Think of a brass band in Australia and you will more than likely conjure up images of the Salvation Army or a raucous, slightly out of tune, high school outfit. Think of the same in New Orleans and there’s a tradition that goes back decades and forms an integral part of the city’s social and cultural life.
When Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005 the devastation not only ravaged the city at large but had a profound effect on the large musical community. Lumar LeBlanc, the co-founder of New Orleans band The Soul Rebels, is still saddened by the event but notes “rather than tear the band apart, it brought us closer together and we became heavily involved in fundraising and rebuilding the local music scene.”
The tradition of brass bands in New Orleans goes way back to the earliest marching bands of the late nineteenth century. Over the years they have flourished in the African-American neighbourhoods, through families, social clubs, local bars, funerals and marriages, and of course, the quintessential street parades, complete with second line.
The Soul Rebels, like Crescent City counterparts The Dirty Dozen and Rebirth, have continued that tradition, infusing the music with modern day funk. In the Rebels’ case, this has extended to rap and harmonic vocals. They formed in the early ‘90s when percussionists Derrick Moss and Lumar LeBlanc met as members of Harold Dejan’s Young Olympia Brass Band, The Rebels, more than any other brass band, have pushed the boundaries of the genre to embrace an exciting new hybrid. It’s still unmistakably New Orleans, but certainly their music has developed to appeal to a much broader audience. The group now play over 250 shows a year, often opening for the likes of Kanye West and Snoop Dog.
In 1995 they released the ground-breaking album Let Your Mind Be Free on Mardi Gras Records. This must still rate as one of the most innovative (and greatest) brass band albums of all time, with its hip vocals and strong lyric lines. Since then they have released a half dozen more albums on various labels with their 2012 outing for Rounder, Unlock Your Mind, a real standout.
Despite their current popularity Lumar notes the band still have their roots firmly implanted in New Orleans. “We still love to play the acoustic gigs whenever we aren’t touring and we’ve had our long-running residency at the Le Bon Temps Roule. It’s a music that you can’t fake and will always remain organic, equally at home in a small bar or on a big stage.”
Certainly in the digital age of souped-up recordings and highly engineered sound, the humble brass band made up of trumpet, trombones, sax, sousaphone and percussion might seem an anachronism. However, in the hands of the Rebels it is still the freshest and most dynamic sound around. The band have obviously been an inspiration to a number of young Sydney brass bands like The Brassholes and the Hi-Tops Brass Band, who have brought the New Orleans sound to Sydney and mixed it with their own blend of home grown hip hop.
Catch The Soul Rebels at their first ever Sydney appearance at The Basement on Wednesday April 16 and again at the Byron Bay Bluesfest over Easter.