Brass Unbound, 1993

Johan van der Keuken’s sublime and exhilarating riff on the city symphony and musical documentary, Brass Unbound is a thoughtful, infectiously engaging, and complexly resonant exposition on the transformative evolution of the ceremonial brass band throughout post-colonial societies from tools of enslavement and imperialism, to instruments of cultural celebration and personal expression. The film ingeniously opens to a long shot of a Nepalese man briskly traversing the hills of a rural village with a sewing machine curiously slung across his back on his way to a cottage factory where a handful of other tailors have already taken their respective corners on the dirt floor and are busily toiling at their monotonous craft, the monotonic cadence of the rattle and hum of sewing machines increasingly masked by the rhythmic sound of a tinny folk music emanating overhead. A seamless vertical tracking shot places the camera in seeming levitation towards the second floor where an ensemble of brass and woodwind musicians rehearses. A second cutaway to the city visually connects the second floor folk musicians with a second brass band as a musician practices in a cramped, underlit room above an opened family home, where an overhanging billboard advertises the services of the Hansilo modern light music brass band. This metaphoric, introductory image of ascension – if not transcendence – through music would subsequently be articulated by an unnamed Nepalese musician (and unofficial band manager) as he traces the evolutionary history of the ceremonial brass band in his native country, where the first Rana, Jung Bahadur, having journeyed to Europe to forge an alliance with the British Empire in order to secure his family’s dynastic, regional autonomy after the conquest of India during the nineteenth century, sought to elevate his national stature by returning home in 1850 with several modern brass and woodwind instruments in order to integrate the sound of their impressive, bright harmonies into the pomp and circumstance of his official ceremonies. Born to a lower caste often relegated to an ancestral vocation as tailors, the musician perceives the Rana’s introduction of the novel instruments to Nepal, not as a means of currying favor from neighboring foreign colonists, but rather, as a transformative blessing that indirectly elevated the very social position of his entire caste, as the responsibility for musicianship of the new, western instruments – and therefore, the entrance and visibility into the Rana’s court and privileged society – fell within the scope of traditionally accepted professions associated with his caste.

The notion of the brass band as accompanists through all the existential and spiritual ceremonies – providing the musical refrain to the familiar rites of passage of an eternal natural cycle – carries through to the interconnected image of social rituals, as a brass band hired to provide entertainment for a wedding ceremony and subsequently, devotional accompaniment for a Hindu pilgrimage in Nepal is paralleled to the sound of an elegiac prelude to a chorus during a Surinamese funeral service, a retired musician recalling the unfamiliar customs of the Dutch-introduced formal soirées of his youth in Minahassa, Indonesia, and in Ghana, to a ceremonial seafaring initiation at a coastal village. At each juncture, the idea of a metaphoric, transcendental journey is traced back to the historical context of the physical voyage rooted in colonialism, a theme that is reinforced in the narrator’s statement as the camera surveys the landscape of post-colonial Suriname: “In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, ten million people were carried over the ocean in wooden ships. They were taken as slaves from the west coast of Africa to work in the plantations of colonies in the New World. The churches brought them God’s Word, and, somewhat later, God’s instruments.”

A more explicit manifestation of the European wind instruments as a means of colonialist subjugation is directly correlated to the continued popularity of the “spirits” musicians in modern-day Suriname, even as roughly half of the indigenous population have converted to Christianity. Originating from the performance of the Winti ceremony in order to drive away the evil spirits from possessed bodies, the ritual became a common practice on colonial plantations as a means of exerting control over the hearts and minds (and souls) of rebellious, willful, troublesome slaves. It is through this recurring theme of brass band music as an integrated living soundtrack for the human condition that the idiosyncratic image of a bobbing, bellowing tuba drifting sinuously through the diverse architecture that line the city streets of Suriname – in all the splendor of colonial privilege and dilapidation of exploited, abject poverty – can be seen as a metaphor for the wind instruments’ integration (and finally, assimilation) into the native traditions of colonized peoples, transformed from insidious artifacts of cultural imperialism to integral – and empowering – instruments of a cross-pollinated, yet distinctly indigenous living culture.

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