It has been said that the truest expression of a people is in its music and dance. That being the case, then pianist Herbie Hancock was right on the money when he described New Orleans as "the soul of our country. The nation's soul however, was laid painfully bare for the world to see when hurricane Katrina struck. Katrina killed over fifteen hundred people and forced the displacement of a million more. It also starkly highlighted the issues of racism and poverty entrenched in the richest country in the world, and showed the lack of compassion and the political cronyism rooted in the Bush administration.
It is worth remembering the self-perpetuating musical legacy that New Orleans has given not only America, but the entire world; Buddy Bolden, Jelly Roll Morton, King Oliver, Louis Armstrong, Sidney Bechet, Dr. John, Fats Domino, Mahalia Jackson, Harry Connick Junior, Terence Blanchard, Nicholas Payton, Leroy Jones and the Marsalis clan. And of course, that most emblematic of New Orleans institutions, the traditional brass band; the Storyville Jazz Band, the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, the New Birth Brass Band, the Rebirth Brass Band and the Dirty Dozen Brass Bandfestival favorites around the planet.
To that list add the New Orleans All-Star Brass Band, aka The Survivors. Spanning three generations, but veterans all, they have individually and collectively formed part of the fabric of New Orleans music for the last half a century. They were formed as a direct result of Katrina and undertook a State Department-sponsored tour around the world. In a heart-felt interview in their Bangkok hotel they reveal their anger, their undaunted pride and a determination in the face of tremendous adversity to lead a new generation of New Orleans brass bands post Katrina.
"This band was formed through Wynton Marsalis and the Lincoln Centre Foundation. explains snare drummer Ajay Mallery, "We were all spread out across the United States and they contacted each one of us individually and got us together. We did a thank you tour last November. (2005) We visited seven countries in two weeks in order to thank them for their efforts and relief funds that they gave to us for New Orleans.
Those counties included Kuwait, Qatar, Egypt, Turkey, Morocco, and Senegal. Perhaps one or two of those names might come as a surprise. Saxophonist Rasheed Ali Akbar takes up the story: "We saw the listthere were like one hundred and thirty-two countries which contributed and I know that a lot of those countries were really in bad shape themselves, but they gave. Our own country is filthy rich and we're still struggling to get aid to help us get our feet solid. We're not begging, you know, it's just a common thing that you take care of your family when they're down. Mallery adds: "That was the birth of this band but our mission is to become the pioneers of a new generation of traditional brass band.
Although they are looking to the future, the memories of Katrina are strong: "My home in New Orleans east was destroyed by the hurricane, Mallery describes, " trees blown through my roof, then the flood, thirteen feet of water just covered my entire house. I lost my car, everything. You can imagine losing everything but the experience of losing everything and there's nowhere to turn is a whole different ballgame.
The band members turned to Houston, to Dallas and to Memphis. The sense of dislocation and of anger is strong: "I wasn't entrapped in New Orleans, says Akbar, "but I was trapped out of New Orleans and I was looking at what was going on. We were totally disconnected, it was like two different worlds; we couldn't get to them and they couldn't get to us and the anger from seeing how the system was handling us was at an all-time high. We had a lot of emotions pushing it to a peak, to the point where we were so stressed a lot of health problems cropped up. All of us have lost band members, family and friends, and we're still losing them every day because of the stress which has brought on illnesses, illnesses that come out of the emotional stress put on us by the system not responding in a timely manner like it should have.
In such circumstances, a song like "Do You Know What It Means To Miss New Orleans? takes on a whole new poignancy. "I can't sing that song without almost bursting into tears. Akbar explains. "I'm listening to those words and I'm seeing pictures of New Orleans before and I'm seeing pictures of New Orleans during the storm, and the fact that it it's not just so simple to go back. You know, you can't imagine not being able to go back home.