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Treme Brass Band’s album is all about cultural traditions

23rd June 2011   ·   0 Comments

By Geraldine Wyckoff
The Louisiana Weekly

New Orleans brass bands, Mardi Gras Indians and social aid and pleasure clubs share the culture of the street. The mutual heritage is celebrated on Treme Traditions, a new release by the Treme Brass Band joined by David Montana, the Second Chief of the Yellow Pocahontas representing the Mardi Gras Indians. The two entities will again meet on Thursday, June 23, for two shows at Snug Harbor.

“I always did follow the Mardi Gras Indians so I thought it was time for me to put an Indian song out there,” says Benny Jones, the leader and snare drummer of the Treme Brass Band. “Years ago, I used to go to all of the Indian practices. I started off playing tambourine with the White Eagles — with Jake (Big Chief Jake Millon). I used to go to Bo Dollis’ Indian practice, the Creole Wild West. I’d play tambourine with them when they were on the street.”

The album approaches the collaboration of the traditions in three ways. On tunes like the fine chestnut “When My Dreamboat Comes Home,” the Treme plays the tune straight-up brass band style. It opens with Kirk Joseph’s sousaphone mimicking a fog horn before everybody jumps in to swing it. Uncle Lionel Batiste brings his usual charm and sense of sincerity to the lyrics with tasty solos provided by (Dirty Dozen) saxophonist Roger Lewis, trombonist Corey Henry and trumpeter Kenneth Terry. This group of horn players complement each other well during their ensemble work.

The Mardi Gras Indian chant, “Corrine Died on the Battlefield” remains in its classic state. Chief Montana sings lead with Fred Johnson supporting on vocals. Johnson used to mask Indian with the Yellow Pocahontas but is now best recognized as a founding member (along with Jones and trumpeter Gregg Stafford) of the Black Men of Labor Social Aid & Pleasure Club.

On this song and the other Mardi Gras Indian offerings, Jones wields a tambourine and sings background vocals along with other members of the band. We assume that drummers and tambourine aces Herlin Riley and Shannon Powell, both of whom enjoy a strong presence on the CD, are among the group.

“David and I got tight years ago,” says Jones of selecting David Montana for the album. “My father {the noted drummer Chester Jones} used to have a bar in the 7th Ward and he knew Tootie {David’s uncle, Big Chief Allison “Tootie” Montana}. So I’ve been knowing the family for years.”

Jones’ father was a great influence in sparking his son’s interest in brass bands. Jones remembers following his father at parades when the elder was a member of the Onward and Eureka brass bands. Growing up in the Treme neighborhood, Jones, 66, was surrounded by all of the street cultures that thrived there.

Brass bands and Black Indians have traveled on similar back-of-town paths for decades but it hasn’t been until more recent times that they have joined forces. Those involved with these street traditions, however, have a tendency to mix and mingle. Both entities take part in the Tambourine & Fan’s Super Sunday parade and the Mardi Gras Indian Council’s uptown Indian Sunday procession though as separate units that stay within their own musical traditions. When a brass band takes a break during a designated stop at a social aid and pleasure club parade, it’s common to hear a circle of Indians chanting on a nearby street corner. Notable too is that there are a handful of brass band musicians who have also masked Indian including Treme Brass Band trumpeter Kenneth Terry, drummer Gerald French, trombonist Stafford Agee and drummer A.J. Mallory.

“Now, everybody’s supporting one another,” says Jones noting that many members of the brass bands, Black Indians and social aid and pleasure clubs turn up at each others’ events. These days, Jones is often asked to hire several Mardi Gras Indians for the Treme Brass Band’s gigs at events like conventions and parties. They’ll generally come in for a couple of numbers. “I always try to pick a songs like “Lil Liza Jane” that Indians can dance off – songs where we can communicate,” Jones explains. “We put it all together.”

That’s just what the Treme Brass Band does on cuts from the album like the Mardi Gras Indian staple “Shallow Water.” On this rendition, horns join the background vocalists chanting the “response” to Montana’s traditional “call.” Joseph’s sousaphone is particularly effective on the prayer song “Indian Red.”

Two other solid tunes that fit comfortably within the album’s theme are the Meters/Neville Brothers’ signature “Hey Pocky Way” with Powell on vocals and Riley on drums and the ear-opener, Earl King’s “Big Chief” with Riley on, yes, piano.

“He was playing the piano in the studio and he was sounding good so I asked him if he wanted to play it on the album,” explains Jones who had never heard him on piano before. “So Shannon got on the drums. That’s Shannon singing and whistling too.”

At the CD release party at Snug Harbor this Thursday night, the Treme Brass Band will be six members strong plus Chief David Montana. Jones expects they’ll be some other musicians making guest appearances too. “There’s no telling who is going to show up,” says Jones, who plans on more such parties in coming months at nightspots around town. “It might end up to be a big band at the second show.”

This article originally published in the June 20, 2011 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

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