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In a well-intentioned but flawed Fox News article that came out in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, columnist Roger Friedman railed against the lack of zydeco and Cajun music performers on the slates of many of the high- profile benefits that aired on TV. Friedman said that those two styles were the "trademark sounds of New Orleans."
While they do play a part, the real soul of New Orleans is to be found in the city's brass bands, many of which hail from the Tremé district just north of the French Quarter. It's a tradition that dates back to the days before music was recorded, and some of it lives on in the fossilized Dixieland jazz you hear played by older cats in places like Preservation Hall in the Quarter and on the steamboat Natchez.
But it also survives as a living, breathing music in places like Joe's Cozy Corner in Tremé, where bands of young folks update the ancient sounds with modern R&B, funk, hip-hop and occasional reggae tinges. It's booty-shaking music to the extreme: Tubas blasting, bass drums booming, snare drums snapping, tambourines shaking, all under waves of trombone, sax and trumpet.
These are the bands that lead the street parades -- be they for funerals, Mardi Gras or just for the hell of it on a Sunday afternoon. This is the music that makes the rough lives of the Big Easy's poorest of the poor bearable. As a folk tradition, it is a precious treasure, not just for New Orleans and America but for the whole world.
And for the next few months, Houston has inherited this culture. Sammy's at 2016 Main is now Tremé, Texas. Last Thursday, the club initiated the first of what will be many Big Easy gigs with an all-star jam session that included Kermit Ruffins and members of the New Birth, Little Rascals and Rebirth Brass Bands.
It was a difficult night at times. Before the music started, the TV over the bar was playing a brand-new video of a Tremé street parade -- this one of the just-for-the-hell-of-it variety. New Orleans was my Jerusalem, and pre-Katrina I could never watch stuff like that on TV because it made me want to drop everything and go there immediately, but since nobody is allowed to go to New Orleans these days, I could watch this. Or I thought I could. As the footage rolled, showing the Rebirth Brass Band marching through the thronged streets of Tremé behind a group of dancers in bright yellow feathered costumes, who would often collapse into writhing piles of entranced humanity on the street, a local came up beside me and said, "Isn't it great that we're getting this?"
While I couldn't agree more with the thought, it just didn't seem right at all. I doubted that the spirit -- which evolved in a specific place over hundreds of years -- could be reconstructed here or even in New Orleans, even when the toxic gumbo is drained out and the city is rebuilt. And meanwhile the government is sending the people who made that culture to places like Idaho and Indiana, and even the ones who are here are scattered all over Houston's straitlaced 600-plus square miles.
I totally lost it. This has never happened to me before, but I had to go to the men's room and weep for five solid minutes. Once I collected myself and returned to the bar, I saw a young evacuee in a Philadelphia 76ers throwback hat. He too was riveted by the footage, and he looked like he was on the brink of tears. I told him not to worry, that it would be back, but he didn't seem to believe me, and I don't know if I believed myself either.
Not at that point anyway -- but that was before the music started. Now I know that you cannot keep these people down, and that music is their secret weapon.
Once the tunes fired up, you couldn't help but smile, dance, shout, chant, believe. After an opening set of New Orleans R&B, blues, funk and jazz from a crack ad hoc band backing up a steady stream of vocalists, the New Birth Brass Band, who had slipped out of Sammy's unbeknownst to the patrons, made a grand parade-style entry led by a natty marshal in a tailored suit, fedora and -- get this -- a funeral sash bearing the name "Katrina." (Some of the guys were also still wearing evacuee armbands.) And once they took the stage -- four drummers led by Tanio Hingle, several horn players and singer Glen David Andrews from the famous Andrews family -- it was on. They definitely created a disturbance in all our minds with "Oo Poo Pa Doo," "Lil' Liza Jane" made us all holler "Whoa!" and their own tunes made my teeth rattle.
Kermit Ruffins -- one of New Orleans' most prominent musical ambassadors, who's now living with 34 members of his family in a local apartment complex -- followed with a set of his trademark modern-day Louis Armstrong-style mélange of jazz, R&B and funk. I've seen Ruffins perform in New Orleans and at South By Southwest in Austin, and the man has always radiated good cheer. Sadly if understandably, Ruffins seemed more troubled than you could ever imagine him being. (His longtime keyboard player Emile Vinet was then still among the missing, though he was found in San Antonio the next day. James "Big 12" Andrews, the father of Glen David Andrews and New Birth member Trombone Shorty, was missing too and has not been found at the time of this writing.) And yet he pulled through the set admirably, before giving way to Sammy's co-owner Sammy Relford's set, which included guest shots from many of the Crescent City musicians in the house.
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