Introducing the Helicon and Sousaphone

Ken demonstrates the Helicon tuba, and tells us about its history and use in military bands and brass bands in various parts of the world. It is very popular in central and eastern Europe.

Developed in 1845 in Vienna, Austria, it has a circular spiral form (a helix, hence helicon) which the player wears round their body and resting on the left shoulder.

The Helicon is the forerunner to the Sousaphone, developed under instruction from the famous American military band leader John Philip Sousa in the 1890s. Let’s hear about the Sousaphone from Gavin:

As you can see, the characteristic of the Sousaphone is the enormous bell pointing forward to project the sound. It is very popular in the USA and some other countries, especially in Military bands, High School bands, and Brass bands. In the UK it can be found mostly in street bands, where it has huge visual impact.

Gavin is playing a Sousaphone made by German company Thomann. The lead pipe and valves are all made of brass, as is traditional, but the heavy “back end” and bell are made of fibre glass (plastic reinforced with glass fibre) to make it a much lighter instrument and easier to carry.

The usual role of these instruments in a band or orchestra, like all tubas, is to play the bass (low) part, providing a foundation for the harmonies and melodies above it.

You can hear Ken and Gavin playing together in Tyneside street band Meze Mundo in this video put together by Ken during the covid-19 lockdown crisis of April 2020! The “laughing” Kookaburra is an iconic Australian bird related to our Kingfisher, so Ken and Gavin are imitating Didgeridoos and you can hear this very well at the end! What other instruments can you see and hear?

You may also have spotted and/or heard: saxophones of various sizes (soprano, alto and tenor); trumpet; trombone; flute; electric guitar; clarinet; drum; tambourine; and violin (heard not seen).

Listen to Fanfare Ciocarlia, a brass band from Romania. You may have spotted a visual reference to them in Ken’s video. How many helicons can you see? What other instruments are in the band?

There are 2 large helicon tubas worn over the body, one bigger (Bb) than the other (Eb), and another 2 smaller (baritone) helicons held in front of the players. There are also 4 trumpets, a clarinet, a saxophone, a drum and cymbals, a pair of bongo drums, and a tambourine!

The next video clip shows a very typical marching band from the USA, in this case the US Marine Corps. You can’t miss the Sousaphones at the back of the band, but what other instruments can you see and hear?

We spotted trombones, clarinets, saxophones, euphoniums, flutes, trumpets, french horns, snare drums, bass drums, cymbals.

Next up, here’s a treat for you! Here are the Soul Rebels, a well known brass band from New Orleans. “Brass” bands in the USA are different to the traditional brass bands found in the UK. Note that they feature a saxophone in addition to trumpets, trombones, sousaphone and drum kit.

Read more about the Helicon and Sousaphone at Encyclopaedia Britannica and Wikipedia.

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