Don Rowe speaks to band leader and sousaphone player Bennie Pete of New Orleans’ Hot 8 brass band on the power of music to put back the pieces when it all falls apart.
Since 1995, three members of the Hot 8 Brass Band have been lost, victims of gun violence. One, Joe ‘Shotgun Joe’ Williams, was gunned down unarmed by police in 2004, a case that remains unexplained. The band played every night until his burial in a New Orleanian take on the tangi. A year later, Hurricane Katrina tore through the United States, flooding 80 percent of New Orleans and leaving more than 800 corpses floating in the streets.
But despite being buffeted on all sides by the chaotic winds of life, the Hot 8’s sound remains a groovy, near-irresistible blend of marching band, funk music, hip hop and RnB. The band have now played far beyond the 9th Ward of New Orleans, touring to locales as exotic as Japan, Spain and Finland. And this March, when the collective freaks of the World of Music Art and Dance festival (WOMAD) descend upon the Bowl of Brooklands in New Plymouth, the Hot 8 will be amongst them conducting the froth.
I spoke to band leader and sousaphone extraordinaire Bennie Pete by phone as he picked his son up from school on a Tuesday afternoon in New Orleans.
The Spinoff: The America we see in New Zealand is mostly limited to California and Washington, with the occasional bit of New York. Can you talk about New Orleans a little? What is the significance of music in New Orleans culture?
Bennie Pete: It’s one of the ‘big small’ cities. So many people are here, it’s one of the biggest tourist attractions, everyone wants to come to New Orleans. When you talk about fun, you’re talking about New Orleans, from the cuisine, to the food, the drinks, it’s just full of good-natured people who want to have fun. Every night people are out, listening to good music, enjoying one another. New Orleans is a great spot. You don’t have to drive hours and hours to get anywhere. You get to the middle of the city and it’s a one stop shop; good food, good music, good people.
It’s interesting that you say fun because I was watching the documentary you put out and it mentioned the Hot 8 play funerals, and I thought ‘Damn, that sounds like a pretty fun funeral’. What’s up with that?
I’ll break it down for you. Jazz funerals aren’t so much of a fun thing as it is a therapeutic way of picking up the pieces and rebuilding, dealing with the emotions and things of that nature. Losing a loved one or losing a dear friend is tough. As humans we all know we have to die one day, but to deal with the reality of that landing at your front door, it breaks you. Sometimes it breaks people entirely, emotionally you can get wrecked, so to have the band create an atmosphere that helps you to deal with that, and to have a tradition of doing it for so long that everyone is almost looking forward to it as part of the healing process, that’s great.
It goes right back to the beginning, all the way to slavery. A large part of this culture is dealing with the realities of real life, the trials and tribulations that we have to deal with as part of the human race. Back then slaves were dealing with what they had to deal with, just to be treated as a humans. Today it’s the same thing. You deal with what you have to deal with. The lack of opportunities you have as a black person, or someone from a different culture. The music and everyone coming together for that one event is healing, it’s a healing process that works. It’s more moderate now, we deal with things like a lack of health or life insurance. We played for a man who died because he couldn’t get insurance, so we played to help them deal with what they were going through. People played before they could vote just to make their voices heard. But to be able to enjoy music, food, and to live in harmony is therapeutic and it helps us as humans.
We’re getting prepared to come out now to New Zealand and we’ve played a lot of different places and all over the world it’s the same thing. We love having the opportunities to play for different people and to talk to different people. We talk to people wherever we’re at and we’ve found out that everyone has problems, everyone has a struggle that they’re fighting, so it all makes sense with what we’re doing. It makes us feel good about our position and our role to help people get through that time. Give them a sense of hope, a sense of enjoyment and a sense of fulfillment in their lives.
Music is transcendent though, it crosses cultures, I mean if you put five different babies in front of a drummer they’ll all do their best to dance. It’s not specific to any one race. But there’s something so fun about what the Hot 8 play. What about it makes people party so hard?
I believe, you know, when people ask me to explain what we do in one sentence, I always tell them it’s ‘symbol music’. It’s a living reality of a group of people – any of the people who come and join in – it’s a living testament to people that, whatever life throws at them, they’re willing to put it aside and enjoy life, and to realise how precious it is. The music is about getting some fulfillment and enjoyment out of life, not just living a down, depressing existence without joy. So to see people from all over vibing to it, it let’s us know that we’re all people. It’s the human race. We deserve and we need this remedy.
Life sends you through ups and downs, and so to have somewhat of a remedy that helps you deal with what you have to deal with, here on earth, everyone can grasp that and feel that. It’s deeper even than our hearts and souls. People of all nationalities, colours and creed that feel the same way. No matter what audience we play for or in front of, people come away smiling or being a little bit different from when they first walked in, and that’s a beautiful thing man. It’s a blessing and I’m honored to be a part of it.
It’s helped you guys personally too – the band has obviously faced a lot of adversity, with your friends being victims of violence, and surviving the hurricanes and things like that. You’re speaking from a place of experience.
That’s another reason why, us going through all that, it’s another reason why we didn’t let that break us. When we went through dealing with the different adversities of losing family members, friends, schoolmates, just growing up in the city, everybody has different problems. So while we’re doing all that, we held tight to each other. We weren’t going to let it break us, we were gonna let our light shine, and that’s what we did, just to show people that you can get through whatever you’re going through. It’s a big community.
WOMAD is obviously a world music festival, so you’ll be interacting with musos from all over the place. What do you want to take away from the festival?
It’s about networking, and collaborating and connecting with different people who could help us grow. We don’t think our music is superior to any other music, because at the end of the day, music was made for a lot of reasons. To help people therapeutically, to make statements, to get a point across, to represent a way of life and everything. It’s an opportunity to jam, meet a lot of good people, share ideas, share visions and make some new friends in the music business. They’re all doing what we’re doing, just in their own ways. Also introducing ourselves to people who may not have had the opportunity to hear music like ours. We want to represent our city and our music.
The Spinoff’s music content is brought to you by our friends at Spark. Listen to all the music you love on Spotify Premium, it’s free on all Spark’s Pay Monthly Mobile plans. Sign up and start listening today.
The Spinoff Weekly compiles the best stories of the week – an essential guide to modern life in New Zealand, emailed out on Monday evenings.