A band founded 100 years ago to revive the camaraderie of World War I servicemen finds resonance in the life of one senior member.
The WA Fire and Emergency Services Concert Band celebrates the centenary at Government House Ballroom today with a concert in the shadow of COVID-19, much as the band originally emerged from the post-war Spanish flu pandemic.
And Ted Tait, recently retired after 46 years and seven months as a firefighter, sees parallels with those early days.
“Playing in a community band, you’re actually giving back to the community,” he says.
“Joining the WAFES band, I still have a connection to the job and to the blokes I worked with.
“When you think about it, the band was originally known as the 44th Battalion Band.
“They were frontline fighters and because they could play, it was something to take their mind off what they’d seen during the war.”
The band has been through many guises, as has Ted.
Founded to play for a visit by the Prince Wales, later King Edward VIII, in 1920, it became the Returned Soldiers League Band in 1923.
But that changed to RSL Memorial Band to include a then 12-year-old Charles Court, a future champion cornet player, band director and premier of WA.
Charles’ father, Walter, was a member, and the name change allowed sons of ex-service personnel to play.
The future Sir Charles directed the band before and after World War II service (1938-40 and 1946-52), stepping down to enter State Parliament in 1953.
It has since been known as the BP Brass Band, as the TVW Channel 7 Brass Band – later the TVW Channel 7 Concert band, with the addition of woodwind instruments – as Perth Concert Band from 1990, and as WAFES Concert Band since 2015.
Ted joined a bank, like his dad, in 1964; switched to insurance in 1969, then the Fire Brigade in 1973.
Over the years, he used music to relax after challenging jobs.
“I’m sure I annoyed a number of firefighters at various stations when I was practising,” he says.
“When I first took my French horn to work, one of my colleagues described it as ‘something in a coffin’, because all the cases are lined.
“‘Ted’s dragged out Dracula’, he said.
“It was a contrast, doing night shifts and going to road crash rescues, to be able to sit down with the instrument and do something else.”
Ted’s navy reserve career paralleled his firefighting. Joining in 1976, he served as a musician until his 67th birthday in 2015.
Highlights include travelling to Gallipoli in 2010, and around WA, though never on the high seas.
“I did a service (onboard) with the British navy, so they said, ‘Go to the sailors’ mess, and we’ll call when the boat comes (to take you back)’,” he says.
“A few hours later they called down and said, ‘Is the bugler still there?!’”
“They had to turn the ship around.”
When WAFES stepped in as sponsor of the band in 2015, both streams of Ted’s career flowed into one.
On November 11, Remembrance Day, he played bugle calls at Christian Brothers College in Fremantle, and on the corner of Hay and William streets in the city, a long-term commitment he started with the navy and continues in a firefighter’s uniform.
The service ethic echoes in the band’s latest generation with percussionist and tuba player Mel Costall, who joined the Australian Air Force Cadets in 2013, enlisted with the RAAF last year, and has a family background in voluntary firefighting.
“I started on tuba with WAFES to join a national musicians’ course to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the AAFC,” she said.
“I was the only one to audition on tuba and after the course in Canberra the conductor told me to join a community band.
“I wasn’t too experienced at my audition as I hadn’t really played since I was a kid. He was a tuba player and asked me what tuba I had. I said, ‘Errm … four valves?’”
Now a percussionist taught by her older sister, Mel is deputy drum major to Ted in the WAFES marching drum corps, having served with the AAFC 718 Ceremonial Flight where she is line for promotion as a staff member next month.
“Ted would teach us at Osborne Park Fire Station for Anzac Day,” Mel says.
“And he would suddenly disappear inside and jump on the truck.
“We play navy sequences in the WAFES band with Ted but they’re almost the same as air force sequences that we use with cadets, so sometimes they get mixed up.”
She finds a parallel between band work and her university course in teaching design and technology.
“I really enjoy teaching people to play drums,” she says.
“Being able to teach people to do something practical is important for both roles.
“In one, you stuff up the performance, you might lose a drumstick.
“In the other, you might lose a finger.”
WAFES Concert Band’s Centennial Concert at Government House Ballroom is sold out.