Bollywood Brass Band Baja

As winter descends on most of India most people close their windows. No, not because of the cold. They close their windows because more often than not the street outside transforms overnight from an informal cricket pitch and laundry drying venue into a wedding site, complete with tandoors, tents, strings of fairy lights, a very powerful sound system coupled with a diesel spewing generator van. If you peer out long and far enough from you window I am sure you will find a wedding procession slowly making its way to the venue. A wedding procession that includes the groom on a white horse (if you are lucky an elephant and if you are super lucky may be even a white elephant !!!!) and a dancing menagerie of usually turbaned wedding-goers en masse behind him. There is also a colorfully uniformed Bollywood Brassbaja band making a nuisance of themselves belting out the tune of "Bole Choorian," while an auxiliary group of people carry elaborate kerosene spewing light fixtures. You will usually find honking slow moving traffic adding to the procession – the environmental impact of all this is usually smog the next morning and the economic impact is that your flight will probably be delayed or cancelled.

If you're finding it hard to imagine YouTube will help. [video by gainsay]

The big fat North Indian wedding (procession) and rock concerts have a lot of things in common- firstly they are both loud. Volume and a successful shaadi are directly proportionate making your average shaadi slightly quieter than the Who performance at Woodstock'69. Who pumps up the volume at these events you ask? Well it is the Bollywood Brass Baja Bands and their ilk, who are really the unsung heroes of the great Indian Shaadi. They are usually men in comical colourful uniforms with their shiny brass instruments which may include saxophones, trumpets, trombones, sousaphone, snare and bass drums and sometimes even dhols. The result is something like this [mp3]. Being an essential part of the Baraat [wedding procession] is a hard job. The band has to keep their repertoire up to date with the latest Bollywood shaadi numbers and they also have to make the wedding guests dance.

The Brass Baja is a prime example of how Indians make things culturally alien to themselves their own. Show Indians a British marching band and they will make their changes add a dhol and make the band play Bollywood numbers. It is because when the West meets India culturally and musically it is what India adds that usually makes a nice "khichdi" out of things.

The Mahboob Band of Calcutta

[A uniformed member of M.B whith his intruments. Look how shiny they are .]

This band, headquartered in a middle class neighborhood in Calcutta, is one such brass baja that I had an opportunity to briefly interact with. Yusuf is one of the trumpeters of the band and I ask him about the structure of band. He tells me proudly,

"Trumpetwallah nahi hoga toh band nahi challega. Har band me doh trumpetwalle hotey hein aur uske peeche bass aur tuba"
[Without the Trumpeters the band won't work. There usually two trumpeters in band they are followed by guys who play the drums and the wind and pipe instruments]

[Yusuf pictured to left with his fellow trumpeter.]

I then asked him about life in such a band in general.

He tells me grudgingly that life is hard because the bandwallah doesn't pay them enough. Also he has to go back to his village in the summer when the marriage season is over because work in the band dries up. The sacrifices are necessary because music is his art and people make sacrifices for their art and he is a happier person because of this.


They were a jovial group, as musicians sometimes are, and it was a pleasant conversation that ended in my taking their pictures and the band playing me some of their favourite tunes.

[Practice makes perfect]
[Band Headquarters.]

Back to Mumbai, as the sun sets on a December evening – the fairy lights flare, off go the fireworks and you can feel the bass from music below rattle your glass. It is another wedding, another working evening for the red uniformed musicians to rattle out their repertoire once again, because it is their job to make you dance.

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Robbie Whelan said...

Akshay --

Awesome post. Beautiful pics as usual. I was trolling an MP3 blog that I am fond of, Soul Sides, last month, and I found a really cool tune posted from the Shyam Brass Band, who I think are UP-based, but have travelled to "street music" festivals all over the world. They're pretty funky... check it out...


Arch said...

Very interesting post!

Chandra said...

Reading this temporarily alleviated my thickerthanblood travel lust.
I was just looking for pictures of Srinagar (sp?) and I found my new favorite blog.

Anil P said...

I wonder if there is someplace I can find which was the first recorded brass band, and how different are the ones today from the first one.

I always found their uniforms striking, and these uniforms, more than anything else connect 'back'.

Walter Haan said...

Everyone comments on your great photos, but your written posts are just as well done. You choose interesting topics and write well about them.

Twilight Fairy said...

Hola! T'was nice meeting up with u the other day :).

Twilight Fairy said...

(off topic)
U didnt turn up at GV! Was looking forward to meeting some of the mumbai bloggers I would otherwise not be able to meet :).

Anonymous said...

Have you ever interacted with the Nashik dhol players who play at Koli weddings of the fisherfolk community?
They too have a repertoire of their own. I see that you've roamed at places like Dharavi. You'd find the Nashik dhol players playing exquisite Koli tunes..
And trust me.. I've been listening to these tunes since I was a kid and today I just go crazy when I hear them!

Its fun as you dance at such weddings with the gulal thrown in!


Suds said...

Hey Akshay. 2006 was big for me, I started reading and maintaining my blogs. Yours was one blog I was hooked on too since I saw it first time. I guess it must be around Jan 2006 because I remember the picutre of food at Crystals. Hey keep it coming someone somewhere is reading it even if he does not write a comment every time. :):) Hope 2007 brings lot of happiness and sucess to you.


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