2006 Reprise: Dirty Dozen Brass Band after Katrina Another favorite story from 2006 was our visit with New Orleans' Dirty Dozen Brass Band after Hurricane Katrina.
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2006 Reprise: Dirty Dozen Brass Band after Katrina

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2006 Reprise: Dirty Dozen Brass Band after Katrina

2006 Reprise: Dirty Dozen Brass Band after Katrina

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And people in post-Katrina New Orleans weren't just struggling for housing, food, and medical care. They also fought to keep their culture alive, especially their music. The Dirty Dozen Brass Band is internationally famous for its unmistakable New Orleans jazz sound. After hurricane Katrina, the band found itself looking for ways to express the pain and hope of the people of New Orleans. The result? A remake of Marvin Gaye's classic, "What's Going On?"

The band's leader, Roger Lewis, spoke with NPR's Tony Cox.

TONY COX: So here we are. New music, sort of to put the soul back together, and to try to help people rebuild. Is that right?

Mr. ROGER LEWIS (Dirty Dozen Brass Band): Yup.

COX: Why this music? Why Marvin Gaye's classic?

Mr. LEWIS: Well, you know. Really been talking about doing Marvin Gaye's music for, I guess a few years now. And when Katrina hit, you know, like, it was, I guess the perfect time to do it because it's, like, what's going on? What's going on with the federal government? What's going on with the state government? You know, after the storm hit and not only that - what's going on in the world? All these wars and whatnot, you know, it's, like, what is going on?

COX: What is going on?

Mr. LEWIS: What is really happening?

COX: Now from a musical standpoint, when you look back at the songs that are on here - and these are - this isn't just the title track from "What's Going On," but it's all of - it looks like it's all of the songs from that seminal album. What stands out for you as the song that comes closest to making the point that you wanted to make?

Mr. LEWIS: Oh. "What's Going On?"

COX: What's going on?

(Soundbite of song, "What's Going On?")

DIRTY DOZEN BRASS BAND: (Singing) What's going on? With all these guns destroyed. Here's a memo, remember that a few wars going on. A couple overseas and on my front lawn. What common sense was common, and now it's all gone. What's going on? And that's going on. And what's going on? And that's going on.

COX: Now, when I listen to that, now this features Chuck D. Now this is completely different than the way Marvin Gaye put that song together. So tell me how you guys - you agreed upon this approach.

Mr. LEWIS: Well, you know, it was quite amazing.

COX: And almost a killing.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. LEWIS: It was like total improvisation. Everybody had input. So it was quite amazing how all of it came together. We just did bits and pieces and created - like, me myself personally. I'm baritone (unintelligible). I created all my baritone parts, took some of the riffs that were in the song, and we jelled with that and put that together and -

COX: It's almost like sampling, wasn't it?

Mr. LEWIS: Yeah.

COX: Almost.

Mr. LEWIS: Almost like sampling, but everybody had input. It was like a created effort to do this. Because I was wondering, how in the world we were going to pull it off, myself personally speaking?

COX: I'll tell you. From listening to it, creative is a good word for it. It's interesting how at first - you know you hear it, it's a little bit of a shock to the system.

Mr. LEWIS: Okay.

COX: To be straight with you.

Mr. LEWIS: All right.

COX: But then it's, like, okay. I'm feeling that.

(Soundbite of music)

COX: There's another cut I want to talk about, Roger, on here because after all, you are The Dirty Dozen Brass Band.

Mr. LEWIS: Yes, we are.

COX: And you are associated with a certain sound coming out of New Orleans. And the second line in all of that. And there's a tune on here that has that feel to it. Although it's a Marvin tune. I'm talking about "Wholly Holy."

Mr. LEWIS: "Wholly Holy," holy.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. LEWIS: Yeah. It's like, almost like a dirge.

COX: Almost, right? Right.

Mr. LEWIS: And seemed like what we do at a funeral, you know? Like, there's the body that's coming out the church. As they bring the body out, the church would play a song, a slow dirge kind of a feel. It's that kind of raw, spiritual feeling that you get when you hear that particular piece. And I think that's what we had in mind, you know, because it's a part of the culture of New Orleans music.

COX: So Roger, what happened to your house, man?

Mr. LEWIS: Well, my mother's house, we had about 50 feet of water that covered the entire house, you know? And the house that I lived in, we had about five to six feet of water in it. So, you know, it destroyed everything in the house.

COX: Really? Did you lose instruments?

Mr. LEWIS: Oh, instruments.

COX: Oh man.

Mr. LEWIS: A lot of family history, you know, as far as pictures and important documents and stuff like that. Like I was telling the guy the other day, I can't even show - I have an 8-year-old daughter. I can't even show my daughter a picture of me when I was a baby.

COX: Oh, man.

Mr. LEWIS: You know? And, like, a lot of the pictures that I had when I first started playing music, all that history, you know? Because I kept a record of every stage in my musical career right up until now. All that is lost and gone, you know.

(Soundbite of music)

COX: It's great. I wish you guys all the best success with this. It's been a number of years that your band has been around making great music. Where do you think this will fit in the line of music that you produce?

Mr. LEWIS: I think it's a very, very good CD. I mean of course, you know, we're jazz musicians so -

COX: Right.

Mr. LEWIS: It's going to be a lot of different from maybe what people are used to hearing. You know, because when you're a jazz musician you're steady creating, you know.

COX: Mm-hmm.

Mr. LEWIS: You know it's like painting a picture. I mean, you know, you really have to sit down and really listen to all the little intricate things that's happening within the music. So I think it's going to be a classic CD.

CHIDEYA: That was Roger Lewis, the leader of the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, speaking earlier this year with NPR's Tony Cox.

(Soundbite of music)

CHIDEYA: That's our show for today, and thanks for sharing your time with us. To listen to the show, visit npr.org.

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