Story: Brass and pipe bands

Page 3. Brass bands, 1880s onwards

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Brass bands consist of brass wind instruments, including horns, cornets, trombones, basses, baritones and euphoniums, with percussion backing. The minimum number of musicians in a band is usually 15. New Zealand contests allow any maximum number of players when marching, but no more than 31 brass players on stage. Brass bands went through a golden age from the 1880s to the 1910s. Brass-band music was the most accessible form of popular music, providing the mainstay for outdoor events. Competitions were avidly followed and local bands were a source of civic pride. After the 1920s the availability of a wide range of other forms of music meant the social role of brass bands diminished.

Sulphur protection

Brass instruments are usually silver-plated or lacquered, but in the geothermally active area of Rotorua they are nickel-plated to protect them from the sulphuric atmosphere.

Salvation Army bands

The Salvation Army adopted brass-band music as a form of religious praise and evangelism. In 1883, the year the Salvation Army arrived in New Zealand, bands were established in a number of towns, including Dunedin and Wellington. At first they were often prohibited from playing in the streets, but before long they became accepted by authorities.

In the male-dominated world of brass bands, the Salvation Army encouraged female musicians. Salvation Army bands, musicians and composers have gained great respect in the world of brass-band performance.

Māori bands

A significant Māori brass-band movement developed in the 1890s. Māori raised funds and set up their own bands. Remote settlements such as Rānana on the Whanganui River and Kakanui on the Kaipara Harbour had ‘native brass bands’, equipped with elaborate uniforms and trained by experienced Pākehā bandmasters. Māori bands played at a wide range of events, including hui (gatherings) and tangi (funerals), where they added a modern element to traditional ceremonies.

The seven bands of Rātana

Māori prophet Tahupōtiki Wiremu Rātana placed a strong emphasis on music when establishing his religious movement in the 1920s. In the 1930s the Rātana Church established seven brass bands. These seven bands continued to play an important role in the 21st century. The Rātana Church sees music as a way to draw people to its religious message, and to inspire the struggle against evil.

Changing roles

Local bands were rebuilt after the First World War, with the 1920s becoming another golden age. With the tough economic times of the 1930s bands struggled to survive. The new medium of radio allowed brass bands to get some airplay, but it also exposed people to a wider range of musical forms. Recorded music was more widely available, meaning bands faced more musical competition.

Over the 20th century brass bands lost their central role in public entertainment. New Zealand nevertheless retained a vibrant band scene, winning international reputations for both musical performance and formation marching.

Winning performances

The National Band of New Zealand is selected by competition among musicians from the country’s brass bands. The band established its international reputation in its 1953 tour of Great Britain, winning the Edinburgh Festival and Belle Vue brass band contests. It later won the 1978 International Band Festival at Toronto, Canada, and sections of the World Music Concourse at Kerkrade, in the Netherlands, in 1962, 1978 and 1985.

The 21st century

The New Zealand brass-band movement continued to flourish in the 2010s. Thirty bands from around the country competed in the 2013 national championships. In 2014 the New Zealand Brass Band Association listed 52 member bands from Whangārei to Invercargill. There were also many unaffiliated bands, including Salvation Army, Rātana and Tongan bands.

Prominent bands in the 2000s included St Kilda Brass from Dunedin, Brass Wanganui, Dalewool Auckland Brass and Woolston Brass from Christchurch. Woolston Brass was the most successful New Zealand band of the 2000s, winning the National Band contest for four years consecutively from 2009 to 2012. Bands such as the Woolston Brass Academy, Nelson Youth Brass and the National Secondary Schools Brass Band provided opportunities for a new generation of musicians.

Bands in the 21st century performed in concert halls and many other settings as well as on the march. In addition to more traditional items, hymns and compositions specifically for brass, bands performed classical items, jazz numbers, show tunes and brass versions of popular music.

How to cite this page:

Peter Clayworth, 'Brass and pipe bands - Brass bands, 1880s onwards', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 12 December 2023)

Story by Peter Clayworth, published 22 Oct 2014