Split The Air: Martin Green & Grimethorpe Colliery Band At The Glasshouse International Centre For Music

‘We're not just dirty, coal-dust covered people. We're these brilliant musicians’ – and that pride shines through very clearly.
Colin Petch
April 30, 2024

Folk music ‘A Lister’ and Brass Band devotee Martin Green brings ‘Split the Air’ to The Glasshouse International Centre for Music this May, along with the extraordinary South Yorkshire institution that is Grimethorpe Colliery Band.

Forty years since the Miners’ Strike, when over 160,000 working men and their families stood up in defence of livelihoods and communities, it seems entirely fitting that Green’s influential piece of work – part celebration – part social record, shines a light on the people and places that provided Britain’s power for centuries and it’s done through the lens of the music and traditions cherished by these same communities.

Mag North spoke with the Lau accordionist last week and Green is unequivocal about the inspiration behind the project:

“So, I fell in love with brass bands when I moved to Scotland. I live in Midlothian, which is mining country and firstly, I just fell in love with the music itself. But then the way that the community exists around it is wonderful and self-supporting and has outlasted mining at this point by nearly forty years.”

After first seeing a local advertisement for ‘BRASS IN THE PARK’, Green’s interest led to him discovering a self-sustaining world of music-making that – very much in common with the folk tradition – has retained its social function and is part of the warp and weft of the communities that perform it.

“That's kind of fascinating to me. What is it about brass bands that are so strong? Even though the impetus for their creation has disappeared, they're still thriving.

“That initial discovery led to what has now been quite a long ongoing journey into to brass band world, which just keeps going for me. Originally, we did a BBC radio series about brass bands [Banding: Love, Spit and Valve Oil] and then an audio drama.

“Now we're doing these live shows, that are partly a celebration of brass bands, because I think that they're worth supporting and encouraging. In a lot of instances they're the only place now where children can learn music for free – and the only place where you could borrow an instrument for free – so that's kind of pivotal and important.

“It's partly a celebration – and we’re partly acknowledging that it’s now forty years since the Miners’ Strike and areas (like where I live), have been changed forever by what followed. It's very much felt and very little spoken about. That's interesting. Not just the employment ‘hole’ that was left, but also the community-changing aspects of that situation that are still very deeply felt. There are two distinct aspects to the show.

“And then of course, in Gateshead – we have Grimethorpe Colliery Band with us, who are one of the best brass bands in the universe. And so, if everything else was rubbish, it would still be amazing because they're brilliant.”

Grimethorpe Colliery Band was established in the darkest days of 1917, when miners were fighting beneath the feet of their communities to ensure that horrendous events simultaneously playing-out along the Western Front and beyond, weren’t in vain.

In addition to the band’s work enthralling global audiences, the organisation continues to be central to investment in and support for the local community in Grimethorpe, Barnsley and South Yorkshire, particularly through its youth music initiatives and community performances, both locally and on a national scale.

Martin Green has asked himself ‘what is it about brass bands that endure?’ Has he been able to answer that?

“I think part of it is that they’re multi-generational. You have a lot of instances of two or even three generations of the same family playing in a band. And I think that has continued.

“Also, mining is a geological phenomenon. The bands [and the mines] were, overall, not in cities. Even if there is coal right underneath a city, it's quite hard to get to it. So where the pits ended up being in smaller places like Grimethorpe, they have made these little places very famous.

“To be involved in in making something that sounds so wonderful as brass, is addictive. But another big thing [about the movement] is competition. Having been quite opposed to competitions in music – I thought it was the antithesis of creativity – I've sort of changed my mind. I think it gives us incredible focus and for a lot of people, competition is the bit they love most about banding. It's like Sunday League football – it gives it a reason and so I think competition has been part of banding’s success. For a particular tier of championship fans, a lot of the focus is on competition rather than concert.

Martin Green musican
Martin Green

In Green’s radio series he talked about ‘mines being dead, but not the music or the people’. That seems to be an inherently political statement – so in the year we’re marking a key industrial anniversary that changed UKs industrial landscape forever – should the audience expect a politically-charged performance?

“Yes, it's a political piece. And I'd be lying if I said it was an entirely unbiased look [at the subject]. The people that I have found are the people around me that want to share their stories, so the show is interviews cut with music. There are live underscores, interviews and then I try and narrate live.

“The interviews represent the past if you like. We’ve done interviews with people involved the strike who have been pardoned – because the Scottish Government pardoned a lot of [criminalised] miners. But what are the effects that getting a criminal record unjustly during that strike meant in terms of employment? Some miners had 38 years of being unemployable because they had a criminal record.

“There are some of those stories and then there are stories of why the bands are so important: why the bands are in some instance a physically safe space for young people and why the focus on building self-esteem in young people is so important.

“We hear some stories like that. I would say that both those things are political. The strike is obviously big politics, macro politics, union politics. But the importance of providing cultural amenity to communities, I think is equally political. All this show does really is point out the importance of it.”

The Tyneside audience shouldn’t expect an enormous anti-tory diatribe in the middle of the show – but what they will get is a message of hope. At the end of the show 17-year-old Keli arrives on stage. Keli is a fictional character that has ‘grown-up’ as a part of another Martin Green project: the riveting audio drama (of the same name) – about a talented but troubled young horn player.

“Now in 2024, she's sort of the future – and her role is saying: ‘This is still really important to me as a 17-year-old and there are a lot of young players. And it is hugely important to them.”

In Gateshead, Keli will be played by the amazing Royal Conservatoire of Scotland-trained actor Chloe-Ann Tylor and it’s fair to say that her role, together with Martin Green’s study of – and enthusiasm for –  the history and the culture of brass band music, is revitalising a cornerstone of working class culture and encouraging new possibilities for its future.

“Lots of the interviewees talks about community trauma, which isn’t even language that would have been used in the 80s. I think in Scotland it's been slightly different [to the rest of the UK] because there have been positive things happening [to mark the strike anniversary], but also it has been a reason for some of these people to reunite. And I think people are gathering and talking a bit more about it – and it'll be interesting to see how that changes the stories that that come up in future.

“Communities still really want to take pride in the industry and the heritage. Villages have information boards about where pits were sited, but also statues of well-built men holding pickaxes. There are those things around us and even without a community talking about it – ifyou're walking to school and pass that every day, even if you're 12 now, it's still in your head: ‘This is what I come from’.

“It's not the job as much as the mindset around it that seems so inspiring to me. The fact that the job is very hard and dangerous. I think that's important. You know the people around you have been prepared to do that – take those risks – and then come back to the surface and produce beautiful music like these colliery bands have done.

“Another of the things about brass bands is that they look spectacular. They've got beautiful uniforms. They have more than one uniform. They've got a travelling uniform and a concert uniform. They have different shoes. Shiny shoes are only for the stage – and you travel in a different pair. They polish those instruments, so they look amazing. It is the antithesis of being really dirty in a hole in the dark. And I don't think that's accidental. I think that is a group of people saying: ‘We're not just dirty, coal-dust covered people. We're these brilliant musicians’ – and that pride shines through very clearly.

Grimethorpe Colliery Band at the Ryal Northern College of Music
Grimethorpe Colliery Band

“There is an excellent film I watched about brass bands – and in it a musician explains: ‘We can't play violins. Miner’s hands are rough.We can't play cellos. The only bit of a miner that's soft is his lips. That's why we play brass.’ That is just so beautiful and true. If your hands are covered in calluses, you can't, play strings.”

Split the Air is available now on CD and download via Martin Green’s Bandcamp.

Martin is joined by Grimethorpe Colliery Band at The Glasshouse International Centre for Music, Gateshead on Sunday 12 May.

Tickets, priced at £24.20, are available to book HERE