Hot 8 Brass Band Play For A Living New Orleans

The Hot 8 Brass Band played in New Orleans before Hurricane Katrina, and they're determined to keep going after it.

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RACHEL MARTIN, host:

So have you ever been to New Orleans?

LUKE BURBANK, host:

I have many times.

MARTIN: I have been once as well. And if you've ever been there, you know that music is everywhere in that place. You can't walk four feet without running into a band coming out of a building; someone just jamming on the street.

BURBANK: Even if there's a funeral, even if somebody dies, it's like…

MARTIN: Yeah.

BURBANK: …an awesome music party.

MARTIN: Well, and these are - especially these funeral processions, there's this movement - these second line parades that have developed out of funeral processions. And a lot of bands have become really identified with those second lines, and I got a chance to talk with one of these bands.

They're called the Hot 8 Brass Band, and they were featured in Spike Lee's HBO documentary, "When the Levees Broke." This band has now partnered up with a music critic named Larry Blumenfeld and a guy named Omo Moses who started something called Finding Our Folk project. And the purpose of that group is to talk to students around the country about the need to preserve the culture and the music in New Orleans that's been kind of ripped apart…

BURBANK: Yeah, everybody…

MARTIN: …after the storm.

BURBANK: …everybody left because, you know, there was nothing there.

MARTIN: Yeah. Thousands of people have been displaced.

This band has now gotten back together and they're on this speaking tour around the country - serving as kind of ambassadors of music and culture of New Orleans. I met up with Larry and Omo and Bennie Pete who's the tuba player - huge guy - from the Hot 8 during their recent visit to New York. And Bennie recounted for me how, after a few weeks after the storm had passed, a handful of their band members borrowed some instruments from a school in Baton Rouge, Louisiana and they went in search of an audience. They found them in a shelter for evacuees.

Mr. BENNIE PETE (Tuba Player, Hot 8 Brass Band): We knew they were there because that's where they were housing the evacuees, and we just showed up and, you know, we were going there with - on our mind to kind of just show what we had, to share with each other that we were united. And when we saw how the reaction was of other people who turned out, you know, so we was, like, we wanted to spread some more of that love. And when they saw it was us, a lot of them people we knew. It was family members - some family members, a lot of friends, a lot of fans of the band, so once we've seen their faces, you know, it was all - it was like everybody had forgotten about the storm and everything they went through just for that moment.

MARTIN: Can you explain to people who's never experienced that what a second line is like?

Mr. PETE: The easiest and quickest way, I could say - just like a moving party, a moving concert, you know? Got to be, you know, the simplest way to put it but it's - it go deeper than that, you know, because there's really a lot of people who are just expressing their self in any way. And there's no rules and, you know, no wrongs, no rights; you can do whatever you feel. You know, literally, I see people jump off in the mud, you know, and just have fun. They don't care if it started raining; they're not running out for shelter. They want to feel the rain, you know? It's just expressing whatever they're going through in their life. They get to feel like, you know, at that time, they don't have any worries; they can just let go. I mean, but when we see that, we react to it and we might come up with a new song right there and then just because we feel it. And we feel them wanting, you know, more from us.

(Soundbite of music)

MARTIN: Can I ask you, Larry, how you got wrapped up in the story?

Mr. LARRY BLUMENFELD (Journalist; Jazz Critic): I've been working as a journalist and a jazz critic for 20 years. But after Katrina, I felt a very specific concern and outrage about culture. And I thought that there was a good chance that there was, you know, in the most significant cultural city in this country, there was a danger of some really vital stuff being lost, and I didn't hear people talking about that.

The music critic in me understood that the Hot 8 was one of the most interesting of the brass bands to blend hip-hop and really, you know, contemporary to the minute music and style with that tradition. What's been really interesting is the ways in which all the things that have happened have led them also back more deeply into the tradition that they come from.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. BLUMENFELD: This is what New Orleans is about, and it really is, to me, you know, there's a thriving jazz world in New York and elsewhere, but New Orleans, where the Hot 8 as part of, where the black men of the neighborhood part of, where the Mardi Granians(ph) are part of, this is a living culture.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. BLUMENFELD: Things in New Orleans tend to exist in more than one level. It's pretty much how deep do you want to go and understanding it. And Bennie is right, on one level, it's this rolling concert, rolling party. And if CNN were to show 10 seconds of it, that's what it'll appear like. But if they showed 10 minutes of it, you'd see all these different homage that are steeped in history that runs from slavery to reconstruction to post-Katrina in New Orleans. And all of that is dealt with in the space of what these guys and dancers and social environmental clubs do.

MARTIN: Can I ask you guys what you hope. When you go to play at a school or in events, whether it's down in Mississippi, in New Orleans or even up here, what do you hope people take away from your music?

Mr. PETE: Well, I don't know. It's just been, like, magic. We never really had that problem because once we play them, I mean, people, they come up to us and let us know what they're feeling, you know? They - we could see their reaction right then and there because when we come out, we kind of read the crowd. You know, if there's all the people, we figure we might play more traditional because we figure that's what the music of the elder, in their time when they was younger, you know? And if it was younger people, we probably, you know, play more either hip-hop or R&B. It depends on what age bracket we see, and if it was a mixture, we mix the music, and that usually worked; that's how we usually reach them because they can relate.

If not, we really just would like to share their experience of New Orleans with them, and they could take it for what they want, wou know what I'm saying? But we put it out there and let them feel it. And that's why - that's another reason why we like to touch every era of the music, you know what I'm saying? So they can see that we're versatile and also that they could see and feel it and feel the experience because every song and every chant or every song that we, you know, that have some lyrics to it, they have meaning to it, and that's what we've been striving to do. You know, if we stay hard and they sold, if anything - if nothing else.

MARTIN: Omo, if you don't mind explaining to me, what's happening today and what is the Finding Our Folk program?

Mr. OMO MOSES (Executive Director, Finding Our Folk Tour): the Finding Our Folk Tour is a student-organized response to hurricanes Katrina and Rita and how that impacted folks in the Gulf Coast. And at the center of that was culture and - looking at how we use culture to bring folks back together again. Part of what we've tried to do with the band is that, you know, you have a platform from the stage to speak to people what's unique about New Orleans and the brass bands because you have the streets, so the music isn't disconnected from the street. And so, generally, with jazz and other forms of music, it's an artifact. So you buy CD, you know, you look at it on television, but it's not up close and personal and right around the corner from your house. And so the musicians are people you can touch and feel and be in a relationship with.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. MOSES: Part of what we try to do is we want people in Boston, we want people in Oakland, people in Texas, people in Chicago to see a connection between what the band is doing as they're rebuilding as a band, as the city is rebuilding as a city, and the issues that they're struggling with on a personal level and at a community level. And so the issues around quality education are present in New Orleans in a dramatic way, but those are also present in any major urban city in the country - issues around health, issues around, kind of, your relationship to your environment, how it impacts you, how you impact it -all of that is present in New Orleans. So how can we bring that to people and get them to see how the band is dealing with this, how folks in New Orleans are dealing with this, and how we need to be in a relationship with each other even if you're not in this particular area around struggling with some of these issues that we all face.

MARTIN: There are these tools or lessons that can be applied to the rebuilding of the Gulf Coast after the storms. What are those - what are those tools? What are those facets of that culture or the music that can be used to rebuild?

Mr. PETE: You know, that music out there, I mean, it really, like, dictate people behavior, you know? And, you know, because when we play our slow dirge, you can feel them. You know, everybody kind of calm down and, you know, we take them to there. You know, to that - they capture that moment of the dirge, you know, and everything that it means. And when we're playing "Closer Walk" or anything like that, I mean, and we go from that to an upbeat, uplifting song and they could feel it, you know, and they react to it. So, I mean, when you see that power like that and the music and you have people doing that, you know that that's a tool.

(Soundbite of music)

(Soundbite of cheers)

(Soundbite of music)

BURBANK: (Singing) In the morning…

MARTIN: (Singing) I'm fly…

You caught us singing.

BURBANK: I totally recognize these songs from my days at Gospel Outreach Christian Fellowship, Bothell, Washington.

MARTIN: They're great songs. They're great songs. And this…

BURBANK: We didn't have the Hot 8 Brass Band, by the way.

MARTIN: Yeah.

BURBANK: Earling Stevenson(ph) on an out-of-tune piano, but anyway…

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: So this music did not even come from a CD. I got to go see these guys; it was really, really fun. We took Jacob Ganz, our intrepid director-producer, and I went and saw the Hot 8 perform at a Harlem high school - the Urban Assembly High School for Performing Arts in Harlem - this is part of their tour. So they're traveling around to middle schools and high schools, talking to kids about music and the history of New Orleans' music. But also, they're talking about their stories - what happened to them when they were displaced.

And this is the stuff the kids really wanted to know about. You know, we were in this assembly hall and the kids weree getting up and jamming and dancing and totally enjoying the music. But then, when it was time for the Q and A, they really wanted to hear these guys talk about how the storm affected their lives and their family. There were, like, did you lose all your instruments? Like, yeah, it was tough, you know?

BURBANK: Yeah.

MARTIN: We couldn't find anything to play on. So it was really fun to see them interacting with the kids because, so clearly, they're more comfortable being musicians…

BURBANK: Right.

MARTIN: …and all of a sudden, they're thrust into this spotlight where they're talking - they're ambassadors, they're educators, and they're still trying to find their footing in that way. But it was fun to watch them tell their stories and talk about this music that's clearly so important to them.

The trumpet player, Raymond Williams, was one of the founding members of this band, and we've got a clip of him talking to the kids.

(Soundbite of archived recording)

Mr. RAYMOND WILLIAMS (Trumpet, Hot 8 Brass Band): I'd like to just go back on the history of the music because coming up as a young musician, I didn't know much about the music - the history of the New Orleans' music or just music in general - how the music developed here in America. All I wanted to do was play the trumpet, just get better at it, and just practice and practice, but I never realized how important it is to know the history - just like knowing the history of yourself. It's very important for you to know who you are and where you came from.

MARTIN: So it was really neat to see those guys interact.

BURBANK: It must have been so cool for those kids. You've grown up in Harlem, you - I'm sure, you know, have been seeing lots of stuff on TV about Katrina and this and that but you actually get these guys that were there…

MARTIN: Yeah.

BURBANK: …you know, or at least know New Orleans.

MARTIN: Yeah.

BURBANK: But it must have been, like, a totally cool opportunity for those kids.

MARTIN: And these guys knew their audience and they were playing songs that kind of combined hip-hop and the kids were totally into it, you know? This is a performing arts high school, so these guys are into music. They're into performing, and it was really neat to be able to witness their interaction.

BURBANK: Well, Rachel, excellent piece; Jacob Ganz, excellent cut. You know, it's just an amazing staff we hear - have here at the old BRYANT PARK PROJECT, which is now wrapped up for this hour on Friday, December 7th.

Our staff includes MJ Davis, Dan Pashman, Angela Ellis and Win Rosenfeld.

MARTIN: We are ably assisted by Manoli Wetherell, Josh Rogosin and Monu Zuba(ph).

BURBANK: As we've now mentioned three times in the last 45 seconds, Jacob Ganz directs our show.

MARTIN: We love him. Trisha McKinney is our editor. Laura Conaway edits our Web site and our blog.

BURBANK: Our senior producer, who we love, is also is Matt Martinez. Sharon Hoffman is our executive producer.

I'm Luke Burbank.

MARTIN: And I'm Rachel Martin. Alison Stewart is back with us on Monday. We are on digital FM satellite and online at npr.org.

This is THE BRYANT PARK PROJECT from NPR News.

BURBANK: With audio assistance from Neal Rauch.

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