The Hot 8 Brass Band speak to Cormac Duffy about personal tragedy, community activism and appearing on Tremé
The Hot 8 Brass Band have been a staple of life in New Orleans for almost fifteen years. Their sound, best heard on their 2007 album Rock with the Hot 8, unites strands of their hometown’s music, from Second Line parade marching music to the jazz of Louis Armstrong and the intense rhythm of funk pioneers, The Meters. They even found time to record a hugely popular reworking of Snoop Dogg’s ‘What’s My Name?’ Their identity, much like their city’s, is as much informed by their culture as the difficulties they have faced in life. Bandleader and founding member Bennie Pete explains to Otwo that the band’s biggest influence is “dealing with our day to day struggles.”
The band members are all lifelong residents of New Orleans, and were all on the ground when Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005. When asked to recall the time, Pete pauses, clearly trying to find the words to capture the chaos. “It was a lot. There was a lot going on, some of us that were here had to be rescued. It was crazy man.” The aftermath and recovery were little better. Their concerns fell to “Our families, trying to keep the band together and maybe try and perform so we could earn some money. It was scary, just in the sense of ‘What are you going to do next?’”
Rather than lament, they chose to try make a difference. Becoming activists in the New Orleans community, they helped out in projects such as ‘Save Our Brass’ and ‘Finding Our Folk’. Both of these showed the worth of their city’s culture and community to the band, the former focusing on “trying to save the brass band musicians and the brass band culture too.” For ‘Finding our Folk’ they toured around New Orleans raising awareness about those left homeless in the aftermath of the storm and promoting a new discourse about social change. The US media quickly seized The Hot 8 Brass Band as symbols of post-Katrina recovery, with coverage in national media such as the New York Times and CNN bringing the band and their music to a new national audience.
Dinerral Shavers, the band’s late snare drummer, appeared in Spike Lee’s acclaimed 2006 Katrina documentary When the Levees Broke, recounting his experience in the lower Ninth Ward, a district effectively destroyed in the wake of the floods. Later that year, Shavers was shot while driving in his neighbourhood, dying soon afterwards from the injuries he sustained. He was the third member of the band to have suffered a violent death, after the killings of their trumpeter Jacob Johnson and trombonist Joseph Williams. Shavers’ untimely death came at a time when New Orleans was experiencing a wave of violent killings, and soon served, along with the murder of filmmaker Helen Hill, as a catalyst for citywide marches against violence that dominated global headlines.
To this day the Hot 8 continue to fight violence in their community by supporting ‘Silence is Violence’, a pro-witness protection group. “Still to this day we’ve a lot of cases in New Orleans where people testify about what they saw and the next thing you know they end up getting killed,” Pete says, citing the weakness and inaction of the judiciary as the main cause. For him Silence is Violence represented the community coming together to say “let’s stand up and not bow out in fear of the criminals”.
While the campaign is making progress, maintaining the security of witnesses is proving an uphill battle. “People are coming forward but it’s still a fight to get those people well protected.” Shavers’ tragic death was recently put in the spotlight again after appearing on Tremé, the HBO drama focusing on the lives of New Orleans musicians in the aftermath of Katrina. The show has blurred reality with fiction in its use of true stories such as Shavers’, as well as featuring New Orleans musicians such as Kermit Ruffins, Trombone Shorty and The Rebirth Brass Band. The Hot 8 were naturally an essential inclusion. “He wanted to capture the moment and the whole situation with Dinneral” Pete says, referring to Tremé’s creator David Simon, best known for his work on The Wire. “I didn’t want to be the one to make that call. His family would have to see it on TV and relive it.” Shavers’ family approved the request, appearing in the show with the band themselves. “We felt as a band it would be a good opportunity for us to introduce the world to Dinnarel Shavers’ warmth as a person on a bigger level.”
Pete has mixed feelings as to how accurately the show represents the reality on the ground. While praising its focus on musicians, he adds that “the image that came across, that it was sometimes just drama. Whoever it was [the writers] were talking to, it wasn’t real musicians. It was probably a few people who were close and gave their own interpretation.” He contrasts his experience with the show with times where media sought to appropriate “your culture and not want to pay you anything. Tremé was them approaching you, negotiating with you and offering you some money and opportunities.”
He is also quick to point out that the amount of filming occurring in the city has been nothing but beneficial. “Nowadays, you might have more stars showing up at your gig. It raises the bar for you as a group and opens that door for you.”
For all their troubles, the band are trying to move on. “We’re still kicking, still optimistic,” as Pete puts it. Their seemingly innate ability to make the most of their tragedies is admirably heroic, but also essentially human. Near the end of our interview,
Pete sums up the unanticipated wonders that can arise from tragedy as he recalls the moment after Katrina as rebuilding efforts began. “People from different states stepped in and helped out. We had black and white people helping each other, everybody came together to help each other, to rescue each other. At that point, we were focusing on just the human race. It was beautiful to see in the midst of all that mayhem.”
The Hot 8 Brass Band play The Village on October 27th. Tickets are priced at €20.