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Brass and pipe bands

by Peter Clayworth

In the 19th century brass bands were set up by British regiments and volunteer forces – and by workplaces, unions and temperance societies. Brass bands entertained at regattas, races, public picnics and protest marches. Originating in Scottish culture, pipe bands featuring bagpipes and drums were also established around the country.

Early military and brass bands

Early-19th-century bands had a range of brass, woodwind and percussion instruments. The earliest military band performance in New Zealand may have been in 1843, when musicians from the French corvette (warship) Le Rhin put on a concert in Wellington.

The northern war of 1845 brought the British 58th Regiment’s band to New Zealand. After the war they were based in Auckland. From 1847 the 65th Regiment’s band was based in Wellington. Both bands played free concerts and provided the music for events such as horticultural shows and balls. This was good publicity for the army, countering the bad reputation attached to off-duty soldiers. Eleven British regimental bands were present during the New Zealand wars of the 1860s.

Volunteer force bands

Pākehā settlers in the early 1840s established bands combining brass, woodwind and percussion instruments. A group of Wellington musicians became the ‘military’ band for the Wellington Volunteer Force, set up following the Wairau affray of June 1843. In 1845 the Nelson militia had its own fife-and-drum band.

In 1859 the Taranaki Volunteer Rifle Company raised funds to purchase instruments for a band, beginning a trend among Volunteer Force units. Former bandsmen from the 58th and 65th regiments helped found the Artillery Band in 1864. As the Band of the Royal New Zealand Artillery, it was New Zealand’s oldest surviving military band in 2014.

In the late 1870s areas with four or more volunteer units could set up a garrison band, with the government providing an annual grant of £20.

Musical miners

The 1860s gold rushes helped the spread of brass bands, with bands springing up in the mining towns of Otago and the West Coast. Iron workers and boilermakers building the lake steamer at Queenstown started a band. Miners from Cornwall, one of the major centres for British brass bands, formed a band in Reefton. A later ‘gold fields’ band was the Kokatahi Band, formed in 1910 by Hokitika farmers and gold miners. This was based around button accordions, accompanied by fiddles, musical saws and harmonicas, rather than brass instruments.

The brass-band movement

The bands formed in the 1860s generally consisted of brass wind instruments, supported by percussion. The spread of brass bands among the volunteer units ran parallel to the British brass-band movement. British bands traced their origins to military and volunteer force bands, church and village bands and workplace-based bands.

From the 1830s relatively cheap, mass-produced, valve-based brass instruments became more widely available. The heartlands of the brass-band movement were the working-class industrial and mining areas of the English North and Midlands, Wales and Cornwall.

Band contests

New Zealand’s official brass-band contests began in 1880 with a competition between volunteer unit bands. The Invercargill and Ōamaru garrison bands dominated the band contests of the 1880s and early 1890s, while the Wanganui and Wellington garrison bands dominated in the late 1890s and 1900s. Captain W. E. Heywood, early bandmaster for the Invercargill Garrison Band, became known as the father of the brass-band movement. Events for solo instruments or particular combinations of instruments were added to the competitions.

In the 1920s hymn-playing contests were included in the national championships.

The first quickstep competition in 1890 proved highly popular with the audience. New Zealand brass bands since have placed a strong emphasis on skill at formation marching.

The brass-band repertoire

In addition to marches, brass bands played many tunes derived from dance music including the polka, quadrille, waltz, galop and schottische. 19th-century brass bands commonly played selections from popular operatic or orchestral works. In the 1910s leading British classical composers began writing music specifically for brass bands.

The people’s music

Many workers set up their own bands, with employers sometimes sponsoring company bands. Workers’ bands included engineers’, railways, tramways and colliery bands. Trade union bands, such as the Wellington Watersiders’ Band, were funded by a union levy. Temperance bands were sponsored by temperance societies, while ‘subscription bands’ survived on public donations. There were also ‘private’ bands, such as Jupp’s Private Band of Wellington, maintained at the expense of individuals.

Brass bands were initially the main form of popular music available for outdoor settings. Bands performed at civic receptions for dignitaries and victorious sports teams, Volunteer reviews, troop-ship departures and openings of significant buildings. They entertained at regattas, sports matches, race meetings, excursions and public picnics. Union and other workplace brass bands played at Labour Day parades, union picnics and protest marches.

In the 19th century religious concerns meant bands were often forbidden to play on Sundays. As attitudes relaxed, Sunday afternoon concerts in the park became popular family entertainment.

Military bands, 1900 onwards

Before 1910 New Zealand’s military bands were attached to volunteer force units. There were few regulations about the structure of bands, but garrison bands were allowed five men per volunteer company in the garrison. In 1910 the newly created Territorial Force absorbed the Volunteers. Territorial unit bands were restricted to 25 members each, all of whom had to be of military age.

Some New Zealand military bands were brass bands, while others also included woodwind instruments. Marches were an important part of the military-band repertoire. Bands also performed music, including hymns and anthems, for ceremonial occasions. In addition military bands always played popular tunes to entertain the troops and the general public.

Not grim enough

Colonel William Malone of the Wellington Regiment was outraged when the regimental band struck up a popular tune as their troop ship sailed out of Wellington Harbour on 16 October 1914. He believed that the regiment should carry out its tasks ‘grimly and quietly’ and that ‘to any right thinking soldier the striking up of our band with ... “everybody’s doing it” or some other blatant air was shocking.’1

War and peace, 1914–45

In the First World War each New Zealand Expeditionary Force (NZEF) regiment, including the Māori contingent, formed a band. Several units also had pipe bands. The NZEF bases had their own bands. New Zealand regiments initially followed the British tradition of bandsmen doubling as stretcher bearers. High stretcher-bearer casualties and the difficulty of replacing musicians meant that in the later war years bandsmen were given duties away from the front line.

At home territorial force bands continued operating, despite losing members to the NZEF. Territorial bands were kept busy performing at farewell parades and patriotic functions.

The NZEF bands were broken up after the war, with many musicians returning to territorial bands. The Royal New Zealand Air Force formed a band in 1935, giving their first public performance at a 1937 coronation parade. A Royal Marine band provided the music for the New Zealand Division of the Royal Navy.

During the Second World War each army brigade formed a band. The 22nd and 23rd battalions and the artillery also had pipe bands. Brigade bands doubled as dance bands, playing the popular swing music of the 1940s.

The RNZAF band toured New Zealand, playing concerts to boost morale and raise funds. In 1944 they toured the Pacific entertaining New Zealand and US forces.

A changing repertoire

The New Zealand Army Band was founded as a traditional brass band. In 2013 it continued to be recognised as one of the world’s best marching bands. A rhythm section and vocalists were added in the 1970s, and the repertoire expanded into the genres of swing, jazz, rock and popular music. Reflecting the strong Māori involvement in New Zealand’s defence forces, the band also incorporated versions of the wero (challenge) and haka into their performances.

Surviving cutbacks – 1945 onwards

After the war there was little defence money for military bands, but some continued on a voluntary basis. The RNZAF band, disestablished in 1945, was re-formed in 1951 as a Territorial unit. In 1964 the number of army bands was reduced to seven, but the New Zealand Army Band was established to provide music of a professional standard.

In 2012 the New Zealand Defence Force disestablished seven of its 10 military bands for financial reasons. Three official military bands remained:

  • the Royal New Zealand Navy Band, a 29-strong brass/wind band; the Navy also has a Pipe and Drums Club
  • the New Zealand Army Band, a 35-strong brass band, including a rhythm section and vocalists
  • the Royal New Zealand Air Force Band (formerly known as the Central Band of the RNZAF), a 65-strong full symphonic band.

A number of the former territorial bands continued as volunteer self-funded bands. These included the 7th Battalion Band and the Royal New Zealand Artillery Band, New Zealand’s oldest military band.

    • Quoted in John Crawford, ed., No better death: the great war diaries of William G. Malone. Auckland: Reed, 2005, p. 59. Back

Brass bands, 1880s onwards

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.

Sulfur 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 sulfuric 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 into the 2010s. 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, 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 Whāngārei 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.

Pipe bands

Early pipe bands

The Scottish bagpipes were principally a Highland instrument. Only a small proportion of New Zealand’s Scottish immigrants were Highlanders, including a few trained hereditary pipers. The pipes had traditionally been a solo instrument; Scottish regimental pipe bands dated from the early 19th century.

During the Otago gold rush of the 1860s there were bands that featured bagpipes along with other instruments, but they did not consist solely of pipes and drums. In 1885 Dunedin’s Highland Volunteer Rifles appointed traditional piper Robert Adair as pipe major to their band of five pipers. In 1894 the Canterbury Volunteers also had a pipe band.

Civilian pipe bands grew out of Caledonian (Scottish cultural) societies. In 1896 members of the Invercargill Caledonian Society formed New Zealand’s first civilian pipe band, the Caledonian Pipe Band of Southland. The Invercargill band made a big impression in 1898, playing at Dunedin’s 50th anniversary. Within a few weeks Dunedin had its own pipe band.

The growth of pipe bands

In the first two decades of the 20th century pipe bands were organised throughout the country. Considerable community support was necessary to establish bands. In addition to instruments it was important to get the correct Highland regalia.

Competitions began in 1907 with a Highland Gathering at Hagley Park, Christchurch, coinciding with the Christchurch International Exhibition. Pipe bands performed at Caledonian Society gatherings, sports events and agricultural shows. They took part in civic parades, and played on a range of ceremonial occasions.

The Kaitangata Pipe Band was founded in 1908 in response to a government request for a band to welcome Lord Kitchener to the area.

The pipes go to war

During the First World War soldiers of the Auckland, Canterbury and Otago regiments formed pipe bands. In the Second World War the 22nd and 23rd Battalions and the Artillery had pipe bands. They performed to raise morale, lead marches and play at ceremonial occasions. During the wars civilian pipe bands often marked the departure of soldiers or welcomed them home. The number of pipers was depleted as young men went off to war.

Dominion championships

Pipe bands continued to be formed around the country following the First World War. The first Dominion Pipe Band Championship was held in Dunedin in 1926, and was won by the Dunedin Highland Pipe Band. Dominion Championships were held annually, apart from the war years of 1941 to 1945.

The Dominion competitions brought fame to bands such as the Timaru Highland Pipe Band, which won four years in a row, from 1936 to 1939. The City of Wellington Pipe Band dominated the competition from 1955 to 1990, winning 27 times in 35 years. The New Zealand Police Pipe Band won the competition from 1996 to 1999.

Pipes and pyjamas on parade

The Invercargill Pipe Band was reported to have shown ‘magnificent bearing, dressing and discipline’ on 25 February 1962, when they paraded around Christchurch’s Cathedral Square soon after midnight in their pyjamas.1 Some bandsmen wore tartan bath towels as headdresses, while the drum major used a broom for a staff. The group marched to the Excelsior Hotel to honour the champions of the 1962 National Competition, the City of Wellington pipe band.

Women in pipe bands

Motueka had a Ladies’ Highland Pipe band in the 1930s. In the 1940s and 1950s women’s bands were set up in Wellington, Christchurch, Dunedin, Hastings and New Plymouth. From the 1950s it became more common for women to join established pipe bands alongside male musicians.

Training and organisation

In 2014 New Zealand had a number of schools for pipe-band music. The College of Drumming was founded in 1973, followed by the College of Piping in 1986. Both colleges concentrated on intense learning, including training retreats. In 1993 the two colleges were combined as the College of Piping and Drumming.

The Highland Pipe Band Association of New Zealand (HPBANZ) was founded in 1928, splitting away from the Piping and Dancing Association, which had formerly governed competitions. The HPBANZ became the Royal New Zealand Pipe Bands Association in 1985. In 2014 the association had 79 pipe bands affiliated to it: 43 in the North Island and 36 in the South Island.

Pipe bands have maintained their popularity in New Zealand, with many towns having one or more. A survey in 2002 found 216 pipe bands, with 131 North Island and 85 South Island bands.

    • Quoted in F. W. G. Millar, J. E. Annear and N. A. McMillan, The history of the City of Invercargill Caledonian Pipe Band, formerly the Caledonian Pipe Band of Invercargill, and the Caledonian Pipe Band of Southland, and the Southland Pipe Band, 1896–1996. Invercargill: The Band, 1996, p. 79. Back

External links and sources

More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: Peter Clayworth, 'Brass and pipe bands', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 24 September 2021)

Story by Peter Clayworth, published 22 Oct 2014