When was the first time you ever heard the Colonel Bogey march? If you’re a Don Bosco past pupil and from around my generation, it almost certainly was at the school march-past, played by the school brass band.
Whenever I think of a “march-past”, as if on cue, this tune starts playing in my head like a Pavlovian reflex. And vice versa; when I hear the Colonel Bogey march, I remember school and the march-pasts. I used to love participating in whole march-past shebang, the drills and the actual parade, just to be able to hear this tune being belted out with gusto by the school band, many of whose members were my own classmates. If the march-past ended while Colonel Bogey was playing and they had to end it abruptly, I used to really feel cheated. They played other marching ditties as well, but none (to me) as jaunty as this one. I can still picture Mestre Cota conducting the band in the porch area of the old Oratory building, as we marched past on the ground in front of it.
I asked my band classmates what the tune was called, and seriously thought they were pulling my leg when they told me.
I used to be so envious of my band classmates; all I had was a measly violin and bow made of wood, horse-hair and strings, whereas they had shiny metal contraptions with convoluted tubing, complex valve mechanisms and keys. And their band could really pack a crash, bang and wallop that could drown out anything a bunch of strings could do.
The band project, if I’m not wrong, was the initiative of Mestre Santana Cota from Santa Cruz, a very versatile musician indeed. From my own personal recollection, I’ve heard him play the graceful pedal-propelled pump organ in the choir loft of the São Tomé chapel (which sadly sometime in the late 1970s was unceremoniously replaced by the electronic keyboard, a far cry from the delicious ground-vibrating sonority of its predecessor); I was also privileged to share a music-stand with him, playing violin for many a midnight Christmas mass and school operetta in the days of Fr. Bonifacio at Don Bosco; and of course he trained and conducted the wind band at Don Bosco (instructing each member to play their respective instrument, from flute to clarinet, saxophone, trumpet and French horn) and his native village of Santa Cruz.
The Don Bosco school band project was a wonderful after-school music education programme at a time when such terms had not yet gained currency. Looking back on the reasons for its success, there are several factors: a. The school authorities gave it their whole-hearted support. There was a dedicated band rehearsal room on the first floor of the boarding section, where the college section exists today. It also served as storage space for the instruments. b. The band had a very good raison-d’être because there were opportunities galore for it to perform: in addition to march-pasts on school sports days etc, there were also major feasts, like the feast of Don Bosco, Mary Help of Christians, etc, and even if I remember right, after football matches c. The band members were largely boarders, although there were some day-scholars as well. This meant that there was complete control of practice schedules, and attendance at band practice was written into the after-school time-tables of those boarders in the band. You could only miss band practice if you were seriously ill; exams and the run-up to them didn’t affect music lessons, unlike now, where parents are known to take children off music lessons for a whole year, “to focus on their SSC” or HSSC or some other academic milestone. d. The most important reason, certainly, was the passion and dedication of Mestre Cota for music, his patience in teaching a motley group of boisterous boys of peri-pubertal age (no mean task, I can tell you! I have often watched their rehearsal sessions) for what must have been at best a modest salary, that sustained the school band for so many years and was the envy of other schools all over Goa. It was a labour of love for him.
The downside of a whole music education programme built and sustained by just one person as its linchpin of course meant that with his demise, it ground to a halt. It would be so wonderful to revive Mestre Cota’s initiative and take it to even greater heights.
But there are many learning points from that band project: If the parent organization (the school or children’s shelter) is really keen on music education, really gives it importance and sets aside protected time each day for it, and if it is led by competent, motivated and passionate teachers, the sky is the limit. And its continuity should be ensured by long-term, really forward-thinking planning.
The ‘Colonel Bogey March’ was composed in 1914 by British Army bandmaster Lieutenant Frederick Joseph Ricketts under the nom de plume Kenneth J. Alford, as service personnel at the time were not encouraged to have professional lives outside the armed forces. Urban legend has it that the march took its name from a military man and golfer who whistled a characteristic two-note phrase, a descending minor third interval instead of shouting “Fore!” A descending minor third begins each line of the opening melody. Bogey is no a golfing term meaning “one over par.”
The march, in D flat major, is in rondo form, which means the opening ‘verse’ recurs, a total of three times, interspersed with two different contrasting ‘verses’: A-B-A-C-A. The B section is in the relative minor (B flat minor), while section C modulates to the subdominant major (G flat major) of the ‘home’ key of D flat major.
The march got a new lease of life during the Second World War, when its tune was set to lyrics basically making rude references to the unmentionables of Adolf Hitler and his henchmen Göring, Himmler and Göbbels.
It really entered popular culture after it featured in the 1957 British-American epic war film ‘The Bridge on the River Kwai’ directed by David Lean and which uses the historic setting of the 1942-43 construction of the Burma Railway by the Japanese, using prisoners of war.
After the film, it is often customary to whistle out the main tune even in performance.
It also seems to have ‘inspired’ Indian film composer S. D. Burman to use an adapted version of Colonel Bogey in the opening lines of the song ‘Yeh Dil Na Hota Bechara’ from the 1967 spy thriller heist film ‘Jewel Thief’ featuring Dev Anand and Vijayantimala.
The descending minor third at the start of each line is reversed into an ascending minor third, but the rhythmic meter of the initial melodic lines is the same as in Colonel Bogey, as is the march-like tempo.
(An edited version of this article was published on 28 October 2018 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)