wax Poetics
Photo courtesy of Michelle L. Elmore.

Brass Reconstruction

The Hot 8 Brass Band is a juggernaut of sweat, breath, metal, and drums, a powerhouse that lets nothing get in its way. The New Orleans group has overcome unfathomable circumstances, including the violent deaths of three members. But perhaps their greatest challenge came in the aftermath of Katrina, when the band, like most of the residents of their hometown, had scattered.

published online
Originally published in Issue 27
By Andrew Mason

    They managed to regroup in nearby Baton Rouge and set about borrowing instruments. They had a purpose. “We wanted to play,” remembers Bennie Pete, the band’s mountainous tuba player and leader. “Like, let’s go play at some of the shelters for the evacuees.”

    He continues: “It was amazing, man. We showed up, and the military was there with their guns. People were just stressing. They didn’t know we was coming. We just showed up and started striking up the music, and they couldn’t believe it. People were like, ‘That’s a band! That’s a band!’ A lot of the military police, a lot of the people who came from different states to help out, they all was amazed. You could see it on they face, because they just was here watching these people sad, crying, worrying about where the rest of their family was at. And then this band, a group of guys hop out with instruments [and] go to playing, and everybody just come run out and go to dancing and rejoicing, and having a good time. That made people feel like everything was all right for that little bit of time.” 

    The Hot 8 came together about a dozen years ago, formed from the remnants of two dissolving groups. “Half of us were from the Lower Ninth Ward, which is downtown, and half of us was from uptown, which is the Third Ward,” says Pete. “We had the best of both worlds.” The group’s true antecedents, however, stretch back to the late 1800s. Raymond Williams, trumpeter with the Hot 8, explains, “The [brass band] tradition goes back all the way to Buddy Bolden, who was the first known trumpet player in New Orleans.” One hundred years later, the Hot 8’s lineup is not much different from the bands of Bolden’s era: two trumpets, one tenor sax, and two trombones, with a rhythm section of a bass drum, hi-hat, and snare. 

    But it’s a safe bet that Bolden’s repertoire never included songs like “Atomic Dog” or “Sexual Healing,” crowd-igniting Hot 8 standards. Trumpeter Shamarr Allen names Leroy Johnson and the Hurricane Brass Band, and later the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, as the first to incorporate contemporary R&B in their shows, but says bands also have to be able to touch on the traditional classics: “Not just reach back, but reach back and make sense. If you don’t, you not a real New Orleans brass band.”

    The Hot 8 are a definitive New Orleans brass band. Dinerral Shavers, the band’s snare drummer, killed in a senseless shooting a year after Katrina, was interviewed on CNN shortly after the hurricane: “We’re no different from them. We lost everything too. But we have something that everybody don’t have. And it’s our music. And we’re using the music to the best of our ability to show our appreciation and show that New Orleans don’t die.”

    The Hot 8 Brass Band’s Rock With the Hot 8 is available on Tru-Thoughts Records and through their website, hot8brassband.com.