LOS ANGELES – They've still got their trombones and their trumpets, their cornets and their clarinets.
But the high school marching bands of Southern California are going tuba-less these days, and their music directors think they know why.
There's a banda bandit on the loose, they say. Someone, they believe, who is breaking into high schools from the East Side of Los Angeles to the shores of Manhattan Beach and stealing expensive tubas to supply a fast-growing banda music black market.
Once little known north of Mexico, banda has become the fastest growing genre of Latino music in the United States over the past 20 years, and it is particularly popular in Los Angeles, where musicians gather in places the city's Mariachi Plaza to offer their services to parties, weddings, quinceaneras and other events.
"Musically, it's appealing because it's so dynamic and colorful and bright," Josh Kun, a University of Southern California expert on cross-border popular culture, says of the fast-paced, joyous dance music that sprung from the polka tunes that German and French immigrants carried to the Mexican state of Sinaloa in the 19th century.
"Beyond a purely musical context," he said, "it is attractive because it is also the musical context for Mexican immigrant life. ... It's about living between two worlds and sustaining your identity in that balance."
It is also all about the tuba, which is the most important instrument in the band.
Without a guy standing front and center blowing out those fast-paced "oompah, oompah, oompah" notes that only a tuba can make, a banda band is nothing.
"The band is driven by the tuba and the drummer," says Bill Roper, a professional tuba player. "The tuba serves the time function and the bass function and the rest of the band can't exist without that."
Plus, the tuba is so big and pulsating that no one in the audience can ignore it, making it a very sexy instrument in its own right, says Roper. Indeed, people have been known to stuff money by the handful into the horn of a particularly talented tuba player.
So forget the trumpet player, the trombonist or the clarinetist, the tubist is to banda what the lead guitarist is to rock `n' roll.
This is why some of the music teachers at the schools that have been hit say they believe banda bandits are responsible.
"I don't think anyone would go through all the trouble to break locks, break in and explicitly take tubas just to break them down," said Ruben Gonzalez, the music teacher at South Gate High School, which has lost five tubas. "They're worth a lot more money on the black market than they are if you melt them down. It's just a question of where are they selling them, here or out of state or in Mexico."
His school has been hit twice this year, once in October when thieves broke into the band room and took three tubas, then several weeks later when they came back and grabbed two more. The school has only three left, leaving them with "more players than tubas," Gonzalez said.
"We have alarms, we have locks, but the second time they just came in like gangbusters," he said. "All they took were tubas. Once they got in, they could have taken any instruments they wanted, but all they took were tubas."
In the modest Los Angeles suburb of Bell, where one in five people live in poverty, someone broke into the band room and took two tubas. They also ignored every other instrument there, said band director Ligia Chaves-Rasas.
At Huntington Park High School two tubas have gone missing.
In affluent Manhattan Beach, someone made off with four tubas at Mira Costa High School, and in Compton someone took eight tubas from Centennial High School.
Los Angeles Unified School District police did not return several recent calls, but Gonzalez said they have told him their investigation is continuing. School police haven't said who they suspect.
Although players say cheap knockoffs are becoming more available from China, a good new brass tuba can cost $6,000 or more, and even a decent used one can fetch a couple thousand dollars.
"Everyone should get their horns insured," said Victor Mortson, who teaches brass at Riverside's Ramona High School, where some of the smaller sousaphone tubas vanished over this past Christmas holiday. He said he no longer risks leaving his tuba in his car.
South Gate High officials pegged the loss of their five tubas at $30,000. They are trying to raise donations from the community to replace them.
The tubas favored by banda players are the lighter sousaphones, which marching band members carry. But in some instances thieves have also been grabbing the heavier ones used by concert orchestras.
In their cases, those big tubas can weigh as much as 50 pounds, making them arguably the most difficult instruments to steal after the piano and the bass drum.
But even before banda music's rise in popularity, tuba dealers say, the instrument's high cost has always made it vulnerable to theft.
Four years ago somebody stole 14 sousaphones from North Carolina Central University's marching band, and the group had to borrow instruments to take part in a competition.
"They are instruments that are expensive and that are in demand," said USC's Kun. "In another context it might be an electric guitar or a really tricked-out synthesizer. But because we're talking about Southern California, it's a tuba."