Telling N’Orleans Story in Brass Band Music

Posted on 14 August 2008

 

The Hot 8 Brass Band plays the kind of music that moves feet, body and soul. Founder of the group Benny Pete says it’s music that “makes you remember, makes you hold on, gives you hope and lets you heal.”

The band hails from New Orleans and this Thursday and Friday they will be at the Hayground School and at the Bridgehampton Child Care Center.  Thursday night the band will play a free community concert at the center at 5 p.m.

Since Hurricane Katrina the band has been traveling the country, as part of the Finding Our Folk tour, making sure people remember the storm, the tragic response by the federal government and the devastation that still exists today.

“What happened in New Orleans is something we all need to know about,” said Hayground Camp artist in residence Jon Snow, “and we all need to face it and we all need to help anyway we can, even if its just by listening.”

For the kids at the Hayground Camp, the entire summer revolved around listening closely to music and even closer to the stories behind it. Snow said that’s why the Hot 8 are a perfect way to cap off the camp season. They will teach the kids the story of jazz, of New Orleans and of Hurricane Katrina. After the storm, the band traveled around to cities using their music to reconnect the roughly 400,000 exiled residents with their heritage, their culture and their home and Finding Our Folk was born. They filmed a documentary about time spent at a shelter in Baton Rouge capturing how they were turned away by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) at first, only to be let in when actor Danny Glover became involved.

The tour began months after the storm and in the two-and-a-half years since, they have never stopped touring This summer they have been to Martha’s Vineyard and to Boston, meanwhile holding an 8-week workshop for young musicians in their home city. Le’Kendra Robertson, tour organizer, said, “It is a tremendous project that we enjoy doing. The band all has their own personal stories of their evacuation and what they went through. They saw this as an opportunity for healing, but its main focus is educating people on the culture and the significance of what music means to New Orleans. It is the heartbeat. It’s what keeps a lot of people going.”

Co-foudner of Hayground and local poet Kathy Engel is responsible for bringing the Hot 8 to the East End. A year ago the band came to a class she was teaching at New York University. The class focused on the intersection between art, intellect and activism. Engel said after the band played, it left her and her students speechless, and in tears.

“I think through their music they tell the stories of real people and struggles and courage with dignity, humor, pathos and honesty,” she said. “ Music cuts across boundaries, barriers and languages and grabs your soul when it’s good, in a way that almost nothing else does.”

“The authenticity of their music is inescapable. You would have to put some heavy duty earmuffs on not to be moved.”

“I can’t say I’m making an overt, political point to the kids, but the New Orleans story is a big, American story,” said Snow. “And it’s going to remain a big American story and we can’t bury it or forget about it.”

Executive Director of the Bridgehampton Childcare Center Bonnie Cannon sees a parallel between that story and the story of the center. She mentioned the people of New Orleans who were stranded in places like the Superdome or the city’s convention center for days after the storm.

“When they were there for five days,” said Cannon, “the federal government was everywhere else, but they weren’t at home. They weren’t helping out their own victims.”

“We are here at the center, and you would think that with all the wealth surrounding us we would not have a need for anything,” she continued. “But everyone turns their head.”

Cannon also sees a semblance in what the Finding Our Folk tour is trying to do and how her center got its start some 50 years ago. On a November day in 1950 an abandoned chicken coop housing 14 migrant workers, three adults and 11 children, burned to the ground after an oil lamp tipped over. Two children were burned to death. Cannon said that shocked the community into realizing something was terribly wrong. A local doctor rented his home for migrant housing and another resident offered a plot of land with a large barn, a garage and a cottage, the current grounds of the childcare center.

Cannon said she hopes by hosting the Hot 8, not only will much needed light be shined on the tragedy of the Crescent City, but also on her center, and make people realize they are in need as well. Much like the city the band calls home, she said the center has a history that is “some good, some bad, some ugly.”

“But we’ve sustained and some people have come through here with good intentions, some bad, and some bridges have been burnt,” she continued. “But at the end of the day who is really suffering? It’s the kids, it’s the community. We have to get back on track and I can’t look to the past.”

Cannon remarked on how so many people out here donate money to worthy causes, how there seems to be a different fundraiser every week. While those people have admirable intentions, there is a very worthy cause right in their own backyard.

“There are too many resources out here for us to be – well, we’re not struggling, but it shouldn’t be this hard,” said Cannon.

She said maybe the Hot 8’s concert will wake people up, especially those who drive down the Bridgehampton/Sag Harbor Turnpike in the summer, passing through the idyllic village of Bridgehampton and ending up in the idyllic village of Sag Harbor.

“The people that drive by everyday and don’t even know we live here,” she said. “They don’t know that there is a place here that they need to know about.”

Also at the Childcare Center will be the KatrinaRitaville Express. Robertson described it as “in your face” exhibit. It’s a FEMA trailer, identical to the over 100,000 that were placed in the city after the storm. The trailers themselves are a tragedy that nearly equals the storm. Since they were inhabited, levels of formaldehyde have been found to be in some cases 40 times the average. The high level of toxins has poisoned numerous inhabitants and the effects of living in the trailers are still being studied.

There are still roughly 40,000 trailers in the greater New Orleans area, but recently the city and FEMA ordered all inhabitants to vacate the trailers. Robertson said the result can be seen beneath the Interstate-10 bridge in the heart of the city, where those forced to leave the trailers are now being forced to live in tents, essentially homeless.

The KatrinaRitaville Express has been traveling around the country and Robertson said in some places people walk into the trailer and say, “Oh this isn’t so bad. What are they complaining about?”

What’s “bad” said Robertson is when a 65 year-old grandmother and family of five have been living in the cramped trailers for nearly three years. This August 31 will mark the three-year anniversary of the storm.

 

 

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