Stealing the Show

New Orleans musicians blew into Houston on Katrina's winds and everything was magic for a while


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Brass band backer Big Papa (right) welcomes the pulse of New Orleans to Texas.
photo: Jill Hunter
As would Houston. The city's beleaguered music scene has long needed a funk-juice shot in the arm like this, and for about three months, spots all over the city were rollicking with these jams. The mind boggled at the possibilities — the city's rap producers, bluesmen and rockers now had some of the finest horn players in America to work with. Perhaps a few New Orleans-style social clubs would open; maybe Mardi Gras traditions would even take root here — the street parades and all-night parties. Houston and New Orleans have virtually identical humid climates and very similar swampy, live oak-studded topographies, if not cityscapes.

Maybe now Houston would start to sound like New Orleans as well as feel like it. This would be a case of a city without a soul finding a soul without a city.

New Orleans musicians blew into Houston on Katrina's winds and everything was magic for a while
photo: Daniel Kramer
New Orleans musicians blew into Houston on Katrina's winds and everything was magic for a while

But by the time the New Year rolled around, the party was fading fast. Only the echoes of the funky drums and salacious trombones could be heard — their owners had gone back home or fanned out to gigs across the country and around the world.

Until the holidays last year, it looked like the Katrina influx was going to be a positive development all around. The New Birth had relocated here, as had clarinet maestro Dr. Michael White and Ruffins, the genial trumpeter-singer who is as much a one-man embodiment of New Orleans's sunny, whistle-past-the-graveyard style as Dr. John and Louis Armstrong.

Ruffins, the New Birth and several related bands set up shop all over town. At first Sammy's was the hot spot, and later St. Pete's, Tommy's Steakhouse, Dan Electro's, the Red Cat and Under the Volcano all entered the fray. The New Birth had a long, Wednesday night residency at the Volcano, thanks in no small part to a relationship they had forged with Volcano owner Pete Mitchell a year before Katrina.

"I always wanted to have a brass band play for New Year's, and I was always kind of surprised that we weren't getting that music here being so close to New Orleans," Mitchell says. "At that time I thought it was sort of a dead culture — I was ignorant to the whole thing. I thought Kermit Ruffins might know a couple of bands, so I got in touch with him, and he put me in touch with Tanio, and I found out there were all kinds of bands. We had them play for New Year's, and people had never seen them before, and they were just blown away."

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Kermit Ruffins, a one-man embodiment of the spirit of New Orleans music, spent much of the past 12 months in Houston.
photo: Daniel Kramer
Indeed, most people are blown away at their first exposure to the living art form. If you think this is the kind of stuff you hear at places in the French Quarter like Preservation Hall, you're in for a surprise. Yes, today's brass bands can play songs like "When the Saints Go Marching In" and "Maple Leaf Rag," but they will also throw in snippets from P-Funk, Marvin Gaye, Gerald Levert and 50 Cent. What strikes you most profoundly are the rhythms — brass bands feature a bass drummer (who also plays a cymbal on the top of his drum) and a snare drummer (who also has a cymbal). Beneath both of them is a tuba player — more accurately a Sousaphone player — and atop it all is a horn section of trumpets, trombone and saxophone. But this music is all about the beat, a unique rhythm called the "second-line" that is truly the pulse of the city.

In a 1975 interview with Downbeat magazine, Dr. John explained that beat like this: "See, in the basic Afro Cuban music, one is established as the beat and everything after that is basically free. In Latin music one is the hit and is always established and everybody plays around it. But in second-line the beat is four/one, and there are two accents, as opposed to the one in Latin."

A week or so after the storm, Hingle got in touch with Mitchell and asked for a gig. "It made sense to just have them play on some off night at the bar on a regular basis," Mitchell says. "There were several reasons. One was just to get them the ability to play on a regular basis. The second one was to promote that music, and obviously it was gonna benefit me, too."

At that time, some of the band's players were still in the Astrodome. Mitchell ferried them back and forth from the gigs at his bar. It was worth it. The shows were some of the best in Houston last year. "The first ones were just joyous outpourings of love from all the New Orleans people," Mitchell says. "And once the Houston people found out about it and once the word got out on KPFT and those stations, people from Houston started showing up. It was such an odd thing to see 60-year-old white women dancing with New Orleans hip-hoppers — guys in FUBU wear with their short dreads doing those dances that are commonplace in New Orleans. It was really joyful — that's the only way to put it. We were charging $5 to get in and then people were tipping on top of that. One friend of mine put $200 in the jar one time, and I don't think that was that extraordinary."

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