What were the so-called ‘German bands’ of pre-World War I Australian street life?

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Abstract

‘The ‘German band’ as a concept remains integrally associated with German ethnicity in the Australian public mind though such things as the extroverted oom-pah music of present-day Oktoberfest, or the live and recorded oom-pah music in German or ‘Bavarian’-themed venues. However, the costumed ‘German bands’ that were a feature of nineteenth-century British street and seaside resort life also began to appear ubiquitously in various gold-rush era Australian population centres and remained a fixture of Australian street entertainment until the First World War. Gold-rush era chronicler William Kelly described their music as being able to ‘drive swine into anguish’. Yet they had an opposing reputation for excellence in playing Strauss waltzes, polkas and other popular dance music of the era. They were sought after by dance venue, circus and other theatrical entertainment proprietors and were furthermore hired for private balls, picnics, showgrounds and racetrack entertainment. By appearing at German social functions and venues they buttressed pan-German cultural identity and traditions and, for non-Germans, the sight and sound of a disciplined, groomed and costumed German band provided a mildly exciting cultural tourism experience. In blaring street, circus parade or showground mode they, in fact, conformed to the present-day global stereotype of the Bavarian Biergarten oom-pah band. Through foundation research, this article attempts to apply some social, cultural and musicological ‘flesh and bones’ to what has more or less remained the ‘myth’ of the ubiquitous ‘German bands’ (and their not-always-German bandsmen) that sometimes entertained and charmed pedestrians while at other times represented a social and sonic blot on the streetscapes and public spaces of pre-World War I Australia.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)51-65
Number of pages15
JournalNineteenth-Century Music Review
DOIs
Publication statusPublished - 2018

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