Under the title “New Folk Music”, brass music is undergoing a comeback too. Our author seeks out the scene’s hot spots in Munich and its surroundings – and tries to elicit enough tones from the seemingly easiest instrument so that she can accompany a simple march.
“Do you play the tuba? Would you like to play with us in the band?” a man asks me in the most beautiful Munich dialect. I feel flattered, but the truth is: I don’t play the tuba at all. At least, not yet. It is one of the hottest days of the year and I’m standing all sweaty in the “ars musica” music shop in Lindwurmstraße in order to pick up my hire tuba, with which I’ll be spending the next few days.
The man who wants to include me in his band is a customer too. But I can’t worry about him any more as here comes the shop owner Roland Fritsch with the tuba, placing it upside down with the mouthpiece on the floor. Already, I fail to lift it up when I try. The thing is so big and cumbersome, and I have no idea how it should be held.
Brass music has been undergoing a revival for some time now: not just in Bavaria, but internationally. Ever since Beyoncé headlined this year’s Coachella Festival, showing up with a complete brass formation, brass music has got swag again.
Patiently, Fritsch shows me everything and we establish that my hand is too small for this instrument because when my thumb is positioned correctly in the thumb ring, my fingers don’t reach the valves. But if I just hook my thumb in, I cannot properly lift the tuba and the object is so heavy! So we look for a harness for me and attach it to the instrument.
Roland Fritsch lifts up the instrument for me, I slip it into the harness and – ta-dah! – it fits. Yet, I am already completely exhausted before I’ve even blown just once into the mouthpiece.
Brass music was considered as provincial and uncool for decades, but it has been undergoing a revival for some time now: not just in Bavaria, but internationally. Ever since Beyoncé headlined this year’s Coachella Festival, showing up with a complete brass formation and playing among others a song by the legendary New Orleans brass band “Rebirth Brass Band”, brass music has got swag again.
Roland Fritsch places the tuba upside down with the mouthpiece on the floor. Already, I fail to lift it up when I try. The thing is so big and cumbersome, and I have no idea how it should be held.
Among all the brass instruments, the tuba is probably the most underappreciated, although in contrary to the saxophone for example, it is needed in all genres. But there’s one thing I know now: tubists can haul heavy loads, they are also considered as the somewhat burly guy in the background who doesn’t get thrown by anything.
There is a joke amongst musicians about a boy who learns the tuba. After the first hour, his father asks him how it was and the boy replies enthusiastically: “Today I learnt a C!” On the second day, he says: “Today I learnt a G!” However, on the third day, the boy doesn’t come home after the rehearsal hour. He only comes back in the middle of the night and when his concerned father asks him where he was, he answers: “I had a concert!” The assertion being that you don’t need much to be able to play the tuba in a performance. That’s what I want to check out.
The band with which I want to play as a tubist is called “Oansno” (Bavarian for “once more”) and their music falls under the genre of New Bavarian Folk Music. Bands from the most diverse backgrounds are brought together, from the Balkan-Bavarian crossover combo “La Brass Banda”, now well-known across the Free State border, the hip-hop savvy “Moop Mama” and “G.Rag und die Landlergeschwister” with their folk music sound, to the “Oansno” boys, who mix Bavarian music with, among others, reggae or ska rhythms and Balkan pop sounds. Brass instruments occupy a special role in this.
You don’t need much to be able to play the tuba in a performance. That’s what I want to check out. On the second try I managed to coax a sound out of the instrument. Or at least a noise somewhere between a vuvuzela and a fart.
Indeed: “The beginning is not difficult,” said the “Oansno” frontman Michael on the telephone too, long before I held a tuba in my hands for the first time. Even being able to make a sound already seemed an incredibly difficult task for me, but the accordion player reassured me. “Oh nonsense, you’ll get it quickly. Give it half an hour and then you’ve got it. Easy.” And actually, on the second try in the music shop, I managed to coax a sound out of the instrument. Or at least a noise somewhere between a vuvuzela and a fart.
Either way, I was keen and wanted to start practising right away. I buckled the tuba onto my back and cycled off home. Through Sendling, past the central market hall, under the Alte Utting (Old Utting), past Roecklplatz (Roeckl Square), over the Wittelsbacher Brücke (Wittelsbacher Bridge).
It is pure joy to cycle through Munich with a tuba. I cannot recommend it enough. As soon as people see that I am riding with a huge brass instrument on my back, they smile or nod at me approvingly. Parents nudge their children and point at me. A group of senior citizens sit in front of a pub, all of them grinning and waving to me. In Untergiesing, someone whistles at me, but it isn’t a pick-up whistle, but a real melody. A driver in a traffic jam in Candidberg puts both of his thumbs up and at the Sechziger-Stadion (TSV 1860 Munich stadium), a minivan driver honks his horn until I wave back.
The tuba belongs to Bavaria like the beer stein and lederhosen. No traditional band can get by without it. Public festivals and traditional costume parades are unimaginable without the tuba, and the instrument even helps Bayern Munich fans in the Allianz Arena with their chants.
I also grew up watching and listening to this instrument, which accompanied me at public festivals, summer solstice bonfires and maypole events during my childhood and youth. For me, the tuba is as typically Bavarian as almost anything else. That’s why I was also a bit shocked when I discovered that the tuba was invented in Berlin and patented there in 1835. The most Bavarian of all brass band instruments was an invention for the Prussian military bands, so pretty much the bogeyman of Bavaria per se!
When I explained that to Franz, who plays the tuba for “Oansno”, he shakes his head. That’s not true, the tuba is much, much older and was already mentioned in old Christian texts. I don’t believe him, but he insists. Yes, yes, he says, for example in the Lord’s Prayer: “Our Father tuba in heaven…” On the Friday I’m due to perform it is even hotter than all the other days before. In the morning, I pack my tuba in the boot, pick up the photographer and we travel together to Eching, a parish to the north of Munich.
Every summer in a parish next to the Echinger See (Eching Lake), the “Brass Wiesn” takes place over four days, a brass music festival, which reportedly attracted 12,000 visitors this year. The 2018 headliners are “La Brass Banda” and the Bavarian rock ‘n’ roll band “Spider Murphy Gang”. “Oansno” are performing at just before twelve. A hundred people are standing in front of the stage, heated up and ready to party, and it becomes clear to me that I absolutely can’t perform. No chance. Forget it. Never in a million years.
Was it stage fright? Maybe a little. But mainly it was the realisation that my four off notes were really not enough to play anywhere and I would presumably get a barrage of catcalls – and indeed quite rightly so. So I set aside the tuba, relaxed, and enjoyed the concert as a spectator. People were yelling, Franz stepped forward and lay down a tuba solo which put me to shame and confirmed my decision not to take the stage.
It is pure joy to cycle through Munich with a tuba. I cannot recommend it enough. As soon as people see that I am riding with a huge brass instrument on my back, they smile or nod at me approvingly.
Three wobbly notes really aren’t enough for a performance… After the concert, tubist Franz and I talked shop for a bit longer. He has played the tuba since he was eight and he also loves the feeling of going around the world with the instrument on his back. “People are much friendlier.”
One week later, I say goodbye to my tuba. “And are you now going to start playing the tuba?” Roland Fritsch asks me when I give him back his instrument. “I don’t think so,” I reply. “But maybe I’ll hire the thing out again and cycle with it through Munich. That really was so great.”