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World Music Matters

France gets New Orleans' Hot 8 Brass Band vibe

Audio 13:12
In concert at L'Embarcadère, Aubervilliers as part of the Villes des musiques du monde festival
In concert at L'Embarcadère, Aubervilliers as part of the Villes des musiques du monde festival Camille Millerand

The Hot 8 Brass Band are from New Orleans. In the true black music tradition they mix the best of brass with funk, hip hop, heart-on-sleeve sentiment and loads of soul. RFI caught up with them at the Villes des musiques du monde festival north of Paris where their energy and charisma brought the house to its feet.


The Hot 8 Brass Band are an eight-piece band formed 20 years ago. They've played alongside Lauryn Hill, the Blind Boys of Alabama and Mary J Blige, bringing a raw energy -  and lots of sousaphone -  to covers of the likes of Marvin Gaye, Snoop Doggy Dog or classics of the gospel genre. They also write their own rousing compositions: call and response songs that enable them to strike up a real connection with audiences in their live shows.

Originally a more traditional brass band, they're moving more into song.

"We had to start singing and get ourselves involved with vocals to kind of be more of entertainers," says co-founder, tuba player and band leader Bennie Pete. "We can’t just be all music, it’d be like a musical. So the more we grew and matured into the music and saw we’d have to do more shows, we saw that we had to interact with the crowd."

The band made a huge connection with the audience at l'Embarcadère where they played on 6 November as part of the as part of the Villes des Musiques du Monde festival. Now in its 17th edition, the festival is committed to bringing high quality music to some of the poorest towns just north of Paris.

Playing to a rainbow nation audience "felt natural to us," says tuba player and co-founder Harry Cook. "It felt like being back in New Orleans. They were jamming, having a great time."

"It was more of a spiritual connection," says Pete. "That's what the music is about. That's why we have the jazz funerals [back home]. We play gospel, church, rhythm and blues. That's why they didn't just look like we were 'TV'."

Music inspired by hardship

Hot 8 are a polished but very exciting live act, based on a good deal of improvisation.  You sense the sincerity in every note played, every line slammed.

"The foundation and the main ingredient in our music is the realities we go through in our life, the mis-education, a lot of broken opportunities and hardships," says Pete.

After Hurricaine Katrina in 2005 Hot 8 were one of the first bands back in the city, ready to play. They weathered the storm but it took a heavy toll.

"It took a lot of band members away, spread them out in Houston, Atlanta...," says Cook. "But the impact [also] made us come together more and love each other more."

New Orleans has the highest crime rate in the US and the band has lost five of its members, the majority to street violence.

[We've had] a few tragedies but we’re still playing our music," Cook continues, "to think about them and keep the music alive and carry on their legacy."

"Everything we went though [meant] we had a lot to talk about," says Pete. "So we started putting the reality of our life and what we’re going through to the music."

The song New Orleans, after the city was inspired by Katrina, a way of saying they were back, proud of their city and couldn't imagine living anywhere else.

"We were born and raised there, we kind of understand what’s going on, lots of things, violence and crime," says Pete. "But besides that there’s a lot of great people and an atmosphere like no other. We all had a chance to travel the world and just like the song says, there’s no place like New Orleans."

Living the dream

"We are fortunate to live out our dream, and a vision we shared as kids," Pete continues. But in a poor town with high crime and still recovering from Katrina, others have been less fortunate.

"A lot of people close to us, next door neighbours, don’t have the same opportunities," says Pete, so true to the New Orleans spirit, they're trying to employ other people to share the dream around.

"We're in a position to be culture bearers," says Pete. "And continue that culture and have that torch. Because a lot of people died putting this music into American music, creating a whole genre of music by going through worse times than we’re going through now."

Working Together post-Trump

Pete and Cook didn't vote in the recent US elections -  they left for Europe before polling day - but say they wouldn't have voted for the Republican candidate Donald Trump.

Cook says he doesn't trust Trump, while Pete fears his plan is "awful trouble for us, for people of colour, people who’re living in poverty."

"I will most likely pray for us as a people, that we can just get ourselves together and make it together as a people and then we could live with whoever choses to live with us. But it’s first about us as black people."

While he describes the notion of 'black lives matter' as a "no brainer" given that "a lot of black people are getting gunned down by police officers for no reason" he's tired of hearing about it. 

"I hate the fact that media and people waste so much time and conversation on that statement 'black lives matter'. White lives matter, Indian peoples' lives matter, Muslims matter, everybody’s lives matter."

What would really make a difference, he says, is for black Americans to get acces to wealth and to be able to pass it on.

"I would definitely be in favour of selling black and buying black because that’s a part of our weakness as a people. We can’t have any wealth," he sighs. "It’s not about riches, it’s about wealth, so we can have generations of wealth, so that my grandchildren can have a foundation of wealth. That’s what we need amongst other things."

The band's most recent single, Working Together, points the way forward.

"It’s talking about us working together as a people," says Pete. "Making things happen, making change happen and not just talking about it."

Hot 8 Brass Band's fifth album On the Spot drops in Spring 2017 on the Tru Thoughts label. Follow the band on facebook






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