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Wednesday, March 11, 1998 Published at 16:00 GMT


Bangladesh beats time for brass bands

Two short examples of the band (15")
Brass bands are experiencing a comeback in Bangladesh, after years of being less than fashionable. After taking a back seat to pop music at weddings and rallies in recent decades, band members are once again polishing up their instruments and reviving a tradition dating from the British Raj. Frances Harrison reports:

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The brass band business in Dhaka is still controlled by one family in the narrow lanes of the old city. An ancestor was a bandmaster with the British Army 70 years ago and passed down the skills from generation to generation.

Now it is a profitable business - 60 band members in total charging nearly $10 a head for an engagement. But at times it has been tough keeping the old traditions going. The instruments all have to be imported and the uniforms are beginning to show signs of wear and tear.

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The wedding business, which takes up 50% of the band's time, has been through ups and downs. For many years young couples wanted something more modern like pop music, but the band says these days the fashion is for brass.

One of the members explains: "Nowadays everyone has got a television and satellite dish. They regularly watch Bombay films which always feature brass bands at weddings. So these rich people from the posh parts of Dhaka think if they have a brass band playing at their weddings they will be just as glamorous."

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Band parties as they are known are still in demand all over town, but it is not a full time job. Most of the musicians have other professions. They play because they say they are addicted to giving happiness to others.

But sometimes they do wonder if there is a future in it: "We are gradually going out of business. No one listens anymore. Those that used to are no longer around. All our old customers are dead. These are sad times. All we want to do is bring joy to people, but everywhere now it is unhappiness and violence."

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After the restoration of democracy in Bangladesh, they found themselves a new market - political rallies. Speeches and elections may not be as fun as marriages, but they do pay well. And the band claims they never take sides politically. That would be bad for business.

Whether it is Hindi film songs for a wedding or a waltz, the band can oblige. Although they travel all over town to perform, the brass bands are most at home in the heart of the old city. They love nothing more than to accompany a wedding procession on foot. But in most parts of Dhaka, marriage parties now travel by car.

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Over the years the brass bands have adapted to modern day tastes. Now they play popular tunes, military music and even political songs. As the saying goes, let the band play on.

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