This is a blog about music, photography, history, and culture.
These are photographs from my collection that tell a story about lost time and forgotten music.

Mike Brubaker
{ Click on the image to expand the photo }

The Royal Military Band of the Gold Coast, West Africa

12 October 2012

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.


Brett Payne said...

I've heard of Kumasi (aka Coomassie) because of its role in the 3rd Anglo-Ashanti War of 1874. I'm guessing the British influence, and hence the military band tradition, dated from that time. Great story, as usual Mike.

Postcardy said...

I never thought of music as being exported that way before.

Peter said...

There is so much joy displayed in that last video, fantastic! And thanks for the Dutch "undertone" in this again very informative post.

Kat Mortensen said...

Unfortunately, I am unable at this moment to listen to the YouTube video because our computer is connected the t.v. and my husband is watching it right now.

I will try to come back later and watch with the sound.

I was fascinated to see the early map of Africa. My husband's Maternal Great-Grandfather was in Abyssinia, and now I have a better idea of it. It is now Ethiopia, I believe. Correct?

A very conscientious post, indeed.


Wendy said...

What a thoughtful and well-spoken young man in the last video.

Bob Scotney said...

I knew when I saw Alan/Kat's original photo that we could expect to see a military band in your post. But you have blown me away with the switch to the brass band at the school - such enthuisiasm. Thanks Mike.

dawn-in-nz said...

Very interesting indeed, I love the postcard and the hand colouring done on it. I thought at first when I saw it that all of their faces had been superimposed onto it, but the hand colouring makes sense.

Liz Stratton said...

It is sad not to be able to hear the musicians in the postcard. We are so fortunate to have You Tube. It gives so many the opportunity to share music that would not be widely heard otherwise.

Karen S. said...

Again with an entire group of those tippy hats...hope the wind doesn't blow them away! very interesting, and the photos are superb!

Queen Bee said...

Interesting postcard. I like to imagine the band sounded similar to the police band in the first video. Wonderful outreach program by the German musician/teacher to the Ghana students. Music gives hope and happiness to those who participate by playing instruments and those who listen.

Kathy said...

I believe in peace through music. Thanks for sharing this delightful and informative post from past to present.

barbara and nancy said...

What a wonderful post.
It's so amazing how much of a desire there is for music no matter where you live, how many instruments are available, or how much money you have.

Little Nell said...

A thoroughly absorbing post Mike. To see these students enjoying their brass instruments with such enthusiasm is heartwarming. Music runs in the blood of Africa. The last school of which I was headteacher was linked with a school in South Africa's Eastern Cape and two of my teachers were welcomed there with glorious music from the students (mainly voices, as this was a very poor district with barely enough money for books, let alone instruments).

Music Works Ghana said...

Dear Michael,

thank you for your appreciation and enthusiasm for our music project "Music Works" and the Kopeyia School Brass Band.

While I find your post very interesting I have to make comments putting it in the correct perspective. The project operates as an educational program. Our program is definitely not about cultural export. In fact it bears no relation at all to ideas that some might describe as colonial. What is important to bear in mind is that through this
cultural exchange I, as a Western educated practitioner, learn just as much from the students as they learn from me. We perform the local music that I have to learn, we use locally engaged music teachers and use a teaching style that reflects traditional music and dance practice.

I regard the program above all as a collaboration of ideas and effort between all participants involved. Entirely distinct from 19th and 20th century ideas of cultural export it is a project fostering peace and mutual understanding - endorsed as a project for peace by the "Davis Foundation."

Please go to for more information and to get involved.


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