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New Orleans brass band defied tradition to keep it alive

The Soul Rebels, a New Orleans brass band, have spent the last two decades adding hip hop, R&B and funk elements to the genre.  COURTESY PHOTO

The Soul Rebels, a New Orleans brass band, have spent the last two decades adding hip hop, R&B and funk elements to the genre.
COURTESY PHOTO

The Soul Rebels, who fuse hip hop and funk with traditional jazz, come to Detroit

By Phreddy Wischusen
The Michigan Citizen

Traditions in New Orleans brass bands run deep. Fusing European marching standards with African polyrhythms in the 19th century, this musical practice gave birth to jazz, which continues to proliferate into new styles worldwide, including hip hop, funk and afrobeat. But with that august legacy comes a certain rigid orthodoxy.

In 1990, Lumar LeBlanc was playing snare drum in the legendary Harold Dejan’s Young Olympia Brass Band, a dream come true for a young New Orleans-born musician, but, he says “we still had a side of us that wanted to play urban hip hop, funk and jazz.”

LeBlanc didn’t want to “disrespect” the Olympia organization by infusing the new sounds of urban America, so he and a few other young musicians started a side project. They played their first few gigs without a name.

“I call it a Jekyll and Hyde kind of thing,” LeBlanc says of diverting the band from playing brass band standards in favor of what he calls more “aggressive” music. “We were basically downing anything that inhibited creativity, freedom of expression, any type of underclass people who were being shut out from the mainstream; we felt we were their voice through our music.

“So we kind of wanted to mimic Public Enemy… with a James Brown ‘say it loud, I’m Black and I’m proud’ thing,” he says.  The band even cultivated a militant look, dressing themselves in camouflage pants and black T-shirts.

In spite of their phenomenal skill as musicians, audiences did not immediately embrace the new group. “It was a task at first,” LeBlanc says. “A lot of the purists of jazz, and particularly the New Orleans traditional second line culture, looked at it as a little bit disrespectful. They didn’t accept it and the purists of jazz looked at it as if it was a little too hard-edged, a little too racy for what jazz calls for.”

Even their approach to their instruments, which are the same as in any traditional brass band, is different. Edward Lee, Jr. hooks his sousaphone — similar to a tuba — into a bass amp, giving it a real funky grit. “He articulates so well, it’s like a bass,” LeBlanc says of Lee’s tight staccato style.

LeBlanc and bass drummer Derrick Moss synchronize their beats to create the effect of a hip hop/funk drum set. Moss often plays the bass drum, which runs through the woofers, with his hands giving it “more of a hip hop feeling in your heart type vibe, and me, I’m whipping that snare and cymbals standing up —we don’t sit down when we play —so it brings that power and that snap (like hip hop),” LeBlanc says.

One night, the band, still nameless though thinking of calling themselves the 8-Ball Brass Band, was opening for the Neville Brothers at Tipitina’s, a world-renowned New Orleans music venue. Cyril Neville was impressed. He told the guys their sound conjured up the type of liberating ethos that reminded him of Bob Marley; they should call themselves the Soul Rebels. The name stuck.

Even as the band gained a bigger and steadier following, there were still issues. LeBlanc said they were frequently asked to tone down some of the Black overtones of freedom, protest and such. “At that time I was really militant,” LeBlanc says. “I had my mind set on doing it, so we went with it. If it is really righteous and has a pure authentic goal no matter what it is, I guess it’s always going to come through.”

LeBlanc was right. The band’s star rose. Soon, the Soul Rebels were sharing stages with a Tribe Called Quest and their hero, Chuck D from Public Enemy. “When we got the call (that Chuck D was hosting our show), we were overjoyed and jumping in the air,” says LeBlanc.

Over the past two decades, the eight-piece has toured the world, shared stages with Kanye West and Dr. John, collaborated with Metallica and recorded three albums. Their raucous and energetic stage shows combine feature traditional brass tunes, covers of modern pop and hip hop songs (from artists like Jay-Z, Kanye West , Nicki Minaj and Bruno Mars) with the band’s funky original compositions.

The Soul Rebels recently collaborated with emerging star Big Freedia on a cover of Daft Punk’s hit “Get Lucky.” Big Freedia, a tall powerfully-built gay man who often dresses in women’s clothes is credited with popularizing bounce music, an aggressive hypersexual fast-tempo hip hop form originating in New Orleans, with its own unique style of dance.

LeBlanc says collaborating with Big Freedia shouldn’t surprise anyone. “New Orleans is a unique place,” he says. “New Orleans has always been different from the rest of the United States and the world. We tend to be linked together through the culture. In New Orleans (there’s) this mixture of the old and the new and the in-between.” LeBlanc says jazz second-line music has been going for so long you’ll find young people and old people still dancing together. We collaborate with all type of artists, he says.

“Music has opened up so many hearts and minds throughout the universe. Music is definitely one of the peace tools that implement communication and foster open mindedness and that’s what we’re doing with Soul Rebels,” says LeBlanc. “Let your mind be free, we couldn’t have named our hit tune anything better than that.”

The Soul Rebels will play two Detroit shows —July 15 and 16 — at Cliff Bell’s (2030 Park Ave). The cover charge is $10 and the music begins at 8 p.m. For more information, visit cliffbells.com or call 313.961.2543.

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