Bandfest 2001
at the Memorial Arena,
Victoria, British Columbia
(16 June 2001)

This month saw a number of bands taking part in Bandfest, a military music festival, and the massed military band spectacular was an event not to be missed. To be honest, I have lived here in the Victoria area all my life, and have never been bothered to attend any military music functions. I realized Saturday night that I have missed a lot by not doing so. Sure, I may not always agree with the military and its way of life, but these people put out some great music! A lot of hard work goes into each and every note, and there are some extremely talented men and women involved in the military bands.

Attendees this year were as follows (as taken from the program):

Regimental Pipes and Drums:

• Invercargill Caledonian Pipe Band: This is New Zealand's oldest pipe band, having been around for 105 years. A very talented and smart-looking group, they also put on the "Pipin' Hot" stage show, which is not to be missed!

• Calgary Highlanders: This group originated in 1910 as the 103rd Regiment (Calgary Rifles), and became the Calgary Highlanders in 1921. In 1994, the Pipes and Drums became an all-volunteer band as a result of budgetary restraints. This group wears the government tartan of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, with whom the regiment is allied. And home is of course, Calgary, Canada.

• Seaforth Highlanders of Canada: This regiment has its origins in Vancouver with the formation of the 72nd Highlanders in 1910. The regiment has served in both world wars with distinction, and continues today as a reserve infantry regiment in the Canadian Armed Forces. This band also became one of voluntary status in 1994, and they wear the MacKenzie tartan.

• The Canadian Scottish Regiment (Princess Mary's): This infantry regiment is Victoria's very own, and its origins go back to 1912. This regiment perpetuates the famous 16th Battalion (Canadian Scottish) CEF from the First World War. And as with the other Canadian regiments, budget cuts have resulted in yet another voluntary status band. This regiment is comprised of serving reservists and civilian volunteers, and they wear the Hunting Stewart tartan since they are allied with The Royal Scots (The Royal Regiment), which is the oldest regiment in the British Army.

Festival Brass-Reed Bands:

• Naden Band: This is Victoria's very own naval band, and its origins date back to the 1920s when various bands provided music support for HMCS Naden. In 1994 the Naden band also faced budget cuts and was sadly disbanded. In 1997 the band was reinstated, re-establishing a full-time regular force naval band on the Canada's west coast.

• Air Command Band: This regiment out of Winnipeg, is due to the war-time bandmaster Carl Friberg, who was transferred to Winnipeg in 1946. He formed a professional band for the Royal Canadian Air Force No. 2 Training Command. For more than 50 years this band has been a highly visible unit, representing Canada at functions worldwide.

• 15th Field Artillery Regiment Band: This regiment out of Vancouver was established in 1933 as the Band of the 15th Field Brigade, Canadian Artillery Unit. Over the next 20 years this regiment was redesignated a number of times, and finally became the Band of the 15th Field Regiment, Royal Canadian Artillery in 1953. This particular group is part of the Canadian Armed Forces Reserve and reports directly to Headquarters, 39 Canadian Brigade Group, based in Vancouver.

• 3D Marine Aircraft Wing Band, United States Marine Corps: The 3D Marine Wing Band, or 3D MAW, has been around since its beginnings during World War II, and performs worldwide. All members are fully combat-trained Marines. This particular band served with pride and distinction on deployment in the Persian Gulf as a defensive security force during Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm. In February 1999, the band returned to southwest Asia for a 23-day goodwill tour. This is the band's third visit to Victoria, and they are based at Marine Corps Air Station Miramar, which is near San Diego, California.

• 5th Regiment Band: This particular regimental band is the oldest military band organization in western Canada, and can trace its origins right back to 1864. The band became associated with the artillery in 1878 when an Artillery Battery was established in Victoria. Since that time the band has been an integral part of both the musical and cultural history of this city.

The arena was a flurry of pre-show activity as people flooded in and took their seats. My companion and I lucked out and had the lower (ice level) tier all to ourselves. We were seated beneath the V.I.P. area at one end of the arena, and so faced a number of salutes all night long as the powers that be were granted the due that comes with their rank. It was rather unnerving, to say the least! However, the view was completely unbeatable and we couldn't have picked a better place to observe the festivities if we had tried!

Act I saw a wonderful beginning with all the bands joined together for an amazingly concise performance of "Also Sprach Zarathustra" (theme of the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey). It is really incredible to see this many bands playing together so well, without much time to practice together as a whole entity. Everything was perfect: the music, the formations -- absolutely nothing appeared to be out of place at all.

Next was a wonderful performance by the massed pipes and drums. It was really brought home with this number why enemies would flee from the Scottish armies. The pipes and drums command such a powerful force that your body and mind jump to the instant conclusion that tangling with the army behind the music would be sheer folly. However to friendly forces, there is no sound sweeter than that of roughly 47 pipers all in perfect sync and pitch. Then the drummers joined in and aided the pipes in providing music for the Highland dancers.

The pelts worn by the bass and tenor drummers were luxurious looking, and ranged from leopard to cougar. Apparently, as a member of the Canadian Scottish Regiment explained to me, the wearing of pelts dates from the days of warfare in India. Drummers wore a leather apron similar to a blacksmith's to keep their drum and uniform clean. Leopard pelts proved more durable. These days they're used also for comfort and padding, although they're extremely hot to wear.

Next up was the "home team," the Naden Band of Maritime Forces Pacific. They set the arena to rocking with a Rod Stewart number, "Sailing," but at a slightly slower beat than the norm for that piece. Their formations were superb, the many hours of practice paid off in their perfect performance. After two tunes, the dancers joined in for a lively rendition of the "Riverdance Theme." Seven lasses in such a huge arena caught everyone's attention and held it until they departed with sprightly steps. Then the band performed a precision march again to a medley of sea shanties, earning a massive round of appreciative applause.

Next up was the Canadian Scottish Regiment, with their tenor and bass drummers decked out in luxurious cougar pelts. (They chose cougars as a symbol of Vancouver Island. And never fear, none of these gorgeous animals were harmed for this purpose; the pelts were confiscated from poachers.) The group was garbed in the sombre and slightly menacing Stewart tartan and looked picture perfect. They looked gorgeous, and their marching was superb, and everyone knows the pipes always sounds better when the person playing them is on the move! There was a reappearance of the dancers for a lovely and highly skilled performance of the "Sword Dance."

Vancouver's 15th Field Artillery Regiment looked smashing in their uniforms; black with red trim and leg piping, with gold adorning the front of their jackets. The pleasant surprise was to find them all wearing tap shoes, which added a whole new depth to their march when the taps were employed. A slow air became a fast precision march as they smartly moved out into a living figure eight. The regiment moved with all the pomp and ceremony one would expect at a military function, and the crowd was clapping time for them as they played the theme song from the old television show Hogan's Heroes. The back of their music cards even matched their uniforms, which is something I've never seen before.

And then out came the Invercargill Caledonian Pipe Band. It was very hard to believe that this is the same group I had seen only three nights previous playing Celtic rock. They looked splendid in their tartan of red and black as the snare drummers put on a spectacular show! These guys handle their sticks like extra appendages, not a beat missed, and some very fancy manoeuvres were beheld by an enraptured audience. I'd would have to say that this particular regiment had the best precision circles and fast march I'd seen all evening. It is hard to say whether they are better at military music, or Celtic rock ... such adaptability and impressive playing on both scores!

The end of the first act was signalled by a massed brass and winds band, which had the crowd clapping on their entry. There was a lack of sharp corners from all regiments, and only two of the Marines showed this particular trait. I was a little disappointed in this as I'd always seen those painfully sharp corners taken on parade squares, and here where they should have been, they were missing. And the absence probably wasn't noticed by many, but it did catch my eye. It was an impressive performance and again, amazing that they could work so well together with such little time for practice!

A fairly lengthy intermission had the performers running up to the canteens at both ends of the arena for something cold to drink, giving me a good chance to look over the crowd. It was one of mixed ages, from wee little ones to the well aged, and what appeared to be a regiment of Air Force cadets from Winnipeg in attendance, sitting in one of the tiers in perfect behaviour. (I wish I could get my kids to behave like that!) I also had a chance to speak briefly with the choreographer and manager for Pipin' Hot, Kirsty Picketts, and a couple members of the group.

The second half of the show began with a wonderful performance by the Air Command Band from Winnipeg. They put on a stellar segment, although their "swaying in step" left a little to be desired. I don't care how good they are, no regiment can always move in perfect sync and the height differences and other personal factors came into play in this motion! It was rather delightful to hear "Mambo #5" from a military band, though! Their precision marching to the piece was phenomenal, and the audience was greatly impressed with the plane they formed out of their bodies! They really made my night when they segued into Santana's "So Cool," it was unbeatable! It wasn't over, though; they played "Sing, Sing, Sing," an old '40s jive tune which had the brass wailing the roof right off of that old arena! If the military ever stops the tradition of bands, this particular regiment could make it in the jive and swing genre without much effort!

My hat's off to the percussion section in this regiment -- they are outstanding! They performed a drumming solo with two snare drums and the one bass for almost five minutes. The crowd was going wild, cheering and clapping. It was a unique experience, and one I'd sincerely love to repeat! (If Brian Setzer ever needs a back-up orchestra he has only to call on the Winnipeg Air Command Band.)

The Calgary Highlanders re-entered the arena, coming to a halt in a horseshoe formation for a stationary performance. The only time this group moved was to enter and exit the arena, but they were heaven on the music! Three dancers were incredible in their energy and poise.

Next up was the 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing Band USMC out of San Diego. Again, they were very smartly presented, the epitome of a precision brass military band. The slide trombone player hammed it up and provided comedic relief in an impromptu dance -- putting most of the crowd into hysterics. They played a rendition of "Georgia on My Mind" that sounded like it was being played by angels. It was really beautiful, and the trumpet player at the fore was amazingly great. It was a moment in time which I shall never forget. Then they played "The Marine's Hymn" and I really had to wonder why our world has armies. We should spend more time making music than fighting!

The next thing you know, we were being invaded. Six Marines in combat fatigues rushed out to the center of the arena and raised the American flag. It was quite an interesting performance, and rather nerve-wracking to see them scream and charge like wild beasts. The scenario was actually a representation of the raising of the flag at Iwo Jima, and the crowd loved it.

The Canadian Scottish Pipe and Drum once again entered the arena floor and joined the Marines for a joint performance. This time I distinctly heard the taps on the bottoms of their shoes, too! It is very interesting what brass and pipes can do together, an amazingly harmonized result came from this pairing. They played a very unique rendition of "The Marines' Hymn," I'd never heard it with bagpipes before! It sounded strange at first, but it was enjoyable, and I'd never seen such a formidable looking marching unit! They were very impressive and worked extremely well together, and I was rather sad to see them march out.

The Seaforth Highlanders entered next, forming a stationary circle with the bass drummer in the center. Their playing was exemplary, and the marching when they moved again was good, but not incredibly out of the ordinary. The percussionists showed great versatility and stamina in the amount of tempo changes and stick handling they did -- giving Winnipeg a good run for their money as far as I was concerned!

The Massed Brass and Wind Bands made their second appearance, turning the arena floor into their own private parade square. And believe me, they owned every inch of it! They played an invigorating medley, and I learned that "Jupiter" will keep anyone awake when played by four military bands indoors! There were four conductors doing their stuff and all of them were great to watch -- their batons controlling each and every note!

The finale to this wonderful show was awe-inspiring, the bands performing miracles in music after joining together! The pipers began the second piece, the drone and wail echoing throughout the arena and sending my heart soaring among them.

At times like this I guess I am really proud to be a Canadian. Our culture is one of harmonized diversity, allowing such wonderful concerts and events to take place between all countries and backgrounds, without prejudice. It is truly a great country to live in, even with its faults! And this sentiment was echoed on almost every face in the audience as the musicians played on.

There was a short overture by the pipes, and then we were treated to the National Anthems -- all three of them! New Zealand's anthem was first, then the "Star Spangled Banner" and "Oh Canada," followed by "God Save the Queen." It was very disconcerting to be standing where we were as I mentioned earlier, but at the finale meant that the conductors and band leaders were saluting in our general direction for the duration of the anthems. My companion and I both agreed that it was an experience -- and it wasn't very comfortable. The bands filed out to the playing of "Scotland the Brave," and that was the last we saw of them.

I honestly don't know what I expected to see tonight, after having been involved with the military for eight years via my ex-husband, I guess I was kind of expecting something loud and drawn-out and perhaps even a trifle repetitive and boring -- something filled with pomp and attitude. Luckily my expectations were unfounded and that was not the case at all, and truth be told, I had a great time!

Military music encompasses much more than one would think if it is only given half a chance. These men and women work extremely hard and it shows in their incredible performances -- the only real difference between them and any another musical group is the uniform. So please get out there and give your local military band a listen, and if you like it, let them know! I would gladly attend any of their future performances, as I enjoy the talent and effort which goes into the music. It is truly wonderful to hear.

[ by Naomi de Bruyn ]