Melody in the military: From contingents to cadets

On the 14th of October 2019 at the Nelum Pokuna Theatre, the Junior Cadet Band of Royal College invited cadet band contingents from five schools, and performed several items of their own, at “Graziaso 2019.” This is not a review of that show.

On the field and onstage, military bands perform a largely decorative function today. Formed to accompany armies to their battles, they flourished in the West after the 17th century with the rise of trade, literacy, imperialism, and revolution. Today in England and the United States especially, but also Germany, Italy, and to a considerable extent France, the military or marching band functions as an aesthetic troupe. The same can be said of the school band, specifically the cadet band, in countries like ours where the military has become a prominent feature of ordinary life. To chart a history of band contingents in Sri Lanka is to chart their history from the rest of the world. This is not an easy undertaking.

Military bands emerged when the crescent met the cross, or literally when the Europeans met the Saracens and the Turks during the Crusades. Music, of course, predates the division of the West and East; the first written sources on the subject come to us from what is now southern Iraq, or Mesopotamia. The cuneiform script materialised in 3000 BC in Sumer, and almost 400 years later we hear of harps and lyres used as instruments “so elaborate that they presuppose a long previous development.” Civilisation flourished at about the same time in Sumer and Egypt: we come across remains of clappers, scrapers, rattles, clarinets, and oboes. Sometimes they appeared in both places at once, but more often a set of instruments would appear in one before the other: the clarinet, for instance, was missing in Mesopotamia, but had been indigenised in Egypt by 2700 BC.

From the early period to the Crusades, there is a long historical development. In the second millennium BC the cuneiform script spread to Anatolia, and as with Mesopotamia and Egypt a musical culture soon followed. Unlike the latter two civilisations, however, in Turkey music mainly fulfilled a ritualistic function; for instance, the horn was never popular in Mesopotamia, but it was so in Turkey. In the Middle Ages, the Ottomans, an emerging Eastern power, made inroads to Western civilisation; the fall of Constantinople in 1453 ensured that for the next 400 years, “all things Turkish” would persist in and influence the Western mind. This included the military band.

The Ottomans divided the world between what was and what was not theirs: they internalised this dichotomy at home by means of a division between believers and non-believers (or the majority and minority), granting the latter a status of protected persons they referred to as dhimmi. On the other hand, identity being the fluid construct it was throughout the Middle Ages, the State had the right to strip persons of such a status and compel them to conform to the dominant religious culture (Muslim). One such prerogative the State reserved to itself was the right to convert and conscript Christian subjects from the Balkan regions, who in the reign of Sultan Orkun (1326–1361) were raised to form the most formidable military contingent in the Middle Ages, the Janissaries (or “new troops”). With the Janissaries came the Janissary band, the mehter: the forerunner of today’s military and marching band.

The mehter consisted, in the beginning and inter alia, of trumpets, kettledrums, bass drums, cymbals, shawms, and Turkish crescents, the latter being a percussion stick (known as the “Jingling Johnny”) largely un-played today. Music tended to be improvised: it emphasised the pomp, majesty, and bellicosity of the army. The instruments played together are said to have “shrieked in unison”, producing an “irresistible” noise. The playing of the drum was highlighted: it demonstrated “the ruler’s overwhelming might.” The mehter also played in peacetime, for the Sultan: on mornings before prayers, and on evenings after prayers.

Not surprisingly Europe couldn’t resist the onslaught of Turkish music, military, religious, or secular. This was largely and initially the result of cultural exchanges between the Ottoman Empire and the West. At the beginning Western kings brought with them ideas for their own military contingents when they returned from the Crusades: till then, historical sources tell us, the horn and the trumpet were the main instruments used in their armies. In fact the trumpet was virtually a status symbol among the higher strata of the military: one historian wrote that it had been “annexed” for kings and nobles. The Ottomans were more diverse: one chronicler of the Crusades lists clarions, horns, pipes, drums, and cymbals among their most frequently used instruments, played “to excite their spirit and courage.” As for drums and kettledrums, these were “unknown in European military music.” It is said that the West’s encounter with them was harrowing; kettledrums captured at the siege of Damietta in 1249, to give one example, reportedly had a “frightening impact” on the Europeans.

A mounted Turkish kettle-drummer

In terms of instruments the Turkish contribution was hence, to say the least, immense. The serpent and trombone were the first two major additions to the British military band, while the oboe (the descendant of the shawm) is reported to have made its first appearance in 1678 during the reign of Charles II. The cleric Thoinot Arbeau in his record of Renaissance life, Orchésographie, lists down the war instruments used by the French army; the oboe is not among them. By 1825, however, the French infantry had among its inventory of 36 instruments four oboes and two trombones. And it wasn’t merely what was played: one writer in 1891 refers to soldiers speaking of Turks “throwing up a bass drumstick into the air after the beat and catching it with the other hand in time for the next.” In instruments as in formations, the influence of the Turks cannot be discounted.

With the disbanding of European military contingents after the Crusades, and with exchanges between the East and the West, military bands began to play a prominent role. We are told of minstrels accompanying the King to France (ranked as officers paid “12 pence per diem”) and entering Calais in 1347 during the Hundred Years’ War; less than a decade later, the Turks would capture Constantinople. These minstrels, once at home, formed guilds from which military bands would later fill their ranks.

Janissary troops, soon to be a regular feature of European life, were immediately taken note of by Western observers: awed by the music, these observers, including ambassadors, artists, rulers, even naturalists, took note of their formations, their instruments, the way they played them, and their ranks and hierarchies. Starting with the Calvinist-Lutheran states of central and north Germany and extending to Austria-Hungary (which had renounced Catholicism), pseudo-Turkish music became a feature of court music; right until the mid-18th century when a rift developed between popular and elite culture, these festivities entranced both ruler and ruled alike; popular tunes were “borrowed from folk songs, theatre songs, patriotic songs, and new compositions”, while Bach (“Symphonies for Wind Instruments”), Mozart (“Serenades K. 375 and 388”), and Beethoven (“Octet in E-flat Major”) were “familiar to the officers and wealthier classes of the fighting men within the various regiments.”

Military bands thrived on the whims of rulers and on social and political change. Louis XIV, the Sun King, was responsible for their growing popularity in France after he entrusted their training to that country’s first composer, Jean Baptiste-Lully. In Austria-Hungary after their wars with the Turks, Frederick the Great’s influence proved to be pivotal in shaping military music as an expression of the growing tide of European nationalism. By the time Mahmud II disbanded the Janissary Corps in 1826, the Europeanisation of military music thus was on its way to fruition. The French Revolution, Napoleon’s expedition to Egypt, and the Treaty of Paris (which sealed “40 years of peace” between France and Britain) ensured that military bands thrived in wartime as well as in peacetime.

Added to these developments was the popularisation of military music in the US. The drum and fife were used in the War of Independence, which more than any other event shaped the course of music writing and instruction in the West, while the professionalisation of the US Continental Army began with the arrival of a Prussian baron, Friedrich von Steuben, who had been invited by Benjamin Franklin “during the summer of 1777.”

Music was soon seen to be “of such importance… that a subordinate inspector was appointed for its standardisation.” Archival material from this period tell us of requests made for blank books and staff paper, indicating the esteem with which band contingents were regarded, though not until the 19th century would they reach the level at which they are esteemed today. By 1912 they had commanded enough respect to warrant their own tournaments: a “grand international contest” held in France that year, for instance, offered a sum of £500, equivalent to £57,000 or Rs. 13 million today. This was buttressed by yet another significant development: the formation of school cadet corps across Western Europe.

Owing to colonialism, throughout much of the non-Western world cadet corps functioned on Western European lines. Sri Lanka was no exception to this. In 1881 a Volunteer Unit was started at Royal College under its principal the “strong and shortly built” John B. Cull, a strict disciplinarian and a “remarkable classical scholar” (back then one could be both). In 1890, before he had finished his term, he was involved with the formation of a Cadet Corps “to be attached to the Ceylon Volunteers.”

Senior Royal College Cadets at Diyathalawa, 1931

The Volunteer Unit had been commenced to promote discipline among students by drill, though students (naturally) tended to avoid it: in 1891, we are told that drill at Royal College “was most unpopular with the boys, who ‘cut it’ on every conceivable pretext.” Regardless of this Royal was among the first schools to form the Cadet Battalion. But then, soon no less a person than the Governor himself abolished it “and introduced Swedish Drill”, which the boys disliked so much that the Corps was reintroduced later under two groups, the Junior Division of which was discontinued in 1985; three years later, the Corps was renamed as the National Cadet Corps.

By its 100th anniversary in 1981, cadetting in Sri Lanka had ballooned from a band of boys and teachers to six battalions made up of 95 senior cadet platoons, 309 junior platoons, and 15 band platoons. Curiously enough the school responsible for the formation of the Corps was not the first among the 15 contingents: the Royal Cadet Band was formed in 1979, a cool 21 years after St Sylvester’s in Kandy had become the first to do so.

Recognition didn’t come at once. In 1983 Royal secured its first major win at a competition in Ananda Shastralaya and not too long afterwards it managed to clinch the T. I. Weeratunga Challenge Shield and the Premasiri Khemadasa Challenge Trophy, going on to win the latter two awards the most number of times consecutively in the 90s and early 2000s; it continues to win these and other accolades today. But since archival evidence is sketchy, what transpired with the Royal contingent subsequently is best left for a separate article; in any case, its contribution like that of other contingents cannot be discounted. For instance, it was the first to introduce bagpipes to cadet bands; perhaps the most expensive instrument, these had been introduced in the 1950s to the Army Drum and Fife Band, and that with only four units. As for music in the Volunteer Force, by 1954 the Light Infantry Brass Band had turned into the Brass Band of the Light Infantry’s First Battalion. That became the Ceylon Army Band, replete with drums, fifes, and bugles; what transpired later, again, should be left for later.

None of this indicates that there was no military music prior to the introduction of cadetting. We know that music in Sri Lanka was played in religious ceremonies, in particular at the procession of the Tooth Relic. We also know, from texts like the Mahavamsa, that music was heard by Vijaya on his arrival here and that Sanghamitta Theri brought down musicians on her mission in the third century BC; Kamalika Pieris moreover tells us of a carnival-esque festival held to celebrate the completion of the Mahathupaya at Mihintale during the reign of Mahanaga, and musical troupes employed at monasteries from the time of Lilavati, with references in inscriptions and sources such as the Saddharlankaraya, Dambadeni Asna, Pujavaliya, and Dalada Sirita. Of these the Dalada Sirita lists 36 instruments played at the Dalada procession, while the Dambadeni Asna lists seven veenas.

Royal College Cadet Band, 2019

In military as in religious music, the drum predominated. Wind instruments were also performed, while Parakramabahu VI created a post called the Sankanayaka Kitti for officers tasked with blowing the conch. Not unlike the Janissary Corps, Sinhala armies on the move carried a special drum in front (and on an elephant) to signify their power; “[t]he capture of this drum,” one contemporary chronicler notes, “was considered to [signal the] defeat of war.” Dispelling fear from their ranks and instilling fear among their enemy’s ranks was the goal of the band, which played a significant role in Devanampiyatissa’s reign and an even more significant role in Dutugemunu’s. Naturally, we hear of many instruments in the latter’s army; Major Antony Edema lists the dawula, yak beraya, maha davula, thammatama, geta beraya, sak, and kombu (among others) in it, all of which, it need hardly be added, are still played today.

In the colonial era the Sinhala military took the unwary Western observer by surprise. Pistols, muskets, rockets, and cannon power were unknown before the 15th century, but once soldiers learnt how to operate them, they handled them quite nimbly: accounts by de Couto, Ribeiro, Baldaeus, Knox, Pybus, and Alexander Johnston all tell us how ably the Sinhala soldiers used weapons, while in the Kandyan era we come across temple murals (like at the Degal Doruwa Raja Maha Viharaya) depicting gunmen. Naturally, “marching bands” did not escape the notice of archivists from the period; in the 18th century, for instance, Christopher Schweitzer, a German doctor, describes musical bands accompanying the Sinhala army; as was typical of such accounts, however, he resorts to stereotypes, describing the drummers as hailing from a “special sort of people” who “eat buffalo flesh and apes.”

In the Portuguese and Dutch era we see a reorganisation of the military hierarchy, though not to a radically different extent. At the top was the commander, the Gajanayake, and below him were the guards, the cavalry, the artillerymen, the musketeers, and the sharpshooters; below them all were the light infantrymen, including archers, and the musical accompaniments, the trumpeters and drummers (thambowa puram pettukara). With their own traditions and notations, local military bands soon became a formidable force not limited to conventional warfare: for instance, Kamalika Pieris writes of an incident in 1820 where, after a Rate Mahaththaya defeated an Englishman in a swordfight, spectators “ran home, got their drums, and played a triumphant march in celebration.”

Much earlier, towards the tail end of Portuguese rule, Rajasinghe II is said to have captured a fifer at Pannara, who received “high favour” for playing “softly and with sweetness.” Later, the king is said to have been presented with another fifer, whose manner of playing, however, was “a little harsh.” The fife had of course become a frequent, regular feature of the Western military from the 16th century; by 1652, when Rajasinghe II obtained the services of his fife player, the instrument had found its way to Germany (where it is mentioned in an account in 1511), France (around 1534), and England (around 1540). It has been said that drummers and fifers were hard to find in Europe even then, though as we know they, and with them other instrumentalists playing today in the Western military and cadet band, flourished in the non-Western world: in Turkey, in China, in India, and last but not least, in Sri Lanka.

The writer can be reached at

Sri Lankan. History fanatic. Movie addict. Book lover.

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