The show must go on!

In spite of torrential storms during this year’s Fête des Vendanges at Banyuls-sur-Mer, the Fanfare Bands played on, à la Titanic. Basil Howitt reports.

In our part of the world, the joie de vivre of local fêtes is immeasurably boosted by the oom-pah-pah of fanfare bands. Whether they parade through the streets, or play at a fixed point, they always draw large, cheering crowds. The amazing variety of musical styles, outlandish uniforms and performing skills of fanfare bands is all part of the fun. Often there will be several bands at big events.

15th Fête des Vendanges, Banyuls-sur-Mer, 9/10th October 2010

Recently we went to this weekend event where no less than 5 bandas were strutting their stuff in appalling conditions. Although the event turned into a disastrous deluge, the bands played on, Titanic style, for as long as possible. You can see and hear most of them playing below – though not necessarily in Banyuls.

The Banyuls fête has taken place each year in early October since 1996. The drinking and merriment have to be seen and experienced to be believed – weather permitting! On the Sunday the beach becomes positively medieval, the smoke from endless grillades filling the autumn air. As well as the bands there are stilt-walkers and jugglers mingling with crowds of up to 7,000. Towards the end of the afternoon Catalan barques zig-zag a ballet in the bay before symbolically landing the grape harvest.

This year, instead of enjoying all this, we sat in our hotel room and watched monstrous, apocalyptic waves crashing into the rocks before invading the shore. Our taxi to the station the following morning just managed to wade through thick piles of foam on the coast road. The driver Denis, a native Banyulenc, said he had never seen anything like it.

The punters made the best of the weekend by drowning their sorrows at the many stalls offering free tastings of Banyuls wines, glass in one hand and tasting notes in the other. On the Sunday many of the tasting stalls were transferred indoors to the Salle Bartissol up on the hill. Banyuls is known especially for its rich, sweet and sticky aperitif and desert wines, though can also boast some fine dry table wines. One of the most popular caves is the Cellier des Templiers.

However, for the many stallholders selling regional food products and hoping to make their annual killing, the weekend was, according to the proprietor of our fine hotel El llagut, “un désastre”. Imagine humping all your stuff maybe 50 miles, setting up, selling nothing and going home soaked and out of pocket. At least we could console ourselves with the hotel’s excellent and reasonably priced meals – justifying its bib gourmand accolade in the Michelin Guide.

Les Fanfares

A fanfare is a wind band (wood wind, brass and percussion) varying in number from about 8 players to anything up to 60. One distinguishing instrument is often the sousaphone: a bass instrument – an elongated tuba in fact – with its very visible bell high above the player’s head, sending its sound upward and over the band and drawing attention from all directions. The bell configuration later included a 90 degrees bend to make it forward facing.

The musical roots of the fanfare go back to the military bands from the 15th century onwards. Nowadays fanfares appear in many parts of France, Belgium, Italy, Spain and Eastern Europe, primarily at fêtes, dances, fireworks displays, sports events, marriages – and even Balkan funerals. The bands also give concerts in front of sitting audiences. In the UK their nearest equivalent must be the brass band – somewhat less flamboyant but still very appealing.

Fanfares have a wide and eclectic repertoire, taking in military music, popular song, rock, tango, waltzes, popular classics, specially composed works… As one regular reader has pointed out, “there is often an element of anarchy in their shows. They dress outlandishly, poke fun at bystanders (I can vouch for this!), do unusual things, sometimes surreal.” There are also surely remnants in today’s fanfares of the Commedia dell’arte – the Italian travelling troupes performing burlesque and comedy, masked and unmasked, from the 16th century onwards.

Five fanfares appeared this year at Banyuls.

Taraf Goulamas

Each member of Taraf Goulamas – virtuosos all – wore a battered fedora, the more battered the better, pushed back on their foreheads, cultivating the gypsy look. Before their impressive instrumentals began there was a vocal rendering in chorus of a fiddly tune which gave way to a full blast of the same tune on the brass, sousaphone included.

You can see and hear Taraf Goulamas [here->]. They are in outstanding form as they play for Patrick Sébastien’s France 2 programme, Sébastien et les Gitans (Toulouse 2008).

They appear twice more on the same page: in Jazz à Vannes (August 2008), and in a festival gig at Sibu in Romania where they combine performance with preparing snails!

Les Enjoliveurs (The Tall Story Tellers)


A crowd in front of the Hôtel de Ville was held spellbound by this excellent band who on this occasion sported a jolly version of a vigneron’s garb, probably that of a mediaeval guild. They wore purple and grey with extravagant cushion-shaped, tasselled hats and aprons – all except one, that is. He was wearing a flat cap and suddenly leapt on to wooden blocks and performed a tour-de-force tap dance.

They describe their music as a well-judged blend of farandoles and tarantellas imbued with jazz/electro.

The other three bands appearing in Banyuls were not ace professionals but played with infectious gusto and enthusiasm. You may disagree with me – so do listen and judge for yourself.

[Piston Circus->]

[God save the cuivres->] (=brass bands) – Fanfare Punkistol de Toulouse

[Transfrontalière de l’Amor->] – Fanfare Festif Fanfarlouf

Finally here is a selection of three other fun bands working in the Languedoc-Roussillon:

[La Boutifanfare-> This rumbustious and lovably rough-hewn fanfare is based in Perpignan. Its name derives from the celebrated and delicious boutifar or Catalan black pudding that always forms one of the ingredients of a Catalan grillade – along with belly pork slices, lamb chops and sausages.

[Les Canaillous (The Rascals) de Millas->]
Some of the most important gigs in this band’s calendar are the [Ferias or bull-fighting festivals at Millas and Céret-> [>].

This is quite a different kind of band, kindly brought to my attention by a regular reader, Susan Glenn. Tobrogoi describes its music as “le tzigan-africansound”. According to the band’s website “tobrogoi” is an irregular Hungarian verb meaning “to go somewhere on a mobylette”!

© 2010 Basil Howitt

[(Basil Howitt has also written
[Life in a Penguin Suit->Life in a Penguin Suit] (Camerata Productions 1993)
[Love Lives of the Great Composers->Love Lives of the Great Composers] (Sound and Vision 1995)
[Grand Passions and Broken Hearts: Lives and Lusts of the Great Composers->Grand Passions and Broken Hearts: Loves and Lusts of the Great Composers] (Robson Books 1998)
[More Love Lives of the Great Composers->More Love Lives of the Great Composers] (Sound And Vision 2002)
Walter and His Daughters: The Story of the Carroll Family of Manchester (Forsyth Brothers Ltd 2005)

You can contact Basil by email: [>

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