Hear the phrase ‘brass band’ and you might be excused for conjuring images of swelling marching bands steeped in tradition and ceremonial capacity. For the most part, you wouldn’t be far wrong.
Redolent of the bayou’s rich and diverse music history, brass bands have remained a common feature of the Louisiana landscape. You’ll find groups like The Hot 8 Brass Band playing jazz funerals, parades and community events every Sunday afternoon, remaining deeply invested in grassroots and community despite their global success. Ahead of a jam-packed Australian debut tour in March, Hot 8 bandleader and sousaphone player Bennie Pete reflects on New Orleans tradition and the band’s dynamic approach to expression.
“I started playing music with the band in high school,” he says. “At that time, we just wanted to know how to play the music, play the tunes. We were just in New Orleans with a bunch of raggedy horns. We were all in high school marching bands, but we wanted to get into another style of music, so we chose this other brass thing.”
Blending traditional New Orleans brass jazz with hip hop, R&B and funk, Hot 8 offer a modern New Orleans music education, with Pete previously describing their take on brass music as “symbol music” rather than genre-distinct. Much like the current state of their beloved city, it is music in a constant state of flux: universal, raucous, funky, and altogether feel-good.
“Once we continued to do it, we started reaching out with our ambition. We would sit around at rehearsals and imagine ourselves performing for thousands of people; imagine ourselves playing on a big old cruise ship. It started to become more of a business decision. We wanted to reach our dream, marketing ourselves and being able to share our culture with different people and nationalities.”
Hot 8’s desire to reach out and to share their history was spurned along by a very positive response to a string of covers, vitalising the music of Marvin Gaye, Snoop Dogg, The Specials and Basement Jaxx with clever arrangements and their refreshingly broad, life-affirming approach to their own productions. So too an appearance on Spike Lee’s Hurricane Katrina documentary When The Levees Broke, which catapulted them into the broader public conscience.
“Some kinda downplay what we do, saying it’s not tradition,” says Pete. “We don’t wanna play traditionally! It’s not like we don’t pay homage or respect to tradition. We thank it to the highest degree. But we didn’t come around just to mimic or repeat it … Everything kinda evolves in time. New Orleans is definitely developing and changing. I’m kinda torn. There’s a lot of good and a lot of bad in it too.”
While tradition is respected as a familiar and comforting constant, it’s discomfiting to imagine trauma and death as a primary constant, as Hot 8 have done. In spite of the violent deaths of and shocking injury to several of its, along with debilitating health issues, the band has endured and regrouped. While old members are remembered and cherished, new performers have been recruited, bringing their own youthful voices and influences to the mix.
“At the end of the day, music is there to inspire and to heal people, and give people a new perspective on whatever their current position is,” Pete says. “We’re a real affirmative concert band. The music allows us to be free. Just the word ‘freedom’, and [to be] free to play, it’s another one of the big elements in this style of music, and one of the key components. It’s fun trying to reach out and see how far we can go.”
The Hot 8 Brass Band play Oxford Art Factory Wednesday March 8.