Music is often called the universal language, and in our modern world that may be true. But there was a time that music was an export product, and this postcard of the Royal Military Band of Kumasi, Gold Coast West Africa is a good example. The band, dressed in British style military uniforms, represents the way European musical culture was exported to foreign colonies in the 19th century. These 25 African musicians pose with a standard mix of European brass and woodwind instruments along with western style drums. The original sepia tone photo has been crudely colorized with swatches of red on their caps, yellow on the brass instruments, and brown on their faces.
The Gold Coast, or Ghana as it is now known, was once part of the collection of British colonies in West Africa. This small country, just beneath the immense territory of French West Africa, is on the Gulf of Guinea and adjacent to the French colony of Ivory Coast. After the Dutch left in 1874, it was made into a British protectorate, but the native Ashanti people objected to the need for protection. This led to a conflict in 1900 known as the War of the Golden Stool in which the British prevailed and the Gold Coast became a British colony. Independence would have to wait until 1957.
The publisher was the Basel Mission Book Depot of Accra, a Christian mission organization started by German Protestants who first came to the Gold Coast in 1828. They recruited both Dutch and English missionaries and established schools for teaching various trades, including printing, to the native people. They were also important for compiling the first translations of African languages in the region.
The name Royal Military Band may refer to the Ashanti Royalty whose capital was the city of Kumasi , which is inland from the coastal city of Accra. If you look closely, some bandsmen have medals, and the drum has regimental markings, so I suspect these may be awards from that 1900 conflict, or perhaps from the earlier Boer war. The postcard was never mailed, but I believe, based on other sources, that it dates from around 1905.
I found this short video of the Ghana Police Band on parade in 2011. Their website describes a musical tradition that goes back to 1918, and there are now 5 regional police bands providing ceremonial and festival dance music in Ghana. I would imagine that the Royal Military Band of Kumasi had a very similar sound and marching style.
If you have been following my posts on this blog, you will recognize the theme in this next video which I hope you will watch. When I was preparing this story, I made an exciting discovery on YouTube of a video that combines this notion of exporting musical culture with the older tradition of teaching children to take up a musical instrument. It also comes from Ghana.
The Kopeyia School Brass Band is a music education project run by Jo Junghans , a German pianist and trombonist, who has traveled to a rural school in the village of Kopeyia in Ghana's Aflao region. In this next short video you can meet Sena, one of his students, who explains the value of being in the brass band.
My collection has many early photographs of bands very similar to this one from Kopeyia. But these antique photos of boys and girls with their music instruments are always frustrating because they are forever silent.
Now for the first time we can see and hear the enthusiasm of children just like them, and meet their young band leader too. As you listen and maybe read about Jo Junghans and his Kopeyia School Brass Band , you will understand how the dream of a children's brass band in Africa is no different from that same dream held by thousands of American, British, and European communities 100 years ago, that true culture begins with teaching children the love of music. This is the real truth of the universal language of music.
UPDATE: As Jo Junghans explains in his comment below, the Kopeyia Brass Band is is an educational project about promoting peace through cultural exchange. By including their videos in this story, my intention was not meant to imply any connection to the colonial period other than geography. The connection I would like to make is that the excitement these young people have for learning and performing music was undoubtedly shared by the many children pictured in my antique band photos. That zeal is the very essence of what makes music a world language.
This is my contribution to Sepia Saturday
where you may encounter more uniforms and pill box hats.