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Nanaimo band celebrates music history

Origins of Nanaimo Concert Band traced to 19th-century establishment of Harbour City
An historical photo of the Nanaimo Concert Band

In the midst of the Second World War, the Nanaimo Concert Band boasted a decades-long history – one not even a war could erase.

As the bright, young men of Nanaimo sailed to foreign shores, teens and children were recruited to fill out the band’s ranks.

That’s when Al Campbell joined, as a lad of just 12 years old, and played in the band ever since.

“I’m still playing, as a matter of fact,” he said.

A Nanaimo judge found a trove of old instruments which he donated to the band, at the time rehearsing in an old hall in the Nob Hill area.

“For some reason, I got ahold of a cornet,” Campbell said.

The band master, who was also a cornet player, taught the new musicians all they needed to know as the band continued playing dances and parades throughout the war years.

Back then, many of the musicians worked in the coal mines, said Campbell.

After practice, the musicians would head to the nearest pub for a few beers, which, the miners told him, “keep the lungs clear.”

Coal miners and mine managers were a foundation for the band in its early years, said Shari Barker, the band’s historian and clarinet player for 30 years.

The band started in 1872 under the leadership of Rev. James Reynard, who arrived in Nanaimo a year prior as director of St. Paul’s Anglican Church. After meeting with some of the new city’s leaders, including Nanaimo’s first mayor Mark Bate, the band formed and instruments were ordered from Britain.

On Queen Victoria’s birthday in 1873, the brass band gave its first public performance.

Since then the band played Empire Days and during visits from royalty, as well as Remembrance Day – every single one.

In its early days, the band was almost entirely brass – trumpets, trombones and tubas – based on the English model. Reeds – clarinet and saxophone – were added later.

“We used to get all the arrangements from Britain,” Campbell said.

The band also got a fair few of its players from England, too. Musicians were recruited from the old country to work in Nanaimo’s coal mines while also playing in the city’s brass band.

“It almost ran the town,” Barker said. “It was a lot bigger back then.”

The band was the centre of the social network, playing dances and social gatherings. After the No. 1 mine explosion in 1887, which killed 150 miners, the band hosted a concert to raise money for the widows and children of miners killed in the blast.

The band celebrates its 140th anniversary with its annual spring concert at the Port Theatre Sunday (April 15), 2:30 p.m. In the lobby will be an historical display detailing the band’s progression as well as photos and artifacts, like uniforms, trophies and Mark Bate’s silver trumpet, on loan from the Nanaimo Museum.

“Even as a teen, I was interested in the band’s history,” Barker said.

Nanaimo Concert Band will play a selection of pieces, from classical music, to big band and showtunes. Greg Roberts, on trombone, and Morris Macklin, on trumpet, will play Celine Dion’s song The Prayer.

For possibly the only time in his 71-year history, Campbell won’t be playing in a concert, due to recent surgery. But he’ll be at the concert in support of his fellow musicians, who he describes as family.

“I’ll get to listen for the first time,” Campbell said.

Tickets for the concert are $15 and available through the Port Theatre ticket centre by calling 250-754-8550 or visiting

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