Durham’s annual brass festival pushes a traditional North East sound into some unexpected corners and directions, as DAVID WHETSTONE found out at the launch
A BAND of super-sized ants was parping away outside the Gala Theatre in Durham to herald the launch of this summer’s Durham brass festival, officially called Brass: Durham International Festival.
The Ant Orkezdra, comprising beautifully disguised human musicians on stilts, was the first hint that this is not – nor indeed has ever been – a conventional brass band festival.
Despite the fact that brass band music is part of the North East’s heritage, a potent symbol of its traditional culture and industry, this annual festival has always been out to demonstrate that brass is a broad church.
Hence the ants and hence the “international” emphasis in the title.
Organisers Durham County Council boast that it “has established itself as one of the most imaginative festivals in the country, taking one of England’s most cherished and musical traditions and challenging artists and audiences to explore its past, present and future with fresh ears”.
Innovation and an education programme involving 18,000 schoolchildren across County Durham were key to securing Arts Council funding on top of what the local authority puts in.
There’s also a fortuitous link-up with the overlapping !Vamos! festival celebrating Spanish and Portuguese speaking cultures.
Coun Neil Foster, the council’s cabinet member for regenerative and economic development, kicked off the launch proceedings inside the Gala when the ants had finished, calling this year’s Brass “as diverse, challenging and enthusiastic as it ever was”.
He said the festival was “about a celebration of our own tradition of brass and about bringing in new and exciting ways of engaging with brass”.
Durham had a long tradition of developing festivals, he said. “A lot of great events happen in Durham. It’s about selling it as a tourist destination but it’s also about fun and enjoyment.
“You’ll see a lot of smiling faces. Whatever the weather’s doing and whatever’s going on in the rest of the world, things can’t be all bad if you’ve got a good brass band.”
The festival, running from July 6-22, features 59 bands performing at 83 different events over 17 days.
It starts noisily in Chester-le-Street on the evening of July 6 with the Brassy Hound Parade organised by Irish carnival specialists Macnas. That hound is an amiable monster with a gramophone tail and a band on top.
But just as you were never too far from an Olympic Torch Relay carrier, you will seldom be out of earshot of Brass if you live in County Durham. A wide-ranging community tour will see Brass performances in village halls and community centres.
The lively Streets of Brass festival-within-a-festival will see Europe’s finest entertaining outdoors in Durham City over the weekends of July 7-8 and July 21-22.
La Banda de la Maria (from Spain), Brasta, (the Netherlands), Cottas Club (Portugal) Beat ‘n’ Blow (Germany), Bandakadabra (Italy) the Pink Puffers (also Italy), Funky Style Brass (France) and Jazz Combo Box (also France) will vie for attention.