Adam Bettcher, Getty Images All of the members of Disturbed are now committed to…
- Posted on May 15th 2007 10:00AM by Steve Hochman
He's talking about the Rebirth Brass Band, one of the leading forces in the revitalization and funkification of the brass band traditions in New Orleans during the past two decades. And he's saying this just after leaving a stage of the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, where the group made its first-ever appearance. Once he identified the N'awlins inspiration, it made sense. But even seasoned Fest-goers -- as they danced to the variations on very familiar rhythms -- most likely assumed that the Gangbe style was primarily African in nature and that any common ground between it and the local Louisiana sound came from shared roots in the rhythms brought over here by slaves and immigrants as well as from the re-Africanized R&B practiced in the past 50 years by such figures as Fela Kuti. That Gangbe had in fact embraced the music of Rebirth, the Dirty Dozen, Treme, New Birth and other Crescent City ensembles caused more than a few jaws to drop when explained later.
Among the things Industrial Era colonialists left as their empires shrank around the globe are legacies of brass bands. Trumpets, saxophones, sousaphones and the like travel well and aren't as subject to the ravages of climactic extremes as pianos or violins, so they were perfect for training the locals whether for military band use or to entertain the European occupiers, and today there are brass ensemble traditions from Africa to the Middle East and Balkans to India and East Asia. So it was a bit of a surprise to hear James Vodounnon, sousaphone player of the Gangbe Brass Band, from the West African country of Benin, explain the genesis of his group. "It was when Rebirth came to our country in 1993," he says. "They came and gave us the idea for our brass band music style."
Vodounnon notes that they're not really trying to imitate New Orleans sounds as much as internalize them through their Beninese culture. "The difference," Vodounnon says, "is the New Orleans bands play the old style of music from New Orleans. But we hear some riffs from Africa in their music. We can mix our music with much facility -- not difficult to mix New Orleans with us. And there is Afro-beat inside our music. We first played like Fela. He's our idol." And while it's true those Afro-beat elements are evident in Gangbe's music, the lineup matches the New Orleans model -- three trumpets, sax, trombone and two percussionists, in addition to the anchoring sousaphone -- and the rhythm is by and large in the same funky pocket. But at other times, Vodounnon's nimble lines slip into the elastic style that is the foundation of much modern African music, and the vocal chants are also more African than urban American in nature, though one does have to wonder if what sounded like "A go tow vay bey," done in call-and-response style with the audience, is how they say, "Feel like funkin' it up" in Benin.
One Gangbe fan is Gregory Davis, who knows a thing or two about this music. The trumpeter just happens to be a founding member of the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, the godfathers of the modern New Orleans brass era, having expanded the form's range in many directions in the course of nearly 30 years. In fact, discussions are under way for a recording project that would bring Gangbe and the Dirty Dozen together. "It's really interesting to hear what they do," Davis said right before leading a blazing jam session of New Orleans brass band and jazz players that closed the 2007 Jazz Fest on an exuberant note. "The basis of this music came from Africa, and now it's gone back there."