Through the storms: Hot 8 Brass Band

Boston Globe, July 18, 2008

It’s been almost three years since Hurricane Katrina ravaged the Gulf Coast, but for the Hot 8 Brass Band, the hurt didn’t end with the storm. When the band – one of the most popular in New Orleans, behind a revitalized sound that connects traditional brass with funk and hip-hop – takes the stage in the Museum of Fine Arts’ Calderwood Courtyard on Wednesday, the timbre of its horns and the rumble of its drums will bear witness to fresh struggle and pain.

Like other New Orleans musicians, members of the Hot 8 scattered to other cities, only to return to a hometown mired in political squabbles and seemingly forgotten by the rest of the country, the rebuilding of their working-class neighborhoods painfully slow.

The fitful restart of tourism limited earning opportunities. The cost of living soared. The city sought a huge increase in permit fees for second-line parades – the marches, hosted by New Orleans’ legendary “social and pleasure clubs,” that animate the city on weekend afternoons and give its brass bands arguably their raison d’etre.

Then, the Hot 8 experienced its own private, yet sadly typical, tragedy in December 2006. Drummer Dinerral Shavers died, age 25, shot in the back of the head while driving his car. A suspect was arrested and tried but had to be acquitted when witnesses refused to come forward. He has since been rearrested in another case.

Against this backdrop, the Hot 8 has somehow surged to become not just ambassadors of the New Orleans music world post-Katrina, but also among the latest contributors to a brass-band history that is one of America’s most fully lived folkways. The group appeared in Spike Lee’s haunting HBO documentary “When the Levees Broke” and developed an enviable international tour schedule.

Bennie Pete, who handles both the bottom end (as tuba player) and the bottom line (as director of the band), sums up the situation. “It’s bittersweet, with a little more opportunity between the bitter and the sweet,” he says. “We’ve had the eye of the world on the city, movies shooting, documentaries.”

The bitter aspect, he says, is that it’s very hard to make a living on the local scene; venues aren’t paying enough. “You want to work, because you want to play for your home crowd,” he says. “We still do a lot of second-line parades and private parties. It just makes you want to do your own thing, free performances for the people.”

This matters, of course, because New Orleans brass-band music is organically of its city and has always thrived on interplay outside, on the street, in the parades where folks perpetuate old dances and invent new ones. Separate the sound from the street and you stunt it, take away the point.

For decades, the bands have renewed their sound in tandem with changes in popular culture. In the 1970s, the Dirty Dozen Brass Band shepherded funk and soul sounds into the tradition. The Rebirth Brass Band followed in the 1980s, and then the New Birth Brass Band, to name just the most prominent.

When Pete helped found the Hot 8 in 1995, a new generational change was afoot. New Orleans is a strong hip-hop city, with its own local “bounce” style, and the home to artists like Master P and Lil’ Wayne; the Hot 8 sound makes room for rapped segments and staccato hip-hop beats, while sticking to classic brass-band instrumentation.

The combination doesn’t feel conflicted because the band members – young guys who usually perform in jeans and T-shirts but who grew up amid musician elders – are simply conveying what they know, the daily melange of life in the Crescent City.

Lately, in fact, the Hot 8 have been actively reconnecting to traditional New Orleans music in collaboration with one of its most orthodox defenders, clarinetist Dr. Michael White. Pete says the experience has been eye-opening.

“He’s grounded us more to tradition,” he says. “Repertoire, song selection, the reasons why they played the songs, different dirges. It’s about image, how they dressed. It was a real hectic time for black people then. They could barely read and write, but they could sound like they were educated through the music.”

The murder of drummer Shavers – the third violent death in the band’s 13-year history – only emphasizes how in New Orleans, music is inseparable from the circumstances of daily life.

“We know the risks,” Pete says. “We all grew up in New Orleans, products of this environment, the poor education, the crime. Even though we’re musicians we have to walk down the same streets.”

In the band, he says, the members find the solidarity to carry on – and a call to lead by example at a time when schools and politicians are both failing the city.

“We need to keep the music going,” Pete says. “It don’t make no sense to break up. I wanted to leave, I didn’t want to play, I was tired. But I made a commitment to the other band members – and to the forefathers on whose shoulders we step.”