Rebirth Brass Band

Sunday Gras

Yesterday (Sunday) was amazing! Before I second-line out of the house and head toward the quarter this morning, I wanted to make sure I wrote a few things down. Yesterday was my first full day, and ethnographically speaking, it was unbelievable. Even though I came back to my teuxdeux list this morning and had absolutely nothing crossed off from it, I feel like I fit in a month’s worth of fieldwork into one day. Way to raise the bar for myself. Saturday we got here later than expected, walked to Mardi Gras Zone (grocery store/pizza place/mardi gras supply shop) to pick up some fresh mozzarella, bagel bites, a slice of pizza, and a Big Shot. Within five minutes we saw eight people we knew (including our cashier, whose son was a student of mine), and so our chatting lasted long enough for our King-Cake-flavored gelato to melt before we paid for it.

The next morning we started at Schiro’s where I had the obligatory mimosa accompanied by shrimp and grits. Schiro’s is my favorite neighborhood bar/laundromat/guest-house/grocery/Creole-American/Indian restaurant – complete with an aquarium, bamboo divider wall, and video poker room. Some tourists from Canada sat at the bar next to our table.  I handed them our menus as were through with them (though we never really needed them), and a 50-ish-year-old blonde – business-woman-by-day-mom-of-four-by-night type of lady –  asked, “Do ya come here often?”

“As often as possible”, was our almost-simultaneous response.  She asked what was good: shrimp and grits, pain purdue. You can’t go wrong with a three-dollar mimosa. So, of course she ordered none of that and we had to spend our breakfast hour listening to a table full of spring breakers on our left discussing all of the “crazy” things they’d seen on Bourbon St. (honey, y’all ain’t seen nothin’ yet) – the Canadians at the bar who thought we were just bizarre for ordering alcohol before 2pm (it was 8:30 a.m. and I got a Bloody Mary to go after that, thank you very much). Needless to say, our small neighborhood bar/laundromat/guest-house/grocery/restaurant had been infiltrated. Our residential gayborhood had been infiltrated. An hour later we were walking down Frenchman Street (best live music in the city – all day – every day) and saw empty, trampled-over hand grenade containers (a mysterious concoction of everclear, Mountain Dew, and crack – $12 a piece) in the gutter next to the sidewalk. Those. Just. Don’t. Belong. There. Again – infiltrated by tourists. It happens.

We walked down Decatur to see an ex-coworker, and ask her if she wanted a cocktail.  On the way, we saw one street musician – a beautiful collegiate-looking black girl with tight dreads, an open case, and a saxophone.  She was good, but her music was too contemporary for the soul of lower Decatur Street. It was post-Parker – it just didn’t jive. My old boss and her husband walked in the shop, so that chat lasted longer than expected. Her husband was telling me about a busking stage they had set up in the French Market yesterday – anyone could sign up to hop on stage and play for tips. If you were betting I wished I hadn’t missed that, you’d be right. As it was, we walked down that way and found Rebirth Brass Band walking on stage.

After waiting fifteen minutes for their drummer to arrive, bass drum on his shoulder, they began their set. We watched the entirety of it from the dance area directly in front of the stage. I recorded several video clips of the band, and took about fifty photos of the eclectic audience – mixed fixtures and locals, including service industry folk waiting for their shifts to start, and a healthy helping of tourists. My favorite moments were when a man from Senegal jumped on stage with his drum and began jamming with them. This is Rebirth, y’all – not your typical street band. They glared at him with a “boy, what the hell you doin’ on my stage?” look for about a second and a half, shook his hand, asked his name (through the mic), and showed him the beat. He played the rest of the set with them. I also caught a fabulous moment of a [black] homeless second-liner (I’ve seen him around for ages, never asked his name) dancing his heart out with a chubby [white] ten-year-old local girl and an old straw kitchen broom, while her parents watched and clapped to the beat. These are “I love New Orleans” moments.

From there we walked by the old Mint toward Café Envie, grabbed a small peppermint schnapps Mocha, charged our phones while reading the Gambit, and decided to head toward the square. Amzie walked by with two paintings under his arm. In the square we caught a small brass band playing in front of the Cathedral, and watched them get into a territorial tiff with a man in a giant carnie-gorilla costume (he was stealing their spotlight).  Then we wandered to Royal Street. Jackpot. I’m not going to say too much here because I want it to be a separate upcoming post, but I found myself interviewing a gutter punk musician for an hour and a half as I was listening to a street band – washboard with homemade toys attached, banjo, percussion, and guitars – various instrumentation at different points – people kept joining and disappearing from the corner – a few of them were in an actual band from which the pre-composed songs came, and they had a CD for sale, wrapped in lined notebook paper and scotch tape – of course I bought one). Anyway – from that interview, so many new doors opened, so many new questions. I handed her a $20 for her time, and walked away with her phone number (she has a prepaid phone to call her daughter once a day), enough material to write a good article, several contacts, video, an hour’s worth of audio to transcribe, plenty of photos, and a standing invite to “camp” and “hop freight trains” around the country with them. I learned to always, always, always have a recording device on hand – even if it’s an iPhone with a vintage recorder app.

Two blocks away, I found a man playing a percussion trap set he had built out of a guitar shell. The neck and its fret rivets had become a washboard. He had forks, a martini strainer (which almost sounded like an orchestral ratchet), and a sheet-metal cymbal attached. Video of that will pop up on here soon. By this time it was about 1pm and we walked up to catch a friend bartending – stopping to take photos and video of several street musicians along the way – including Dorise and Tanya, who now have business cards – that was nice to see.

A few hours later we walked back toward the French Market and caught a set of Bo Dollis Jr. and the Wild Magnolias, saw some friends (and another ex-boss, who happens to manage the group), and watched a few hundred tourists get their first glimpse of Mardi Gras Indians singing about smoking their peace pipe.  Once again, beautiful shots, great video clips, and excellent memories to share.

After their set, we walked to 13 (one of my favorite restaurants), grabbed a pull pork sandwich and spinach salad to go, and headed back to the house for a nap. The nap didn’t happen.

As we crashed (about 8pm), I received a text from a trumpet-player friend who told me to grab an axe (instrument), head toward Marigny & Decatur, and jump into the Krewe of Eris parade. Two hours later I was still main-lining behind eight sousaphones in front of a crowd of hundreds of twenty-something’s with flasks in homemade costumes (yes, I made sure to dress appropriately) and the streets can only be described as chaos and anarchy – which is of course, the purpose of the entire spectacle. There were queens in high heels, cats, and octopi dancing fervently to our music on the roofs of the cars and trucks that lined the streets. One woman, who had become a cat for the evening, climbed every tree on the parade route to cradle in its branches like a lanky panther. I was able to snap a few photos, but this was a “stay-in-the-moment-and-take-off-your-ethnographer-cap” kind of event. My partner took photos as I marched. Eventually we landed on Frenchman Street, the musical hub of our neighborhood.  They disbanded into a giant street party, which I’m sure lasted until dawn. We held back, caught up with a friend who just got off a 12-hr bartending shift, and walked home. I wasn’t feeling hot and my partner had to leave to head back to Florida so she could be in the office at 8am. I’m hoping the next two days are as lovely…

As I’m sitting here writing this, I’m listening to a 3-year old (my favorite one in the world) wake up singing “oh oh oh, it’s Magic.. you knoowwwww” at the top of her lungs…