot be denied that their viral performance, thrust our movement into the public eye. Why? Because it was cool! It broke all conventions of what most people think brass bands are. I hear you ask,’No stiff uniforms, no traditional road marches, dancing favoured over proper deportment- where is the tradition?’ Despite appearances, this band isn’t just a group of young hooligans out for a laugh or trying to mock the contest. Many of them are professional players and music teachers and they still play a traditional contest march with as much ability as the big bands in uniform (quite a few members are either ex or current players of successful bands). They have shown that traditional banding and modern entertainment can used in partnership to produce a wow-factor performance that captures the interest of the public.

Grimethorpe managed to do this more than twenty years ago, by appearing in Brassed Off, a film that threw banding into the public eye, and it can be argued that they are still living on this legacy, but time as moved on. The generation we’re trying to persuade to join our movement, weren’t even a twinkle in their mother’s eye when Brassed Off came out (I’m not even sure I was born when it was released, if you want to gauge the amount of time Grimethorpe have lived off the Brassed Off legacy). In another twenty years, the concept of Chav Brass may no longer be relevant and we will have to think of something else, but this is my point- banding needs to evolve if it wants to survive and that means letting go of some old traditions and encouraging innovative and even wacky ideas to encourage people to listen to us.

I will admit, it didn’t half annoy me to read some of the criticism against Chav Brass from fellow banders. Firstly, because if we keep criticising outfits such as Chav Brass, this may discourage other banders from forming more forward-thinking banding performances, which in my opinion will be incredibly detrimental for our movement. Secondly, because I thought it was unfair. If they had played Heaven followed by a contest march version of Toxic by Britney Spears, I may have agreed that this is a step too far, but they played a traditional contest march and, may I add, they played it better than a lot of ‘traditional’ bands on the day. Scratch bands like Chav Brass have encouraged a rise in bands to play pieces that are a little bit closer to this century, like The Greatest Show and even Baby Shark and, by all accounts, it’s these performances that have captured the attention of the public, especially the younger generation, far more than the traditional pieces and isn’t younger people’s interest in banding something that we want?

To further illustrate my point, when I’ve mentioned I play in a brass band to non-banding ‘muggles’, more people have referenced the Chav Brass video than Brassed Off. I have friends who have never listened to a brass band, who saw the Chav Brass video on social media and said ‘Oh that’s what you do?’ They actually thought it was cool, a concept that I have rarely experienced. If I’d have shown them the Whit Friday scene from Brassed Off, I doubt they would have had such an interested response- sad but true.

I’m already part of the brass band community, so need no persuading, but when I watched Chav Brass, I wanted to play for them! If Eccles ever decide not to do Whit Friday, Chav Brass will be receiving an email from me- I’ll play any part, pass me a triangle- just as long as you let me play!). If that is the reaction of a twenty two year old bander, I can only imagine the reaction of a young person with a music taste that is a little more modern from my playlist of Metallica, Queen and Megadeath and who may have either never seen a brass band or still associate brass bands with the stiff uniforms and ideals of the past, but I reckon it contained more enthusiasm than Slaidburn did. If I’d watched a band march down to the noughties equivalent of Baby Shark- maybe something by the Cheeky Girls or S Club 7 (I’ve just confused anybody under the age of twenty) when I was a kid, I would have wanted to be a part of that performance more than a performance of Army of the Nile.

In conclusion (I feel like I’m writing an A Level essay- hopefully it reads better than an A Level essay…) I think the contest march should always be traditional brass band repertoire. I’m not saying that we should completely overhaul every brass band tradition, but incorporating it with more relevant music and entertainment concepts is a necessity for our survival. Rightly or wrongly, I’ve always thought of the road march as a band’s way of declaring their arrival- why shouldn’t it stand out? We’re not marked on the choice of music and if you want to win a deportment prize, I’m here to tell you that there are lots of ‘modern songs’ that you can march to quite easily- I’ve managed to march to Metallica’s version of Whiskey in the Jar as an experiment and I think it worked rather well ( I live a very sad life, this is a fact I am aware of).

Not only is there room for both traditional and modern music, as well as out of the ordinary performance concepts, at Whit Friday, I think it is essential. We shouldn’t condemn or mock bands like Chav Brass for trying to do something different, we should be thanking them for their innovation and the publicity it has bestowed and maybe think about what more we can do to entertain the public in the streets of Tameside and Saddleworth.

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