India’s Disappearing Brass Bands

Photos by Manish Swarup

The wedding season is in full swing in India, marking what should be the busiest time of year for the traditional brass bands that lead raucous processions announcing the arrival of the bridegroom to the neighborhood.

Dressed in faded military-style uniforms or long silken tunics and turbans, brass bands playing the latest Bollywood tunes have long been a must-have at any Indian wedding.

But as the tastes of young, wealthier Indians shift to more modern music, young couples increasingly choose DJs playing electronic music instead of live bands. The shift is leaving band owners and musicians struggling to find gigs, exacerbating an already difficult existence.

Poor wages, irregular work hours and endless travel eventually take their toll, said Shanawaz Ali, a bandmaster who plays several instruments.

“At the end of more than 35 years of playing in different bands, I have no savings. Nothing,” said Ali, who has urged his children to take up other trades. “There is no future in the band musician’s profession.”

Away from the bright lights of the wedding procession, it’s a tough life for the musicians, with lots of travel, long hours and inconsistent pay.

Most members of the nearly 100 wedding bands that operate in and around Delhi come from villages in neighboring Uttar Pradesh state, and many are related by blood or marriage.

Hindu weddings in India generally take place on around 90 days throughout the year — mostly during the winter months — that are deemed auspicious by astrologers. Musicians typically sign contracts with band owners for about $1,000 a year. The rest of the time they return to their villages where they eke out a living as construction workers, painters or farm laborers.

A typical day during the wedding season begins in the afternoon, when 15-20 musicians gather at the band owner’s place and change into uniforms and collect instruments — trumpets, drums, saxophones, cymbals, clarinets, oboes and maracas — that are usually battered from long years of use.

Then begins a long evening stretching into the late hours as they travel by bus or train to the groom’s home, where they wait for him to emerge.

When he does, usually astride a white stallion, the band begins to play, marching ahead of the horse as the groom’s friends and relatives dance all the way to the wedding venue. Once the procession reaches the bride’s home or the hotel where the wedding is held, the band musicians wait outside, playing cards or watching movies on their cellphones.

They play again when the wedding ceremonies end hours later and the newlyweds leave.

“Often it is past midnight when we return to our lodgings and return the uniforms, before turning in for the night,” said Ali, the band master.

During wedding season, most band players sleep in cramped quarters in the distant suburbs of Delhi, with more than a dozen packed into a room, their instruments and clothes hanging from hooks on the grimy walls.

“We are all related, so we’ve learned to adjust, but sometimes it becomes a bit too much,” said Raees Ahmed, coughing and drawing on a thin cigarette.

Ahmed, a trumpet player, said despite the poor pay he continued with the band because the annual contract money was the single largest amount he would earn in the year.

The owners of the bands also feel the pinch as their margins shrink.

Sanjay Sharma, the current owner of the Master Band troupe, recalled days from his childhood when his father started the band company.

“Weddings were small, family affairs, where all the music was provided by the band,” he said. “Today, the wedding ceremonies are spread over days and except for the part when the groom arrives, young people want to dance to the latest pop and electro music provided by DJs.”

Some band owners have tried hiring DJs, but said they couldn’t adjust to the music or afford the electronic equipment required.

“It’s different music, a different pace,” says Sharma. “I can’t relate to it.”


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Text from the AP news story, India’s brass bands struggle amid changing tastes, by Nirmala George


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