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Report: France - United States

Post-Katrina New Orleans school band talkin’ loud in Paris

The Chosen Ones perform in RFI's studios
The Chosen Ones perform in RFI's studios RFI/Laurence Aloir

While New Orleans was struggling to recover from 2005’s Hurricane Katrina, a city school set up a band that tied in with the city’s famous musical tradition and give its students a chance in education and in life.


Dressed in pristine white shirts, black ties and black and white caps, the Chosen Ones brass band from New Orleans certainly look the part as they blast out their rendition of Talkin' Loud on RFI's Musiques du Monde programme.

“It says a lot about our culture,” says band leader Wilbert Hawkins Jr. “There's a lyric in it that says ‘You're like a dull knife, you just ain't cuttin'. Well, you're just talkin' loud, you ain't sayin' nothin'.

Video: The Chosen Ones peform in Paris

“A lot of folk in life they talk about stuff but they don't actually get a chance to do it,” Hawkins continues. “This song is just the opposite of that, it's about doing what it is you set forth to do and persevering through.”

That more or less sums up the philosophy behind the Chosen Ones, a nine-piece brass band of 15-17-year-olds from the Landry Walker High School in New Orleans.

The band was created some time after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, as part of the school's instrumental music programme and gives kids, the majority of whom are black, the chance to grow through music.

“It's kinda rough in the city sometimes,” says Hawkins, “so what [the school] has done is really invested time, effort and money into the arts”.

Trombonist Stephane Henry, 17, says he's proud to be a chosen one.

"I had to prove myself worthy, showing I could do different things that the Chosen Ones can do.”

That means playing well, reading different musical genres, playing alongside other bands, articulating well and functioning in different cultures, he explains.

Katrina claimed more than 1,000 lives and left around a million people homeless. The city is still trying to rebuild itself and music plays an important part in that, says Wilkins.

“Music bonds us altogether. No matter what's going on in your life, when music is on, all the rest of your problems are gone. You don't have time to sit and wallow in sorrow.”

“People kind of come back through the music,” Stephane chips in, “Music is key to bringing New Orleans back to how it [was]”.

Just as New Orleans-born Louis Armstrong abandoned the gun for the trumpet and went on to be a trailblazing jazz musician and singer, the band champions instruments over weapons.

“Through music I can occupy a child's mind … the worries of the world won't affect them,” says Wilkins.

But, more importantly, they're able to teach the kids all the core content through music.

They learn the instantaneous subdivision of time when they read music, so it helps with maths, he says. They learn how to read smoothly, to articulate, even notions of foreign languages.

“Scientists have stated that children who participate in the arts at early ages become 30 to 40 per cent smarter than average students,” says Wilkins confidently.

Being part of a band and travelling also boosts social skills.

“Here in France we're exploring a different region of the world […] I tried to teach these children to open their eyes,” he continues. “I tell them you've travelled the world because of your essence, your awe, the way you carry yourself.”

For 15-year-old saxophonist Elise Smith just being here in Europe is a huge adventure.

“Children my age and my skin colour don't really leave the state or city, let alone the country,” she says. “It's just wonderful to come out here with a group of young men that know how to carry themselves well and have fun and play music.”

The Chosen Ones came to France thanks to the Villes des Musiques du Monde festival which prides itself on taking music into working-class neighbourhoods just outside Paris.

The theme this year is New Orleans' Congo Square – the place where slaves were allowed to gather, trade and play music on Sundays during the French colonial period (1718-1803).

Festival director Kamel Dafri says they wanted to pay homage to the vibrant musical culture that grew out of that tragic period in history, but also pay tribute to other Congo Squares here in France: neighbourhoods with large numbers of people from the French West Indies, sub-Saharan and north Africa.

“Some people in these neighbourhoods are struggling to make music too, there are lots of Congo Squares we don't know about and we should pay homage to them,” he says. “For me it's like thumbing your nose at all these institutional venues where you think music is being played but actually we know it's being played elsewhere.”

Villes des musiques du monde festival runs through to 9 November.

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