Marching Around the Globe

Photo courtesy of Field Band Foundation

Throughout the world, marching organizations have sprouted up not only to provide music education but also to promote global unity and improve lives.

From the kindergarten bands of Japan to the flower parades of Europe and the drum corps of South America, the marching arts have become an important activity throughout the world, even in places where football is far from the dominant sport.

In many countries and almost every continent, marching bands, drum corps and other performing groups have inspired their audiences and changed the lives of their participants. Halftime Magazine profiles three international marching organizations: the World Music Contest in The Netherlands, the Field Band Foundation from South Africa and Aguilas Doradas Marching Band from Mexico.

World Music Contest

Every four years, musical groups from across the globe gather in Kerkrade, The Netherlands, for the World Music Contest (WMC). In 2009, participants totaled 282 bands with close to 21,000 musicians from 34 different countries spread across all five continents. The WMC includes competitive circuits for brass bands, harmony/concert bands, percussion ensembles, fanfare bands, marching bands, marching parade bands and show bands.

“It all got started in 1949,” says Harrie Reumkens, artistic manager for the WMC. “A time when people everywhere tried to forget the atrocities caused by the Second World War by working on international fraternization, in this case through music.”

Two of the larger bands in Kerkrade invited a famous English band for a joint concert, and during the celebration afterwards, the organizers decide to form a worldwide contest every four years.

“All kinds of marching bands are in the contest as long as they are made up of wind and percussion instruments,” says Reumkens.

Two years before each festival, there is a smaller wind contest as well as solo and ensemble contests, conductor courses, and contests and workshops for individuals. The number of international groups has increased in recent years. Previously U.S.-based groups such as The Blue Devils, Phantom Regiment and the Hawthorne Caballeros have competed.

Unlike in America, bands in Europe are rarely connected to educational institutions.

“Most bands in Europe are community bands, with sometimes very long traditions of more than 200 years old,” Reumkens says. “These bands are independent from schools or other institutions.”

Funding for these bands comes from municipal grants, sponsorships and their own fundraising.

“To the Dutch and in fact all European bands, the WMC Kerkrade is the most important contest of all,” Reumkens says.

Field Band Foundation

Know yourself. Manage yourself. Protect yourself.

That doesn’t sound like the mantra of your everyday marching band, and it’s not. For the Field Band Foundation (FBF) from South Africa, music is important, and winning means a lot, but teaching values and gaining life skills are of greater priority.

“We work with young people who are living in really tough circumstances,” says Scott Morgan, chairman of FBF Inc. “Imagine yourself going down a highway, and for 20 minutes you’re just driving through shantytowns with no water, bathroom or electricity—these are the townships where most of these kids live. There is some art in the schools, but this is really the only opportunity for them to participate in a regular music activity.”

The FBF has 17 field bands totaling close to 4,000 members.

“They don’t have to have any musical background; the only thing that they have to do is be enrolled in school and be making passing grades,” Morgan says. “We do have a ton of kids, and we have long waiting lines. We’re constrained by the number of instruments.”

Funded mainly by corporate and individual donors, the organization prevents the students from joining violent gangs, promotes gender equality—a paramount issue in South Africa where women are frequently abused—and also provides HIV testing and treatment.

“South Africa is one of the most prevalent countries in the world for HIV; one in five persons are infected,” Morgan says. “We make that a centerpiece of what we do because if our kids don’t stay healthy, they won’t be able to do this.”

The bands practice year-round and compete in an annual championship. “What the kids and the leaders try to do is take the drum and bugle corps model and infuse it with the culture, music and vibe of South Africa,” Morgan says. “So the dance, music and drill charts are all very uniquely their own.”

The FBF also operates an exchange program with students in Norway. Aspiring music instructors go to South Africa to help teach, and the top FBF students learn in Norway for six to nine months, then return to give back.

“It’s one of the most successful partnerships that we have going on,” Morgan says. “It really gives these kids an opportunity that they would never get to do in their lives.”

Overall, the FBF is about helping kids succeed in life; 61.1 percent of the students have unemployed parents, and 92 percent had no access to music or arts education before joining.

“What we really try to do is take people as they’re growing up in the foundation to mold them into people who can manage sections of the band or become band leaders and then eventually become staff members,” Morgan says. “Do we prioritize musicianship or teaching young people values? It’s really teaching values, but music is complementary and is what keeps them there.”

Aguilas Doradas Marching Band

The Aguilas Doradas (Golden Eagles) Marching Band from Puebla, Mexico, has traveled all over the world—including tours in Germany, Italy, Vatican City, Spain, Switzerland, France, Japan, Hong Kong and the United States.

“Golden Eagle members must be committed to this program,” says Luis Alberto Mendoza Gómez, director. “We are famous internationally, for not only participating in the world of the marching bands in the tradition of American bands, but at the same time celebrating the joy of Latin music and the cultural richness of Mexico.”

The group’s distinctive golden eagle helmets attract attention and also help shape the band’s ideals.

“We have adopted the ‘Caballero Águila’ (Eagle Knight) as our band symbol because it represents the honor of the ancient Aztec warriors who were chosen for both their courage and intelligence in battle,” Gómez says.

The group is connected to one of the most prestigious schools in Mexico, Centro Escolar José María Morelos y Pavón Scholarship Center (CEM); however, most of its funding comes from elsewhere.

“Here in Mexico few people support this type of artistic discipline,” Gómez says. “That is why each of the students and teachers has to pay their airfare, lodging and meals in each of the trips we have done. Most of our equipment has been gradually purchased with funds raised at concerts and performances.”

In general, music education is not well established in Mexico. “There are no plans or standards that require students to learn to play an instrument in the right way from an early age,” Gómez says. “The teachers or schools that have such programs are minimal and very difficult to access. It is difficult to achieve quality results. This is why the results of our Golden Eagles have been so significant; the successes we have achieved mean a lot.”

Founded in 1992 with 15 members, the band now has about 300 members. On staff since 1990, Gómez incorporated many musical styles as he rose to the position of arranger and director.

“This has placed us in the public taste of all the places where we have been, and it is really an honor to recognize all styles,” Gómez says. “Our music ranges from traditional Mexican folk bands (‘Sinaloa’ style) to concert band programs. ‘Trojan-style’ music is my favorite, but we also include mariachi, salsa, merengue, quebradita and samba numbers, all with a personal touch.”

Aguilas Doradas’ crowning achievement has been its four trips to the Pasadena Tournament of Roses Parade, most recently in 2009, Gómez says.

Gómez hopes that the success of Aguilas Doradas will make an impact on music education across Mexico. “I hope that in Mexico, there will be more efforts to promote the formation of marching band programs within education,” Gómez says. “The importance of this whole movement is demonstrated by how much it has grown even without the necessary aid.”

Beyond helping hundreds of students over the years, he says that working with the band has helped him grow as well.

“My band means a lot to me because it is here that I learned the value of teamwork,” Gómez says. “I can reach each and every one of my students from the beginning when they start without knowing anything. As we create music, they advance in their skills, and we see them perform complete works, achieving higher performance levels until at last we are marching together, giving a concert, winning competitions or traveling the world.”

Interview translated by Daniel Geli

About the Author

Elizabeth Geli is an editorial assistant at Halftime Magazine. She began playing the flute 13 years ago in Placentia, Calif., and marched in the Valencia High School Tiger Regiment. She earned a degree in print journalism from the University of Southern California (USC) and marched in the Trojan Marching Band (TMB) for four consecutive Rose Bowls and Parades. Now she is working on a Master’s in Specialized Journalism (The Arts) at USC and is a graduate teaching assistant and band librarian for the TMB.

Tournament of Bands All-Stars

Thanksgiving: a time for family gatherings, turkey with all the trimmings … and marching bands! Find out about the Tournament of Bands All-Star Band from ...