"The true gentleman is friendly, but not familiar." - CONFUCIUS

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

NEW ORLEANS BRASS BANDS and MY HURRICANE KATRINA EXPERIENCE (Rime)

(written several months before Hurricane Katrina)
THE AIR IS THICK IN NEW ORLEANS. AND NOT IN A FIGURE-OF-SPEECH KIND OF WAY, EITHER. The moment you exit the sanctuary of air conditioning for the outside world, the very instant your body traverses any load-bearing structure whose walls separate ‘inside’ from ‘outside’, the consistency of that big empty nothing forever surrounding us reverts to something not quite water, yet not quite not, and the 20% of your body that isn’t water suddenly becomes besieged at every pore, orifice and corner by a dripping, swampy heat that smacks into you in repeated gusts, like rubber flaps in a carwash. New Orleans is as close to the mythical town of Atlantis as a city can get without being, well, a myth – and the humidity is only the most telltale sign. The theory that a strong enough earthquake could cause Southern California to crack off the continent is known bullshit today, but there’s nothing imaginary about the elaborate system of pumps, canals and levees that work constantly to keep Lake Pontchartrain and America’s longest river from turning Louisiana’s largest city into Discovery Channel material for our-great-grandchildren. The city at the clitoris of the Mississippi River is eight feet below sea level, and sinking onward at a rate of three feet per century, leading some scientists to predict that by 2100 the whole city could be underwater, if the enormous flood that the same scientists have been predicting for years hasn’t already taken care of that by then.

In many ways, New Orleans is half underwater already. Moisture and mold stains the walls of most buildings. Torrential rainstorms come and go before the money in your parking meter has a chance to run out. Partially drained swampland doesn’t make for very good burial grounds, so coffins are stored in tombs above soil, a practice which also lessens the chances of Aunt Connie’s remains floating down Canal St. every time a flood decides to roll through town. And the air is goddamn thick; thick with sweat and cooker steam and the rank smell of warm trash mingling with the sweet aroma of Cajun food, and the ghosts of slaves and pirates and the feeling that all this history could disappear tomorrow, all wafting through town on a bed of humidity that turns your clothing into hot, wet towels that stick to you like flypaper. Many cities are famous for their unique atmosphere, but in New Orleans it’s on your skin, it’s up your nose, but maybe most of all, in your ears - which is to say, your soul.

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The Deep South of the United States is to popular music what the Middle East is to religion. Just as the barren terrain that now comprises Israel, Iraq and Saudi Arabia is acknowledged as the spawning grounds of Christianity, Islam and Judaism - the world’s three most dominant faiths - the bordering southern American states of Louisiana, Mississippi and Tennessee make up the area where the twin cultural behemoths known as blues and jazz first came to be. Jazz became the first original American artform, redefined contemporary music, and gave us a universe of immensely talented figures that gave us some of mankind’s most enduring tunes - and the originators at the center of all this were residents of the worn-down wards, penniless parishes and dollhouse slums of New Orleans, a place where music and turmoil have been the only two constants since French colonists first set up camp roughly 400 years ago.

A century before Jewish mobster Bugsy Siegel turned a tumbleweed town along an extra long stretch of nowhere named Nevada into man’s temptation and a scoundrel’s salvation, New Orleans was the original Las Vegas. The airplane still but a mere dream at the time, the seas were the skies of the 18th century, and the French knew that a city built at the point where the Mississippi River runs into the Gulf of Mexico would allow them to regulate and profit from the shipment of goods and people up and down the Mississippi, maintain military control over North America’s underbelly, and attract boatloads of visitors in the process. Building and operating a city on marshy, flood-prone, mosquito-ridden swampland proved to be just as impossible as it sounds, and as hard as the French tried – much as the Spanish did for the 40 years after they took over southern Louisiana in 1763 - it wasn’t until the Americans gained control of the area in the early 1800s that the stars above New Orleans finally aligned. Epidemics of yellow fever and cholera continued to periodically send bodies floating through the city’s almost permanently waterlogged streets, but now bodies were also starting to pile up in the avenues and social establishments of the famed French Quarter, and these ones were alive and kicking – and drinking, dancing, gambling, fucking, fighting, and everything else they couldn’t do back home in half as much style. Every day, sailors, merchants, tourists and fugitives stepped off boats onto the damp Louisiana soil in search of a good time, and every night they found exactly that within the many ‘pleasure’-based establishments of the Quarter, and Storyville - an adjoining neighborhood established in 1898 as the only legally operated red-light district in the U.S. before being bulldozed into oblivion in the ‘40s. It was here, in the bars and whorehouses of the Big Easy, that the rest of the world was first exposed to the local musicians’ freeflowing take on the traditional brass band, fused with the sounds and customs of Africa and Europe and the spirit of a people at a juncture of many worlds - a phenomenon we now know as jazz. And it is downtown New Orleans brass bands like the Rebirth Brass Band and Soul Rebels that are taking this sound – and its lineage – into the future.

“There is a structure, but there’s not a structure,” explains Phil Frazier, tuba player and spokesman for the Rebirth Brass Band, of his band’s approach to songs. “Everybody know where the melody at, everybody know the head and the beginning. In between, we let it flow. As long as we hit that ending and that beginning.” This musical framework, a trademark of jazz, was first stumbled upon around the turn of the 20th century by horn players and drummers who would play behind funeral processions as they journeyed through the streets of New Orleans on the way to the cemetery in a ceremony now known as the jazz funeral: a custom with roots in Catholic wakes, military street parades and West African tribal practices, which all share a common thread of celebrating as well as mourning the death of a loved one. The band plays somber instrumental renditions of Protestant hymns on the way to the funeral, but once the body has been buried and the procession exits the graveyard for the return walk, the drummer strikes an up-tempo beat known as the ‘second line beat’ over which the musicians play improvised lines with a joyous, raucous feel as mourners and passing strangers alike dance behind. “The artform of second line is having a good time, dancing on beat, no matter what you do, as long as it’s on beat,” says Phil.

The popularity of the jazz funerals sparked the creation of musical fraternities called ‘social clubs’, whose members would turn each other onto gigging opportunities around town and loan each other money when in need, but most importantly, would come together to play the second line at a fallen member’s funeral procession. This trend turned jazz funerals into public grounds for local social clubs to flex their chops in front of each other, and, coupled with the practice of ‘cutting contests’ – jam sessions where musicians unable to keep time with the veterans were sent offstage – made the New Orleans brass scene a very competitive place, as it remains to this day. In high school, band class is taken as seriously as football and basketball is taken in most other high schools, and regular street parades featuring different area high school bands also act as displays of musical proficiency towards one another. “It’s like a fun battle,” Phil continues. “If you went to an uptown or a downtown high school, you always wanted to have the best band.”

This spirit of competition is alive and well between the brass bands of today, if the words of fellow outfit the Soul Rebels are any indication. “The difference between [other brass bands] and us is the difference between Fred Flintstone and the Jetsons,” one member replies with a snicker when asked his opinion on the rival groups that they share the New Orleans brass scene with. At once peers and rivals, the Soul Rebels and Rebirth maintain an intriguing relationship as two sides of the same brass nickel: Soul Rebels slightly more progressive than Rebirth, but both injecting a large dose of funk, rhythm and vocal participation into the time-honored jazz equation. Where Rebirth is more of a traditional brass band, sticking largely to a mainstay of rhythmic jazz with funk and soul inflections, the Soul Rebels bring more of an edgy, hip-hop feel to the brass experience. In effect since 1991, the Soul Rebels’ discography is four albums deep, the most recent release being this year’s Rebelution, which features appearances from Scratch (formerly of the Roots), Wordsworth, percussionist Bill Summers, and reknowned New Orleans DJs Maximillion and Calculus. “From the start, we wanted to be hip-hop,” says founding member Lumar Leblanc (snare drum). “We grew up in the hip-hop era, so we were examples of their music. Even though we had a lot of jazz in us, we still love hip-hop too. When we started out we were like Public Enemy-style. Raw beats, raw horns, and a whole lot of conscious-type rap. But now it’s all about the music. The main thing was, we didn’t wanna be categorized into just one area. We wanted to have enough music to please everybody, so we had R&B stuff, we had the rap stuff, we had straight-ahead second-line… we tried to please every crowd.”

In contrast, Rebirth’s history stretches a little further back. Founded by Phil and brother Keith (bass drum) back in their high school days in 1983, Rebirth has recorded with the likes of Maceo Parker, Ani DiFranco, Robbie Robertson and the late Soulja Slim (Phil is Slim’s stepson and Rebirth performed the second line at his funeral), and have five albums under their belt. Though generally regarded as more traditional than the Soul Rebels, Rebirth was pioneering the fusion of rap music into brass music years before the Soul Rebels came to be. “We was raw,” Phil recounts of Rebirth’s early days. “We was real raw, but you could tell a sound was developing. We was straight out of high school, we was still a marching band. We got around the older guys. The older guys said ‘y’all need to learn this song, y’all need to learn the traditional music.’ So we learned traditional music. At the same time the brass bands were dying down, and that’s when rap was coming out. “Rapper’s Delight”, that’s our era. So we ‘sampled’ the music from them and the younger guys started liking it and we kept doing it every day, and a lot of people started taking interest again, like ‘brass bands are getting cool again. Ain’t that same old traditional stuff no more.’”

Indeed, one of the biggest pitfalls plaguing the brass bands of today is the ordeal of cluing the world (more specifically, the show promoters of the world) on to the fact that while jazz may act as the foundation of their sound, this is definitely not music for your average grandfather’s dinner party. “The way [show promoters] advertise us is as a jazz band,” Phil laments. “But people who know us from New Orleans know we’re beyond a jazz band. They know we’re more like a funk band, a hip-hop band, like Tower Of Power. So once some new people get turned on to us they say, ‘Man! Why are they advertising you as jazz?’ We can do jazz, we can do hip-hop, we can do funk. Any category you put us in, we’ll play that kind of music. We also do cover tunes by other artists. We do a song that we call ‘Don’t You Wish’ but it’s actually Stevie Wonder’s ‘Part-Time Lover.’ We can change it around. It’s more like a Tower Of Power, Earth, Wind & Fire-type thing, but at the same time we’re still a New Orleans brass band.”

Carrying such a heritage into the future is an honor neither band takes lightly, and no matter how far they may veer into other genres, both groups stay true to the improvisational, free-jazz spirit of brass music in studio as well as onstage. “We have not really rehearsed in over two years,” Lumar says of the Rebels. “We may have a one or two-hour rehearsal before a recording session to go over some things, but on the whole we just do gigs and we bring whatever we learn on the gigs to the recordings. Most [song ideas] happen onstage, and half of it is from a mistake from one song, and we might just take that shit and turn it into something new, and the whole band just vibes off of it. We feed off of each other. Everyone has their different methods of coming up with songs, but the majority of the stuff comes from just getting on the gig and releasing.”

Release is one thing this community has come to need plenty of, in recent times as much as any other era in its already tumultuous history. With New Orleans consistently claiming one of the highest murder rates per capita of any city in the country, its brass bands find themselves being employed for their second line services way more than they would prefer. Phil attempts to shed light on the situation. “In the ‘80s crack hit New Orleans so hard that brass bands started playing for more crack funerals. We have the French Quarter, the red light district. New Orleans is built on corruption as it is. So crack – I hate to say it – was built for this city. You got everything that’s illegal [available to you], 24-hour drinking, everything stays open 24 hours. Crack hit this city real hard. When it hit the city, we had a lot of crack killings, crack funerals, friends dying on crack, friends killing friends for that stuff, fast money.”

********

And the beat goes on. Tourists from around the world continue to flock to New Orleans year in and out to experience the sights, smells, feel and sounds of America’s first Third World city: the bastard child of aristocrats and criminals, conquerors and slaves, soldiers and whores. As the murder rate rises like the surrounding waters threatening to turn the Big Easy into the Big Punchbowl, its residents do what they have learned to do best over the years: celebrate in the face of doom. Born in the graveyard, formally introduced in the brothel, jazz is the sound of war: the descendants of slaves, blowing the pain of hundreds of years through brass instruments in the formation of a military band. But on a stinking wet Southern night in one of the countless local bars and clubs that Rebirth or the Soul Rebels or the Dirty Dozen Brass Band or The Stooges regularly perform at, a buzzing crowd of mohawked punk rockers, ghetto folk, hip-hop heads, out-of-towners, college kids, ravers and regular old New Orleans residents of all ages and races can pop the top off an Abita, spark up a cigarette in the front row, and add a few more buckets of sweat to the air while rocking to some of the most electrifying, life-affirming live shows you’re likely to catch in your lifetime. And therein lies the spirit of jazz.


Check http://www.therebelzone.com/ for more info on the Soul Rebels, and http://www.rebirthbrassband.com/ for Rebirth. Special thanks to Bam & Real of 13AM Productions for having my back like brothers, and to Jacque-Imo’s for one hell of a meal.



**POSTSCRIPT** My post-Katrina editorial.

In October 2004 I traveled to New Orleans, where I stayed for a couple of weeks, crawling the lopsided streets and gutbucket bars of Algiers, Uptown, Downtown and the Quarter with my N.O. squad (big ups 13AM Posse), just as I’ve done every summer since 2001, the year I first touched down in the Sunken City. On that visit I interviewed two of the city’s premier brass bands, the Rebirth Brass Band and the Soul Rebels, and had local photographer Tyler Austin shoot both groups live on stage. The story languished on the ass end of my to-do list through the first half of ’05. I had discovered a completely unique music scene, drenched in history and culture, living and breathing within a city unlike any other on the face of the earth – and in the United States, a place where all the things that are supposed to make a country special, from the cities to the music to everything else, are starting to look and sound eerily the same. I considered this the most important story I had ever worked on, and I was not about to rush it for anyone or anything.

“Rebirth Of The Soul Rebels: The Next Generation Of New Orleans Brass Bands” ran in issue 15 of RIME, which made print mid-August. By the time it was finished, it was as much an essay on the history of the city as a report on the brass scene, and the first portion of the piece discusses N.O.’s precarious position between – and below – two major bodies of water, and the good possibility of a flood one day filling that gap. On August 24 I jumped on a train bound for New Orleans with a box of issues: one for Tyler, one for every member of the two bands that gave me their time, one for every friend of mine who fed me and chauffeured me around town and put a roof over my head. The story was my gift to the city and its people, and anything other than personally delivering it wouldn’t have felt right to me. I jumped off the train 10pm on August 26 at the Amtrak station on Loyola Avenue, and caught a ride to the home of some good friends Uptown. 24 hours later, we were lugging furniture up the stairs of their home as wide-eyed weathermen adjusted sweaty collars on the living room TV before a satellite image of a cloud formation the size of Europe moving in stop-motion jerks around the Caribbean, now almost completely blotted out by swirls of white and grey. By sunrise, we had three carloads of family, pets, food, and everything else we could fit and couldn’t live without inching down the Airline Highway, surrounded bumper-to-bumper by miles of other cars. That night, we checked into a church recreation hall turned hurricane shelter in nearby Lafayette, Louisiana, where we stayed with two hundred disheveled, freshly homeless New Orleans-area residents as Katrina made her rounds. The prevailing attitude at the shelter was that people would be allowed back into New Orleans a few days after the storm left, at most. When word got out that children were being raped in the Superdome restrooms and there was a sniper on the roof of Tulane Hospital, we packed up and drove to Houston, where we put the older folks in our convoy on a plane to Los Angeles. From there, the rest of us drove back to L.A. in two days flat. Louisiana license plates trailed us all the way home.

A week before I jumped on that train, a friend of mine offered to buy back my train ticket and fly me into New Orleans on the 27th so that I could attend an event she was throwing in L.A. the night before. Looking forward to two days of peace and scenery on the Amtrak, I turned her down. The flight I would have been on had I accepted was cancelled because of Katrina. In retrospect, it’s only right that I was there to witness what turned out to be both the next chapter of the story I was on my way to deliver, and the last weekend of Old Orleans. I always used to ask myself: How can such an antiquated, decadent, defiant city still exist in 21st century America? This is a question that we are now going to need a real answer for.


link to an mp3 of a live New Orleans-area AM radio broadcast covering Katrina as it happened, recorded on my mini-tape recorder over a car radio as we were evacuating (click to stream, or right-click to save)



the traffic jam on the Airline Highway out of New Orleans, one day before Katrina hit



the recreation center of The Rock church, in Lafayette, LA, which was converted into a hurricane shelter, which we stayed in for three days




the chow line outside the shelter, day three

a diner in Arizona that we stopped at as we were driving to Los Angeles from the shelter.

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