Brass band music have been around for centries, with unique styles around the world, including as part of British millitaria, in less-expected niches like Hawaii and Zanzibar and the Balkans. The best-known modern incarnations of brass bands are in New Orleans style funeral and second-line parades.
We’ve seen brass bands of all types and styles around the world, and they generally have one tone, one tenor, one ‘style,’ that appeals to brass band traditionalists. They’re groups usually led by an older band-leader, with a token younger member mixed in for the old guys to use as a punchline. It’s nice music, pleasant background affairs at an outdoor event, but most of what we’ve heard has shown it’s age.
The biggest artistic revelation of our trip so far, for me, has been that this stagnant state of brass band music, carried on largely unchanged through generations, is not the entirety of the genre.
Unexpectedly, we’ve discovered two unique and unforgettable brass bands in the first month of our journey that has given me a new love and appreciate for the genre, vaulting it up my personal folk-music rankings to 3rd, behind bluegrass and country blues.
Urban Science Brass Band
During the 2018 Montreal Jazz Festival, which began just as we were rolling into town, we were looking for a good pre-dinner show to catch. The name “Urban Science Brass Band” jumped out at us, and was timed right at 5PM, so we decided to give it a shot.
The show had inauspicious beginnings – in a park, wrapping up another mid-day set on stage from another group that had, maybe, 5 people watching. Literally, 5 people.
Going into it not knowing that this was a parade band, we figured this would be a ‘check it out for 15 minutes, and then be on our way.’ But, it was so, so much more than that.
The first sign that this band would be different was the number of man-buns in the group. The second was that the band had a woman playing tuba – which I’ve never seen before in a post-high school brass band.
It only took about 20 seconds for the whole thing to go from “brass band” to “absolutely lit,” when a behemoth of a man standing about 6’5″ tall and pushing 300 pounds started blasting the built-in siren sound on his megaphone…in perfect rhythm with the music.
Then, they started rapping. Over brass music.
After that, the break-dancing began.
Yeah, this was phenomenal.
The show would eventually become a parade down the main avenue of the festival, gathering spectators as it went. By the time it arrived at its finale (the main stage of the festival, where the headliners performed), they had gathered a giant crowd of curious onlookers who were drawn in by this incredible musical experience that is hard to find, but is clearly unique.
Featuring world freestyle rap champion Scynikal, who does a bit where he incorporates words from t-shirts in the audience into his rhymes to prove that they’re made-up on the spot, raps in both French and English, the break-dancing Krypto as lead hype-man, and a rotating cast of guest stars (some plucked out of the crowd) dancing and rapping, plus a high-energy, fun-loving brass band, it’s the street-party experience that dreams are made of.
The design of the show was genius. Over their kilometer-or-so long parade, the group collected fans and served both as entertainers and hype-men for the main-stage shows that followed them in the Place de Artes. They played every day (and we went to almost every single one of them).
As the days wore on, the show evolved. The players changed instruments, and on the final day they dressed up in onesies. My favorite part of the show eventually would become watching other people who started with a “what in the hell is this” and finished fully immersed in the atmosphere.
The best part is that they refused to take themselves too seriously. Have you ever seen a saxaphone throwdown before? I have. It was exactly as wonderfully awkward as you could ever hope for it to be.
The best part was the inclusive nature. The band itself was diverse, with young and old, men and women, from all different races and backgrounds, and the party encouraged participation from fans of all shapes and sizes, free to let loose in the moment.
By the end of the week, we took note of another regular of the party: a young man who wore large headphones and appeared to have autism. This young man couldn’t get enough of Urban Science, and when they played, his face lit up like the sun. He would frequently insert himself right in the middle of the band’s personal space, and eventually became the pole around which the whole show rotated – and nobody cared. They encouraged his joy and love and passion for the same music that drove them.
Go Krypto, go Krypto
What Cheer? Brigade
This brass band was a whole different experience than Urban Science. We ran into them via a late-night performance in Burlington, Vermont at the Festival of Fools. Striking a number of the same tones of inclusiveness and party as Urban Science, this band was all about the best vibes.
The group, described by The New York Times as “Thrillingly competent, with undimmable energy” and “an explosion of good cheer,” hooked us and quickly led us away from making a comparison to what Urban Science had and they lacked.
This 20-piece band is led by its giant bass drums. If you are a lover of diverse styles of music, you know that all of the best music is led by bass drums.
It’s hard to describe the energy that comes from this group. Within the first 30 seconds, their head-thrashing and enthusiasm sucks you into the portal of their world. Their reactions to their own playing shows you that they truly believe that there’s nothing more right than what they are doing at that music, playing thumping brass music for the growing crowd. The energy seems to drive from some existential place where the only answer to the world’s problems in that moment are to pound that drum in a universal rhythm or blow that horn in metaphysical harmony with the world.
These are the discoveries that we’ve been hoping for on this trip. The ones that can change our views on culture, community, and what it means to live in this world.