World Class Brass: The Sound of Empire

BBC Radio 2 series on the musical legacy of the British Empire

A 3 minute read

This is what you call a good gig. Together with my radio production partner at the time, Miranda Hinkley, Radio 2 commissioned a series on brass music around the Commonwealth. Armed with a mic and a trumpet, I set off to investigate Ghana and Malta, and she went to Trinidad and India.

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In the twilight of British colonial rule brass bands were the soundtrack to Empire. But as a new era of Independence dawned, the old military tunes were replaced by more distinctive, local sounds.

In World Class Brass, actor and trumpet player Colin Salmon takes listeners on a journey across four continents to trace the musical legacy of the British Empire and discover some truly unusual and uplifting brass.

Episode 1 The journey begins in the island nation of Malta, fiercely proud of its brass heritage, but with Maltese culture being a mix of British, Italian and North African influences, the country has marched the British brass band to surprising new places.

Next stop are the deserts of Northern India, where generations of brass musicians have played for local royalty. Nowadays, most bands find employment leading the festivities at marriages. British group Bollywood Brass Band travel to India to lend an an ‘exotic’ touch to a high-society nuptial, bringing the story of British-Indian brass full circle.

Episode 2 It’s hard to imagine West African music without brass and in this episode, the journey begins in Ghana, following the sound of the brass band through the Ghanaian military, the church and popular highlife music. Meanwhile, in neighbouring Nigeria, brass rang out both the melody and the rhythm in the afrobeat music of the legendary Fela Kuti.

Episode 3 The final episode begins in the Caribbean. Best known for carnival, Trinidad and Tobago is also the home of calypso. So it’s no surprise that British-inspired military brass found its way onto recordings by legendary calypsonians such as the Mighty Sparrow, Lord Kitchener and even the American Harry Belafonte. The Trinidad & Tobago Defence Force Band are also featured, as well as an interview with the much-loved female calypsonian, Calypso Rose.

Meanwhile across the water in New York, a band of eight brothers is moving live brass in a completely new direction with the Hypnotic Brass Ensemble. The finale is a group of youngsters at Britain’s own Notting Hill Carnival, who mash-up vintage Caribbean sounds with everything from hip-hop to English folk, confirming that World Class Brass is alive and kicking in the UK.

Written and produced by Miranda Hinkley and Jonathan Walton. Presented by Colin Salmon. Assistant producers Michele Banal and Imani Wilson. Series producer Miranda Hinkley.

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