New Orleans Brass Bands: A Powerful Statement on Tradition, Artistry, and Memory
By Holly Hobbs
The seventh release in the Smithsonian Folkways African American Legacy Series, New Orleans Brass Bands: Through the Streets of the City, dynamically brings together three musical generations of New Orleans brass band traditions spanning the broad spectrum of traditional and contemporary.
As a larger-than-life presence in the New Orleans soundscape, brass bands occupy a position of power and authority in the city. Often defying racially informed symbolic and/or geographic boundaries through public street performance and incorporating elements of jazz, rhythm & blues, funk, Mardi Gras Indian music, and school marching band styles into their varied sounds, New Orleans brass bands have been a focal point of performative tradition in the city for well over a century. Many brass band performers today are enjoying a heightened level of appreciation and respect in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
A new scholarly work on New Orleans brass bands, Roll With It: Brass Bands in the Streets of New Orleans by Tulane professor Matt Sakakeeny, was published in 2013 to a receptive audience and wide readership. My own work with New Orleans rap and bounce artists for the NOLA Hip-hop Archive has shown similar movement in the post-Katrina years, with bounce (New Orleans’ indigenous rap genre), in particular, enjoying larger audiences, broader booking options, and greater revenue streams. While New Orleans brass band music has been considered in the public imagination to be part of the revered “New Orleans traditional music canon” far longer than bounce, both traditions have seen greater interest in their art in these difficult years after the storm.
This newly recorded, 15-track collection spans a wide range of New Orleans brass band music, as performed by the traditional-style Liberty Brass Band, the traditional-contemporary Treme Brass Band, and the more hip-hop-influenced Hot 8 Brass Band. The Liberty Brass Band begins the compilation with the standard “Paul Barbarin’s Second Line,” followed by Treme Brass Band’s interpretation of the crowd favorite “Sheik of Araby” and Hot 8’s more hip-hop- and funk-informed version of “Steamin’ Blues.” Beloved brass band bass drummer “Uncle” Lionel Batiste died shortly before these recordings were made, and the Treme Brass Band presents their version of an “Amazing Grace” dirge here in his honor. While it is not a usual standard in the New Orleans brass band repertoire, Treme’s version includes an artful clarinet solo that poignantly honors Batiste’s memory.
A common theme in brass band discourse in recent decades has been the tension between the “traditional” and the “modern,” as evidenced in brass band performance styles, aesthetics, repertoire, and appearance. As younger generations of players have become increasingly influenced by hip-hop styles, aesthetics, and repertoire, the range of performative styles has broadened more than before, with bands like the Hot 8 and Soul Rebels leading the charge. This tension too, however, has shown signs of lessening post-Katrina. Sousaphone player Bennie Pete from the Hot 8 elaborates:
“We were so appreciative to be selected to be on the record with some of the old great musicians in this whole great New Orleans culture,” Pete says. “We were honored to represent the younger generation. I have a lot of respect for tradition. It’s the anchor at the beginning of the music. But I also respect what we do because it fulfills the growth of the music and represents the times when those guys were younger—the hard times, the struggle, the good times, everything in between. For us to have the freedom to reflect our times, we have to show growth. We have an obligation to perform tradition, to talk about it, to be able to perform it, but we have to reflect our times and our struggle too. Different times, different struggle, but when it all boils down to it, our struggles are the same as those before us. And we’re voicing that musically.”
While the compilation suffers somewhat from the lack of ambient sound on the recordings—a brass band studio recording is a remarkably different thing from a street performance recording—New Orleans Brass Bands: Through the Streets of the City stands as a powerful statement on tradition, artistry, and memory in a changing city.