It's hard to overstate all that the Hustlers Brass Band represents — culture, musicianship, courage, loyalty, etc. — but it's easy to summarize: New Orleans.
This makeshift seven-piece group, plucked from their homes and placed in Houston by the indelicate hands of Hurricane Katrina, represents New Orleans, inexorable and stern. That much is clear as they bing and bang and blare and crash away inside of the venerable Uptown Hookah (5706 Richmond) on an otherwise typical Sunday evening.
This, only the second Sunday of their new residency at Hookah, sees them performing to a crowd that can only technically be called a crowd. People wander in and out intermittently over the course of the evening, but save the occasional group of females, the dance floor is free of the chaos that the Hustlers' live show deserves.
Still, their fervor never wanes. And for that, Brandon James is thankful.
"New Orleans has its own culture, its own flavor, its own meaning," says James, also a Houstonian by way of New Orleans. He and his brother, Harvey James, run Cloud 9 Entertainment, which is responsible for the evening's show.
"The band, they just know that style of music," Brandon adds. "Second-line music can be very down and mellow, like when it's associated with the beginning of jazz funerals, but it's very lively. In the club setting, that's what they do."
Brandon is friendly, charming even, but the confidence in his voice lets you know that the Hustlers' liveliness is not up for debate. The music jumps. Expect that.
The Hustlers' undeniable energy and Uptown Hookah's generally relaxed nature make an interesting dichotomy. When we mention the contrast to band member Damion Francois, he offers a simple laugh followed only by "...yeah."
Uptown Hookah's worn hardwood floors, wayward structure and curious leather seating all have new life and purpose on Sundays. It's another reason to visit the bar besides its stellar Caribbean Night (the first Friday of every month) and the chance to hang out on Richmond on a weekend night without getting robbed.
"It's the only place we think is safe," semi-jokes Glenda Hitchins, who owns a home health consulting business. "It's relaxing. If we want to dance, we'll dance. If we want to relax, we'll relax.
"They cater to all nationalities here. That's important to us," she says. "We don't get out much, but when we do it's to come here."
Of course, the other reason folks have been frequenting Hookah for the past four years is — surprise — the smoking.
Though the technical name is "waterpipe," a hookah is basically a bong, except you don't smoke marijuana out of it. (Not inside this club, anyway.) Instead, you smoke various flavors of tobacco, including piña colada and cherry cola, if you so desire.
"It doesn't compare," says full-time student Nina Jackson, when asked how hookahs compare to smoking regular tobacco. "It feels much more natural. The aroma, everything about it, gives you a high, but not so much that you can't drive afterwards."
Hookah's hookahs and the Hustlers make an unlikely but perfect match. The appeal of the pipes, believed to have originated near the Indian-Pakistani border, dates back centuries, so that set is hooked in. And according to Brandon James, Southwest Houston's large New Orleanian population is looking for any piece of home they can find.
There's not [a] New Orleans night anywhere right now," he says. "Blue Door (11124 Westheimer) does a little, and a lot of New Orleanians will go to Scott Gertner's [Sports Bar] (3100 Fountainview) for the Saints games. But we're trying to be the first place.
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We want to show that we're willing to contribute to Houston's culture."
Soul Rebels Brass Band
Second-line music actually has a rich, storied history. Essentially, its name refers to the second half of a parade line, where the musicians gather, though that feels about as complete as summarizing Inception by saying there's a guy in it who goes to sleep, then goes to sleep again, and that puffy-lipped gent from Batman Begins is in it. It involves a lot more, and you should take the time to check into it. In the meantime, check out Hustlers offshoot the Soul Rebels Brass Band's Facebook page at facebook.com/soulrebelsbrassband.