A brief guide to New Orleans brass bands

As Red Bull Street Kings descends on New Orleans, we’ve got all you need to know in a nutshell.

Red Bull Street Kings
Red Bull Street Kings© Christian Pondella/Red Bull Content Pool

Saturday, October 26 sees the return of the horn-heavy aural face-off that is Red Bull Street Kings. The battle to find New Orleans' most boisterous brass band is very much drawn from the traditions and culture of The Big Easy. So before it all goes down under Claiborne Bridge this weekend we’ve put together a bluffer’s guide to get you up to speed.

Origins

New Orleans’ brass bands originated in the late 19th Century when they were (and still are) invariably comprised of trumpets, trombones, clarinets, saxophones, sousaphones and percussion. Being the cultural melting pot that the state of Louisiana is, these bands played a unique fusion of European military and African folk music – the result being a wonderful clash of free-flowing and rigorously ordered styles. It’s little wonder that NOLA brass is credited with playing a significant role in the development of traditional jazz.

The Original Pinettes Brass Band pose for a portrait for Red Bull Street Kings in  New Orleans, Louisiana.
The Original Pinettes Brass Band© Jafar M. Pierre/Red Bull Content Pool

Evolution

After years of bashing out traditionals like When The Saints Go Marching In, the late-1970s brought about a renaissance era for New Orleans brass bands as elements of funk and hip-hop began to sneak in. Ground-breaking collectives such as the Hot 8, Soul Rebels, Lil Rascals and more used the sousaphone to play the bass-line while the other horns played melodies and improvised harmonies over the top. This brought about a fresh, revitalising sound that a new generation of musicians and fans were able to creatively connect with.
 

The second line

A phrase you’ll often hear in connection with New Orleans brass bands is ‘the second line’. This quintessential N’awlins art form originates from parades and jazz funerals in which the first line is made up of members of a representing club (and is a rather more solemn affair) and the (rather more fun) second line is made up of vibrant music and dancing. The iconic exaggerated dance steps are believed to have evolved from West African circle dances and necessarily straightened into a line for processions, while the music mixed American, African and European styles representative of the journeys many of the black musicians were forced to make in their lives. The predominantly African-American neighbourhood of Tremé is most strongly associated with the second line tradition.

T.B.C. Brass Band pose for a portrait for Red Bull Street Kings in  New Orleans, Louisiana.
T.B.C. Brass Band© Jafar M. Pierre/Red Bull Content Pool

Tremé

Orginally known as “Back of Town”, the Tremé neighbourhood may be well known for the HBO series sporting its name but it’s best identified as one of New Orleans’ most important musical hubs. The spiritual home of the modern brass band tradition, Tremé has been home to the likes of early jazz pioneer Alphonse Picou, famed trumpeter Kermit Ruffins, trombonist Lucien Barbarin and the Rebirth Brass Band, who are described by Red Bull Street Kings judge Trombone Shorty as having “created the sound of contemporary brass bands in New Orleans.” Needless to say, it’s a part of town not short on creativity.

New Creations Brass Band pose for a portrait for Red Bull Street Kings in  New Orleans, Louisiana.
New Creations Brass Band© Jafar M. Pierre/Red Bull Content Pool

Red Bull Street Kings

Taking place in the heart of Tremé, Red Bull Street Kings 2013 will see four New Orleans brass bands fighting it out to demonstrate their ability to incorporate traditional brass band standards with their own original tunes. Judged by a panel of New Orleans music icons, the New Breed Brass Band, New Creations Brass Band, T.B.C. Brass Band and The Original Pinettes Brass Band will be delving deep into their influences and musicality to take home the prestigious title.

Find out more about Red Bull Street Kings here.

New Breed Brass Band pose for a portrait for Red Bull Street Kings in  New Orleans, Louisiana.
New Breed Brass Band© Jafar M. Pierre/Red Bull Content Pool