Born on the Bayou
HAVING SIRED MUCH of what is considered American music, New Orleans now gets treated like an aging don--revered but not taken too seriously. Some tourists might spend an evening boozing in one of the Dixieland bars on Bourbon Street, but they leave Louisiana having effectively written off the Crescent City as a cultural wax museum, perhaps noting the royal families Neville and Marsalis as exceptions. But even when the more curious discover the joyous music beyond the French Quarter, they tend to think it a hand-me-down from Louis Armstrong and Jelly Roll Morton.
In fact, neither the city nor its music have "escaped time" in the least; both have been positively ravaged by it. Consider the evolving meaning of the "second line." The term refers to a century-old custom with West African roots, in which dancing crowds follow a jazz funeral procession (the "first line"). Done correctly, the dance is sexier than the "Tootsie Roll," and nothing less than a celebration of life after death. This emotional exorcism is harder if the dead have passed on with bullet wounds, which is to say that the tradition is as poignant now at the close of the crack era as it was in the late 19th century that bore it. Still, in spite of this tragic modern dimension--or perhaps, in part, because of it--powerful, un-amplified, second-line-inspired brass music has thrived and slowly become the New Orleans party music of choice, breaking out of the long-standing "Social Aid and Pleasure Clubs" onto local radio and into the rock-club scene. This week, with Mardi Gras festivities in full swing, street jazz is nothing less than the soundtrack of the moment.
This funkier variant on brass music originated in the troubled neighborhood of Treme (pronounced Tra-MAY), just across Rampart from the French Quarter. You never knew what to expect in this roughish area: I used to bike through there quite a bit a few years ago, and I once happened upon Ethan Hawke posing for a gang of Rolling Stone photographers in front of a fire-destroyed building. Yet I was more amused to see kids struggling to carry outsized tubas home from school. Street jazz is a part of the after-school social life in Treme, and New Orleans in general. And it has about as much to do with Bourbon Street as Prince has to do with the Mall of America.
"Not taking nothing away from the French Quarter musicians," says Phillip "Tuba Love" Frazier, founder and leader of the ReBirth Brass Band, "but that's commercial there. That's for tourists. I mean, if you're really coming in the ghetto part of town, you'll find some real true hard-core musicians." True to their name, ReBirth has led the resurgent interest in second-line music among teens for 15 years, originally drawing upon young musicians hanging out in Treme. And the band has been injecting rap and pop-radio licks into their music since the mid-'80s. You'll hear everything from P-Funk to Marvin Gaye in their repertoire, all played at breakneck speed with furious syncopation. The Dirty Dozen Brass Band had loosened up the traditions already, shocking conservatives by mixing in bebop and funk in the early '80s. But ReBirth took it further, and their influential mix of rat-a-tat-tat snare-drum funkiness and volatile tuba pumping gave the music's low end a uniquely African feeling. The resulting sound was at once more rootsy and more contemporary than the increasingly mellow Dirty Dozen.
Since ReBirth came up, the Soul Rebels, the Li'l Rascals, and many others have followed. And, acting as the music's ambassadors, they've globetrotted enough to compare roots with a brass band from Ghana. Still, like D.C. go-go--that other regionally distinct, African American instrumental party music--this stuff remains largely unheard outside its native locale. Even so, just as go-go had its momentary crossovers (Salt-n-Pepa's "Shake Your Thang" and EU's "Da Butt"), a rap/second-line crossover isn't impossible. In 1998, ghetto kids the world over are probably more familiar with Master P's "I'm Bout It, Bout It" than "Iko Iko." But that fact didn't stop hip-hoppers Coolbone from releasing a brass-rap album (Brass Hop) last year, and promoting it with the first-ever rap video to openly trade on the iconography of New Orleans (the jazz funerals, the ubiquitous "Thou shalt not kill" signs). The tuba on "Nuthin' But Strife" provides a unique cushion for the rapping, but MC "Cash-Us" Clay sinks the cut with his tired mic skills. (Believe it or not, he's a cousin of Muhammad Ali.)
Still, brass music is so energetic and organic live (as proven by Coolbone's captivating opening set for Wyclef Jean) that rap crossover seems natural. In fact, it's the establishment jazz world that appears most resistant to street jazz. "It's strange," Frazier says. "You know, we play the straight-ahead jazz with them. But when it's time for them to play with us, they can't handle it. A lot of New Orleans cats find this to be true."
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