New Orleans Brass Band The Hot 8 Came To London

Hot 8 London New Orleans

This week the Hot 8, one of New Orleans’ best brass bands played at London’s Roundhouse. Unfortunately I didn’t get to see them, though I dearly wish I had done.

Me and the Hot 8 go way back – well, until 2013 when I saw them at Satchmo Summerfest. Coming on stage on a clouded, stifling Sunday afternoon, they immediately lifted the energy levels of the crowd by about a I-don’t-know-what-a-plex and, for me, were the best performance of the festival.

I later read more about them, in particular in the really excellent book Roll With It: Brass Bands In The Streets Of New Orleans by Matt Sakakeeny (who I also saw speak at that same festival). In it, I learnt about the band’s beginnings in 1994 (they were originally called the Looney Tunes Brass Band), their involvement with much success in the musical and material politics of playing brass band music in New Orleans, and the tragedies the band has endured. Three of its members – trumpeter Jacob Johnson, trombone player Joseph Williams and drummer Dinerral Shavers – have died of gunshot wounds. Terrell Batiste, another trumpeter, lost both his legs after being hit by a car.

Overall, the band’s sad but inspiring story seems to sum up the whole bittersweet history of brass bands in New Orleans. “There is much to celebrate here in the way that these young men use tradition to provide people with a sense of community through music, their success in reconfiguring tradition to resonate with contemporary experience, and their ability to accumulate status and earn a living by playing music in diverse contexts,” writes Sakaheeny. “But there is also much to condemn in the way they remain vulnerable to various forms of risk.”

This duality seems to me to be there in my two favourites of their songs, both from their first album Rock With The Hot 8. In one, “What’s My Name?”, we hear an upbeat, very confident announcement of the band’s name and its musical identity. The other, a tender yet insistent cover of Marvin Gaye’s “Sexual Healing”, is a sad but hopeful love song, tinged with both with the sadnesses of Gaye’s life and death and those of the band. Like all great songs, both are specific to a tradition and the individual lives of particular musicians, yet also might say something to people everywhere.

Which brings me back to Hot 8’s recent London gig. I couldn’t see them here because it was totally sold out. I’ve written before about London’s love of, and affinity with, New Orleans’ brass bands, and the Hot 8 seems to be no exception. “Y’all raised da roof #london What a night!!!”, the band tweeted afterwards. I wish I’d been there.

(A final note: I’ll be taking a break from posting for the Easter holidays for the next couple of weeks. If it’s something you celebrate: Happy Easter! Hope everyone has a few weeks, whatever you’re doing.)

Image: The Hot 8 Brass Band

Bold As Brass

Earlier this month, I read a great bookRoll With It: Brass Bands in the Streets of New Orleans by Tulane professor and musician Matt Sakakeeny. It’s an analysis, one of the first, of the work and lives of the musicians who play in the new generation of hip hop-influenced New Orleans brass bands. Sakakeeny mainly writes about musicians in the Hot 8, the Soul Rebels and Rebirth, many of whom he has close personal relationships with.

There are many things I really like about this book. But what I want to draw attention to here is the way in which Sakakeeny emphasises the relationship of culture and its political and economic contexts, a relationship I’m very interested in. He highlights how the creation of New Orleans’ distinctive and beloved brass band music today has always been enmeshed in complicated social and financial structures.

For example, Sakakeeny rightly recognises the jazz funeral as the musical heart of the New Orleans brass band tradition, but points out that these events are also an important source of income for brass band musicians.

He goes on to examine at length how their participation in these funerals, particularly in the tragically not unusual experience of where they’re for colleagues, relatives and friends, can be a source of musical inspiration and hence financial profit and are a part of a wider artistic engagement characteristic of New Orleans brass band musicians with the poverty, violence and injustice that are often presences in their lives.

We do have a brass band tradition in the UK, but it’s different to that of New Orleans and, certainly in the case of London, not on the same scale. However, as with the musical culture Sakakeeny has studied, there is a significant political and economic dimension to the work of brass bands here.

There’s historically been a strong connection in the UK between brass band music and working class life, particularly in the case of colliery bands. This connection was very effectively examined in 1996 British film Brassed Off, which tells the interlinked stories of the closure of a Yorkshire village’s coal mine and the fortunes of the community’s colliery band.

London has no collieries but does, you might be surprised to hear, have a colliery band. Named after the area where I live, Hackney Colliery Band is made up of classically-trained musicians who would be quick to admit that, while most of them are based in Hackney or nearby, they do not have local connections equivalent to the community roots the members of New Orleans brass bands or British colliery bands tend to have.

Rather they aim to represent in their work a mixture of some of the very diverse musical influences found in Hackney, including jazz, rock, African music, Balkan music, hip hop and a vibrant club scene. “We try to imagine,” said Hackney Colliery Band trumpeter Steve Pretty when I spoke to him earlier this year, “that there was a colliery band [in Hackney] – there’s this whole tradition of colliery bands being the hub of the community, reflecting the musical tastes of that community.”

They’ve also drawn musically on the rich worldwide brass band tradition, including New Orleans brass bands, and embraced the tradition’s commitment to social engagement. For example, parading, that powerful use of performance as a political act so often engaged in by brass bands, is an element of their onstage (or should that be off-and-around-stage?) presence.

Taking things one step further, the band are currently working with young brass players in a project set up in conjunction with the Roundhouse performance venue in Camden, a borough adjacent to Hackney in north London with a similar mix of privilege and deprivation.

To give a third example, the band have named their latest album Common Decency which, Steve told me, “came out of the fact that I wrote a tune when I was quite annoyed with people not behaving properly and it’s gratifying that it’s now the guiding philosophy of the band.”

You could read Steve’s statement as an understated, and thus characteristically British, expression of a laudable commitment to social justice that’s shared by many brass band musicians. Sadly, social justice is something that’s sorely needed in London, across the UK, and in New Orleans. And the part that brass bands and other producers and guardians of culture can play in bringing it about should never be taken for granted or forgotten.