The number of brass bands has dwindled but its popularity is still intact.

Once upon a time, along the coast in Kochi and Alappuzha, the trumpet, clarinet, drums and cymbal made music. This music, the brass band, traced its ancestry to faraway Portugal; it was the Church’s gift to its people. It accompanied happiness and gave solace in sorrow. Fathers taught sons, with an eye on posterity. The wheels of time turned, expenses rose, and music became an extravaganza. Fathers had a change of plan, ‘livelihood’ they said. The trumpet, clarinet, drums and cymbals lay forgotten except for a persistent few who breathed their lives into these instruments. It was reduced to being the fading background score of memories and in stories.

And then popular culture in the form Lijo Jose Pellissery’s Amen shone the spotlight on these bands and the life around them.

Last Tuesday night, at St. Joseph’s Miraculous Shrine in Kannamaly, six bands battled it out for the ‘Amen Kannamaly 2014’ Trophy for the best band set. “The inspiration for this competition, the first of its kind, is Amen. This is a traditional Christian art form, which was losing its relevance and as a result itself. It was time to revive a dying tradition,” says Father Rafi Kootumkal, director of the Diocese of Cochin’s Santa Cecilia Studio.

Nothing about the morning at the church suggests the evening’s musical fiesta. There are no sounds of practising instruments, only the murmur of crowds thronging to offer their prayers. “Practice is tough. People have other day jobs; some are carpenters, fisher folk, masons, among others. The music alone cannot support our lives,” says Bernard Shaw, popularly known as Benny Master, who heads the St. Joseph’s Band. He is a teacher at St. Mary’s High School, Kannamaly.

Benny is a second generation band musician. His father, P.O. Varghese, and uncle, P.B. Xavier, were members of bands. His brother, Mathew P.V., also a teacher, plays with the St. Joseph’s Band. “We learnt to play (for a band) as a trade, as a means of livelihood. In those days it paid off,” says 88 year-old Xavier who used to play the trumpet.

He started learning when he was 18 and his brother 19. Xavier stopped 20 years and Varghese two years ago following a fall. They talk of ashaans coming from as far as Changanaserry to teach music. Pappachan ashaan, Madhavan Bhagavathar, Devassy ashaan…age may slowed movement but not memory. Knowledge of Carnatic kritis was a must in those days Xavier says, hence the Bhagavathars. The bands playing the kritis were highly appreciated, an aspect which made them unique. Mathew says his uncle’s repertoire in Carnatic music is extensive.

“It is not only Christians who play in these bands. There used to be one Divakaran who used to play with us,” Xavier says. Even St. Joseph’s Band has a Hindu, Murali, who plays the clarinet.

In those days formalities related to service at churches required band members to play often. The other important ‘function’ was accompanying Chavittunatakam performances and sometimes Kathaprasangam, weddings, and funerals too. Music of the bands was an inevitable part of life. Even today, as was evident from the crowds that thronged the competition venue, it is still much-loved.

Changing times

Times changed and the importance of the bands waned. It still continued to be a part of traditional church festivities but “not so much,” says Benny. The remuneration does not compensate for the time and effort put in. “Masonry or tile-laying fetches anything between Rs.500–650. It is not tedious,” he says.

Each band traditionally has around 10 to 15 members; the numbers are flexible, depending on the talent available. There is no fixed amount that a band earns; it can be anything from Rs. 6,000 onwards. “If a 10-member band gets Rs. 10,000 it always divided 11 ways, one part to fund the band,” Benny says. Apart from church festivals, they also play at functions and even at some temple festivals.

Perpetuating the music is tough; very few youngsters are interested in this brand of music. But those interested says it is of utmost priority. Peter Antony, who plays the trumpet says, “Nobody in my family has ever played in a band or this music. But I like it, while at church I have heard the instruments being played, Benny sir is my ashaan.”

Besides getting youngsters interested, the other challenge, according Father Rafi, is retaining the traditional flavour of the music. “Now, mostly, it is noise not music. The band has a pattern. But drums have gained precedence something along the lines of singarimelam. The clarinet and trumpet are drowned.”

Casper K. P. and Jacob K.P., brothers and band members, who have been with bands for the last 39-40 years, have this to say: “Playing for the band and the music is a passion. It is in our blood…we wouldn’t give it up for anything else.”

The number of musicians may have shrunk, enthusiasm may have waned but the future of brass bands certainly holds promise.

Band facts:

● Six teams participated in the first edition of the competition, ‘Amen Kannamaly 2014’ for the best brass band in Kerala.

● The winners, St. Alphonsa’s Band (Fort Kochi), took home a cash prize of Rs. 33,333.

● Eight senior artists, including Varghese and Xavier were honoured at the competition which was inaugurated by Lijo Jose Palisserry.

● Fr. Rafi estimates that there are around 11 brass bands in Kochi. Alappuzha, Thrissur and Chalakudy also have brass bands.

● Cochin Arts Academy plans to include brass band instruments in its syllabus.

● Clarinet, trumpet, side drum, bass drum and cymbals are the main instruments in the tradition brass band as it is found in Kerala according to Fr. Rafi. The others were included later.

● Very few Carnatic kritis were played. The songs that garnered most applause were the Carnatic-based film songs such as‘Sangeethame amarasallapame…’, ‘Ethra pookkalamthil eni ethra madhumasam…’, ‘Nagumo o muganale…’