REBIRTH BRASS BAND / “Do Whatcha Wanna (Part 3)”
“So why do you stay?”
I’d just finished telling Mtume about the cops breaking up a Second Line in Treme, arresting two of the musicians who refused to stop playing music. Somebody (widely assumed to be a new resident, probably white) called the police complaining about the noise. In Treme.
Let me break it down. Treme is the oldest, continuous African-American community in the United States. Treme is located adjacent to the French Quarter, literally across Rampart Street, which divides Treme from the French Quarter. The real deal is that over the last ten years or so there has been a slow gentrification of Treme. And then Katrina came and post-Katrina the gentrification bulked up like it was on steroids.
Don't get me wrong, I know white folks who are really, really pissed off about what happened. It's not simply a racial thing. To me, it's the end of an era.
“Seriously, if it’s all over, why stay?”
I had just said, you could the turn the lights out. It’s over. Mtume quietly probed. I told him, I don’t know. It’s getting harder and harder.
The main reason I stay is because of my work with the young people of the city. I teach creative writing and digital video to high school students in an independent writing program called Students at the Center. We work in the public high schools.
The news about the break-up of a Second Line (please read this report from the daily paper
) brought a round of cursing from my two sons. The younger, Tutashinda, still lives in New Orleans. Mtume lives in San Diego. It’s not easy to communicate how deeply this latest development affects us. Impromptu Second Lines have taken place in Treme for over 100 years.
In this case, the Second Line was in honor of a band member who had a stroke and died. The main funeral was not until the end of the week on Saturday but during the week some of the guys got together and had a little Second Line in the neighborhood. It happens all the time. No big deal. Except that somebody called the cops.
Approximately twenty police cars showed up. Twenty! New Orleans is the nation’s murder capital. That many cops never show up for a shooting.
Twenty cop cars. Shit, they didn’t have that many musicians in the band. More cops than musicians. And get this: the Second Line was about to disperse. Half a block to go.
Half a block.
One high schooler who was there told me, “They weren’t acting up or nothing. My mama wouldn’t have let me go out there if they were acting crazy.”
I don’t know… I’m not at a loss for words. I’m just tired of the bullshit going down in the name of recovery. And as far as I know, not one politician (black, white, Asian, Hispanic or whatever—not one) has stood up do denounce this incarceration of New Orleans culture.
Katrina part two.
When you read the Second Line article online be sure to read the comments. Read how many people think it’s about getting a parade permit. Read how we need laws. Civilization.
For a long time slavery was legal.
What you trying to say, Kalamu? I’m not “trying” to say nothing. I’m saying the worst part of this is that new residents, politicians and law-and-order loving citizens of New Orleans are ready to shut down New Orleans street culture.
Clearly, it’s against the law to “Do Whatcha Wanna.”
“Do Whatcha Wanna”
(from A Celebration of New Orleans Music
) is close to a Rebirth/New Orleans theme song, perfectly encapsulating the traditional laissez faire attitude and reality of black New Orleans. It’s damn near a sacred chant. Alas, it’s also an epitaph for a time and for an attitude on the ropes, going, as another epic songs says, going down slow.
Trumpeter/vocalist Kermit Ruffins who is featured on “What Is New Orleans”
) is the former lead trumpeter and co-founder of Rebirth Brass Band. Kermit went solo and established himself as the latest in a long line of trumpet players who embody New Orleans culture—a line that stretches back to Buddy Bolden, the legendary founder of New Orleans brass band music.
“Feel Like Funkin’ It Up,”
(from Feel Like Funkin' It Up
) is quintessential Rebirth. It’s what they do when they roll through the streets. Believe it or not this is dance music—but dance of the African retention kind. Dance done in the streets. Everybody improvising their own steps. Everybody on the one, bopping to the same beat. It’s a miracle of chaotic uniformity. It’s like we all be holding hard to a live electrical wire, each of us charged up by the same voltage, all of us jerking and jumping in our own individual way. There is no feeling quite like it except maybe in church when they catch the spirit, or down in Haiti, or over in Brazil, or on the coast of Ghana, and on and on wherever black folk are free enough to make our own music in our own way without the requirement of anyone else’s permission or consideration.
There’s a tradition to this music both in New Orleans and through out the diaspora as well, of course, also in our traditional home in Africa. Rebirth is just a local manifestation of a much larger African heritage cultural continuum.
In another life back in the mid-eighties, I traveled with Rebirth Brass Band, bringing them to programs in New York and twice to France (once we toured the countryside near the German border).
Rebirth is a street band. They are rowdy. Always for pleasure. Ever ready for a party. And lawdy, lawdy they can party hardy. These cats are the reigning street band, taking over from their elders, the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, who took over from their elders the Olympia Brass Band, and so forth and so on. Dirty Dozen mixed modern jazz with traditional jazz. Rebirth brought R&B and funk to the table, mixed in with traditional New Orleans brass band music.
I love what Rebirth do.
Anywhere else in the United States they would have been regulated (parade permits would most definitely have been required) long time ago. But in New Orleans an impromptu Second Line was (emphasis on the past tense verb: “was”) the norm.
I don’t believe any of us saw this latest muzzling of bands like Rebirth coming through the after-slaughter Katrina enabled. Who would have believed you could get arrested for Second Lining in Treme?
You better listen quickly to “What Is New Orleans”
because the old traditions are fading fast; faster than any of even the most cynical among us could ever have imagined.
(I know at least one or two readers want to know what’s the problem with getting a parade permit? I’m not going to even bother answering that.)
And that’s the problem. It’s a fundamental culture clash. Why should we have to justify singing, dancing and making music in the street where we live? Think about it.
Somebody called the police. Negroes on the loose.
This is the music of Negroes on the loose.
Listen closely. Listen quickly.
Now, wave goodbye.
—Kalamu ya Salaam
A truly sad commentary
I'll tell you what's wrong with getting a parade permit. It's cultural genocide. That's what's wrong with it. People have been Second Lining in New Orleans long before whoever it is that's complaining was even born. It's hard to believe anyone would have the combination of gall and insensitivity that it would take to call the cops to shut down a tradition that is part of the indelible framework of the city of New Orleans.
I've heard it said that the problem isn't the Second Line itself, the problem is the drinking, drug use and gun violence that accompanies the Second Lines. (For the moment, I won't even argue about whether or not that characterization of Second Lines is accurate.) If the problem is violence, deal with the violence. If the problem is illegal drug use, deal with that problem. Don't make the music the problem. The city I'm from is known the world over for music, and not just any kind of music. New Orleans is known for street
music. I guess I should've known this was coming when several years ago the powers-that-be starting forcing French Quarter performers to get permits. At least in that case you could argue that it's a one-time process, after which the performers could just do their thing. In this case, the Second Liners would have to apply for a parade permit every time
they wanted to play. That's ridiculous. Often, Second Liners are regular people with subsistence-level jobs. They don't have the time or the money or the know-how to run around applying for a parade permit everytime they want to play some music. It's a joke.
Also, there something you have to understand about Second Lines. These are not
parades. If you aren't familiar with a Second Line and you're getting an image of a Mardi Gras parade with thousands of people lining the streets, you couldn't be more wrong. It's true that there are large Second Lines on certain holidays, but generally, a Second Line is a rag-tag, mostly improvised kind of affair, with maybe six or seven musicians and about twenty or so people following them around, dancing and singing or beating on bottles with sticks or playing a tambourine. It's not big, it's not particularly loud and it's not a terrible invasion on anyone's personal space. I can remember being at my brother's house Uptown when a Second Line would go by. We'd be sitting there watching a football game or playing cards or something and someone would say, "Hey, there's a Second Line out there." We'd get up and go outside or maybe just stand on the porch and watch. After five or ten minutes, the whole thing would be over. In a way, it's sacred and beautiful and necessary, but in another way, it's not even a big deal. That it's turned into what it's turned into in New Orleans is a truly sad commentary on the concept of 'civilization' itself. Think about it: a couple of New Orleans musicians were actually arrested for playing music. That's beyond pathetic.
—Mtume ya Salaam
P.S. To all my New Orleans people: Keep on doing what you wanna! Shake that ass!!!!!!
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