Essence Fest 2011 puts spotlight on local brass bands
28th June 2011 · 1 Comment
By Geraldine Wyckoff
The Louisiana Weekly
“Brass bands are takin’ over, baby,” ReBirth’s leader and tuba player Phil Frazier laughingly exclaims. Though in truth, he’s a believer.
The always good-natured musician is referring to the fact that in 2011 four brass bands — the most ever — will perform at the Essence Music Festival (July1 –July 3). For many years, ReBirth was the only brass band blowing in the event’s superlounges, the four, more intimate, dance-friendly venues found on the Dome’s upper lounge level. Then the Soul Rebels became regulars and just last year the Hot 8 got the call. All three remain on the bill joined by the youthful To Be Continued (TBC) Brass Band that is getting its first shot at Essence performing under its own name. Previously, the members enjoyed a taste of the event as guests of the Roots band.
Whether intentional or not, each year the superlounges seem to carry a musical theme. Last year, New Orleans funk was heavily on the menu; in 2009 it was deejays and in 2008 jazz trumpeters like Terence Blanchard, Nicholas Payton and Irvin Mayfield reigned. And while some fine local artists from other genres will be in the house – vocalists Irma Thomas (Friday) and Charmaine Neville (Saturday), jazz/funkman trumpeter Shamarr Allen (Saturday) and gospel group Trin-I-Tee 5:7 (Sunday) are onboard, like Frazier says, brass bands are dominating the home field. Whether or not this indicates a breakthrough for brass bands on a broader scope remains debatable.
“I’m glad it’s happening,” concurs Soul Rebels’ leader and snare drummer Lumar LeBlanc. “I hope they put even more brass bands on in the years to come. It’s still a tight business for brass bands. The idiom has an advantage in that there are festivals that just have to have a brass band to parade or for a mock New Orleans-style performance. But the ceiling is low. We feel that given the right investment dollars and publicity, a brass could break out just like any other band. Hopefully it’s going to grow, but it’s still climbing the ladder.”
To that end, the world-traveled Soul Rebels put a different edge on its style by adding more commercial music. “Say you have a fan from Topeka, Kansas who doesn’t know anything about “Do Whatcha Wanna” or a tuba with a bass drum. He will gravitate to us because we’re playing music that he can relate to like a cover of Jay-Z or Lady Gaga. Everybody doesn’t understand second line rhythms. They look at it like it’s foreign or folkish, thinking ‘ That’s some culture from New Orleans – that’s some Cajun culture.’”
Interestingly, Bennie Pete, the tuba player and leader of the Hot 8 Brass Band, offered similar advice to the TBC Brass Band regarding its debut performance at Essence. “I just tell them when you’re performing in that type of environment to change the lyrics of certain songs to make them more acceptable and to play more tunes that people are familiar with and can relate to. We’ve been working with them really closely, reaching back and helping out.”
“They’ll know what to do,” says Frazier of TBC whose tuba player Bernard Adams has played by his side. “They really know how to do a good show because they really follow – they really pay attention to everything. They remind me of me a long time ago. I love them. They’re my boys.”
“We’re learning a couple of new songs just for the occasion,” Adams says adding that he and TBC are excited about the gig. “We’re probably going to look on the schedule and see who’s playing and learn one of their songs.”
Probably not deliberately, it is notable that each of these brass bands were added to the Essence schedule by seniority. The ReBirth being the elder statesmen of the crowd was formed in 1982. This year the Soul Rebels are celebrating their 20th anniversary with the Hot 8 hitting it since 1995 and the TBC striking up in 2002.
Both the Hot 8 and the TBC first experienced the excitement of the crowds heading toward Essence Festival from the street. The Hot 8 would play under the ramp that leads into the Dome. “People liked it and they always wondered why we weren’t playing inside,” says leader Pete. “I think that’s what sparked it (getting hired). I said the first time I would go to Essence would be when I performed in there. It was the highlight of my career. I had a blast and we really worked at trying to network ourselves.”
Meanwhile, the young men of the big sounding TBC Brass Band drew the attention of those heading to the festival blowing at their spot on the corner of Canal and Bourbon streets. “I guess we’re finally getting a little recognition,” says leader Adams, who, in part, credits the HBO series “Treme” in generating greater interest in brass bands.
“They are now really coming into their own,” says Frazier, who heads the already established ReBirth that has helped pave the way for up-and-coming brass bands. Of his band he laughingly says: “The name is so big, it’s too big for myself.”
“I think they’re (Essence) doing it on a respectful level,” says the Soul Rebels leader LeBlanc of the brass band phenomenon. “You come into our city – take over our city – for basically three or four days and c’mon you should throw the locals a bone. Anybody who’s been a legend in the industry – Beyonce, Patti LaBelle – they’ve all played Essence. To be in that Rolodex is an honor for the Soul Rebels.”
“You gotta love it,” exclaims Frazier of the Essence Festival in its entirety. “It’s so soulful. I love you Mary J., I love you!”
This article originally published in the June 27, 2011 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.