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Britain's brass bands fear being blown away by virus curbs
Principal cornet player Mark Wilkinson (R) and solo trombonist John Barber of Foden's Band, pose for a photograph at their practice room in Bradwall Village Hall near Sandbach on February 9, 2021. A sign welcoming visitors to the northwestern market town of Sandbach calls it "Home of the World Famous Foden's Brass Band". Manager Mark Wilkinson, who has played in the band for 29 years, said that in normal times it would be the centre of members' social lives. Usually the band, which dates back to 1900, would perform 30 concerts a year and rehearse every Tuesday and Thursday for two hours. Paul ELLIS / AFP.

by Callum Paton

LONDON (AFP).- They have been central to working-class life in mining communities for decades but Britain's colliery brass bands say they are now fighting to survive due to coronavirus restrictions.

With Britain again under lockdown, brass bands are struggling from the lack of opportunity to perform and drum up crucial funds, or even to practise together.

Even the most famous among them -- the Grimethorpe Colliery Band, which inspired the 1996 film "Brassed Off!" starring Ewan McGregor-- has not escaped the effects.

"The issue really is about survival at the moment," Andrew Coe, director of the band, based in northern England and founded in 1917, told AFP.

"We were staring down the abyss of running out of money probably this summer," he said.

Known for their colourful uniforms and fierce rivalries, colliery brass bands have faced existential threats before, not least in the year-long national miners' strike over coal pit closures in 1984-85.

Coe said that the turbulent period under then-prime minister Margaret Thatcher had been "pivotal" for the amateur bands, associated with pits.

"Under great pressure, a lot of them did disappear, sadly," he said.

'Brink of extinction'

Since March last year when Britain imposed its first virus lockdown, bands have turned to online crowdfunding to cover costs like renting practice halls and paying salaried staff.

So far, more than £140,000 ($193,000, 160,000 euros) has been raised under the aegis of the Brass Bands England support organisation, which represents 400 bands in England and Wales.

Kenny Crookston, the organisation's chief executive, said that the money had been vital to giving traditional brass bands a future.

"It really is that serious for them. They are on the brink of extinction if they don't get some money in," he warned.

He said the funds had provided a lifeline not only to bands like Grimethorpe, which tours around the world, but smaller ones with just a handful of players.

The British government has also provided £1.6 billion to help keep all arts organisations afloat during the outbreak.


Some top brass bands participate in international competitions and perform at high-profile venues, such as London's Albert Hall.

Smaller local bands normally appear in bandstands, at village halls or local marches.

But repeated changes in coronavirus restrictions have provided a series of false dawns.

"The biggest problem we have is that uncertainty," Crookston said.

Last year, when infection rates and deaths fell, some areas of the country saw restrictions eased, allowing bands to play under social distancing rules.

During that period, Brass Bands England worked closely with Britain's culture ministry and public health officials to provide specialist advice.

"A lot of bands went to a bit of expense and a bit of trouble to make the place spotlessly clean, put screens up, good ventilation... just to get the band back together partially," said Crookston.

But, as rules have tightened again, including another lockdown from last month, Brass Bands England has said all practising should stop.

There is currently no indication of when practices or performances will return.

Heart of life

Financial difficulties aside, bands are also concerned about the pandemic's lasting impact on local communities.

A sign welcoming visitors to the northwestern market town of Sandbach calls it "Home of the World Famous Foden's Brass Band".

Manager and cornet player Mark Wilkinson, who has been in the band for 29 years, said that in normal times it would be the centre of members' social lives.

Usually the band, which dates back to 1900, would perform 30 concerts a year and rehearse every Tuesday and Thursday for two hours.

"We feel so busy, we will spend a lot of time with each other," he said, adding that members, spouses and children were all friends with one another.

Foden's has managed to keep playing online, including organising regional competitions, judged remotely.

But it has been hard for the band to miss live performances, such as representing England in the European Brass Band Championships in Lithuania in May last year.

Solo trombonist and band chairman John Barber described the thrill of performing live as a "rollercoaster type of experience".

"When there are 25 or 26 people on stage who are absolutely giving it their all, it's not just the sheer volume and the timbre of the sound that quite literally pins you to your seat," he said.

"There's a collective responsibility and pride because you're representing your band."

© Agence France-Presse

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