Marching bands are an important part of the cultural wealth of Northern Ireland and we have some of the best bands in the world.
One of my earliest childhood memories is of watching “kilty” bands on parade; the power of the music and the colour of the occasion obviously made a lasting impression.
Last night the Vow Accordion Band held its 70th anniversary parade in Ballymoney.
This was its annual parade, but it had a special significance because of the 70th anniversary, and around 50 bands took part, including accordion, flute and pipe.
Its music is of a high quality, it has performed at the Belfast Tattoo in the SSE Arena, and recently it raised £4,000 for charity with a local mini-tattoo. Congratulations on 70 years of music-making.
Some bands go back even further. The oldest on either side of the border is the magnificent Churchill Flute Band in Londonderry, which was formed in 1835.
This Saturday the Royal Scottish Pipe Band Association will be holding the UK Pipe Band Championships in the sports grounds at Stormont. Northern Ireland boasts some of the best pipe bands in the world.
There are somewhere between 650 and 700 marching bands in Ulster and as many as 30,000 people learning, practising and performing music in bands every week.
They perform at concerts, competitions and parades, and hundreds of thousands of people enjoy their music.
That is why so many people were alarmed by the recent action of YouTube in deleting tens of thousands of films of Ulster bands, and we still do not really know why.
YouTube said: “Many forms of cultural expression are allowed on YouTube, however we do not allow content that promotes proscribed organisations.”
They referred to bands with the name Red Hand Defenders, but I am aware of just three bands with that name, and these were formed long before a proscribed organisation adopted that name in 1998.
YouTube has failed to explain its draconian action in eradicating so much wonderful material and it is still unclear what prompted it. Was it some sort of technical algorithm that misinterpreted the names of some bands? Or was it that there was a malicious campaign of complaints to pressure YouTube into this action?
I find it hard to believe the first explanation, because YouTube’s algorithms have not deleted videos of Sinn Fein politicians eulogising the Provisional IRA and neither have they deleted videos of Irish rebel music with songs about the IRA.
We deserve a proper explanation from YouTube. If it was an algorithm, something needs to be rectified. And if it was a malicious campaign, then that should be acknowledged.
Some of the material has been restored, but much has not and this could lead to the destruction of those videos. That would be an act of cultural vandalism and it reflects a wider issue.
It’s time that, as a society, we really embraced what is undoubtedly the largest community arts sector in Ulster. Thankfully, the musical instruments fund, which was stopped by a former Sinn Fein Culture Minister, has been reinstated, but much more should be done to affirm and support the sector, so here are some suggestions.
The Arts Council of Northern Ireland is more than a funding organisation; it is a developmental organisation. So, perhaps it could support a development programme for the bands sector.
If Radio Ulster can have a weekly programme for jazz music throughout the year, surely our accordion, flute, pipe and silver bands are entitled to at least the same.
Yet, it has been reported that the BBC is planning to reduce its already very limited radio programming for bands.
The education system also has a role to play. I commend those schools which provide pupils with the opportunity to learn and perform music in a band setting, just as some other schools provide opportunities for pupils to learn and perform music in an Irish traditional music group. Unfortunately, there are not enough.
The present, minimalist approach in broadcasting, arts support and education is not the way to build a culturally diverse society.