In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, music instruction was among the many New Orleans institutions that were affected dramatically by the city's struggle to recover and rebuild. An extreme revamp of the public school system disrupted the established structure of music classes and marching-band programs. The forced exodus of thousands of citizens, to different parts of the city or outside it completely, upended the organic traditions of community-based musical culture and mentorship — longstanding informal practices rooted deeply in neighborhoods.
With the school system operating in pure survival mode, the arts were, perhaps understandably, lower on the priority list. But in a city whose identity, and economy, depend heavily on its distinct culture, many worried for the future. What about marching bands for Carnival parades? Would there even be a new generation of brass bands to propel second lines through the street?
Over the next few years, local musicians and nonprofit groups both new and established stepped in to help fill the gap with after-school music programs. Co-founded by the Rebirth Brass Band's Derrick Tabb, the Roots of Music has been one of the most visible and most effective. Its Marching Crusaders band has played for President Barack Obama, at the inauguration of Louisiana governor John Bel Edwards, at the 2013 Rose Bowl Parade and at a tribute to Prince during the 2017 Essence Festival, not to mention at dozens of local festivals and Mardi Gras parades.
Will Oldham, as his alter ego Bonnie "Prince" Billy, donated all of the profits from Chivalrous Amoekons Fanatic Voyage, an all-star tribute to The Mekons released in fall 2016, to the Roots of Music Foundation. This spring, he visited New Orleans to record the Marching Crusaders' latest star turn: a charmingly absurd video romp set to his version of "The Curse," depicting (in part) a traditional jazz funeral. They're the band; he's the corpse.
Directed by Ben Berman and featuring guitarist Emmett Kelly, the video is a joyous, weird trip through New Orleans cemeteries and streets, with cameos from stalwarts of local street culture like the urban ATV-driving and horseback-riding clubs often seen in the colorful mayhem of second lines. The kids' horns, plus those of the brass group Coolbone, buoy up the brisk, ebullient rocker as dead Will Oldham reanimates, drinks a beer, pays apparent tribute to the Ministry of Silly Walks and, semi-nude, encounters an airboat swamp tour. It's surreal, energetic and vibrant. Just like the city.
Chivalrous Amoekons' Fanatic Voyage is out now via Sea Note.