Don't ask me why. Maybe it's the summer weather in the middle of January, or the hot sauce in my beans. Or more likely it's the distant drums from an approaching brass band workin' its way down the street, getting louder and louder with every syncopated step. People are streaming out their front doors, jumping in behind the band, alongside the second-line dancers, joining a writhing mass of revelers, snaking its way along to the stuttering beats.
It can't be helped, this whole funky business, whenever New Orleans's own Rebirth Brass Band takes to the streets. The rhythm gets you, no future tense about it, with the hard blowing from this nine-man battalion of horns and drums. It starts from the bottom up, with the root rhythm from bass drummer Keith "Bass Drum Shorty" Frazier pounding out the liberally accented beat. His brother Philip "Tuba Love" Frazier, founder and leader of the band, bellows out a bass line through a sousaphone wrapped around his body.
"Yeah, we carry on as much as we can," admits Philip, describing the traditional New Orleans jazz-band sound that's been around since before Louis Armstrong. "You know as long as I got strength in my body and still can play, I'll carry on till the day I die," he vows. "I'll probably die with a tuba in my hands."
The snare drum snaps and crackles, the sticks skipping across the skins like a cat on a hot griddle. Two trombones, a couple of trumpets, and a tenor sax round out the top with melodies, harmonies, and mad improvisations always breaking out of the loose structure at the song's core.
But even amid the mayhem, the band knows where the center lies. The brass comes together at intervals, punching up the tension and then spilling out once again into controlled chaos. That doesn't mean Rebirth can't be as precise as a pin when it wants to be, stopping on a dime, changing directions. It's just that the players are more interested in pushing the party to the limit than keeping all the notes in line.
"You can tell it's organized music that doesn't sound so organized," comments Philip on the method to their madness. "You still hear the melody; you still feel the vibe and can tell what song we're playing."
And then in the fever of the moment -- crowd and band mesmerized -- a familiar song just might erupt into a new creation.
"If I come up with a bass line, or one of the guys comes up with a bass line, or comes up with a 4/4 [rhythm], then we don't know what might happen," Philip warns. "And we just keep playing over and over till we get to that itch."
The Rebirth Brass Band started as a high school band project in 1983. The original members were classmates at Joseph S. Clark High School in New Orleans's Treme neighborhood -- a breeding ground for jazz and home to generations of musicians -- when Philip got a request to form a band to play at a local social function.
"Everybody liked the idea," he recalls. "We started practicing, keeping the band together, started gettin' gigs around town. We got a chance to cut our first record when we was all seniors in 1984," Philip says, still amazed at that early success. "Before you know it, we started traveling around the world, Africa, Europe. We were at the right place at the right time."
Success has not spoiled the band. "It started as a fun project, and it's still a fun project," he insists. "I'd be telling people most of the time it's not about the money. The music's about performing for people and playing music because I love doing it so much."
In the late Seventies and early Eighties, groups like the Dirty Dozen Brass Band were leading a renaissance of the traditional brass-band sound, taking elements of the old and combining them with their own new and funkier sensibilities. And for young groups just starting out like Rebirth, hearing what those bands were doing was an ear-opening experience, an inspiration.
"Yeah, the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, Olympia Brass Band, and Chosen Few, they were the bands to model ourselves behind," says Philip. "What we did is we took their styles, put it to our style, and made the Rebirth style."
That style included elements of rap, a new sound that was just emerging in the early Eighties with groups like the Sugar Hill Gang and Grandmaster Flash. And as improbable as it seems for a brass band to play rap, the style is recognizable in the chorus of words and lines repeated like mantras during some songs, and through rhythmic horn play.
"When rap started out being real, real strong, that influenced us a lot then also," says Philip. "We was doing it off the radio and putting that into the band. And when we took the sounds off the radio, we started creating more sounds. Basically we took some of the rap lyrics and turned them into useful lyrics, and also some of the beats in the bass line we turned into a brass-band sound."
Nineteen years, eight albums, a globetrotting tour schedule, and gigs five nights a week have turned Rebirth into seasoned veterans and New Orleans's top marching band behind the Dirty Dozen Brass Band. They still do parades, funerals, and other events that take them to the streets, which is where they feel they belong and where their sound is best heard, or, rather, danced to.
You see, Rebirth is not exactly a party band; it's the party. And dancing is not obligatory; it's undeniable, as in "cannot be denied" -- unless you nail yourself to a chair, but even then.... And what's more, Rebirth has never met a crowd it didn't get dancing, which is something of a goal for these horn-blowers.
"Oh most definitely," Philip confirms with glee. "I like us to start playing for a stiff crowd when they think they're gonna just sit there. We hit 'em right in the heart with some hard music, and before you know it, at the end of the day they'll be like, Thank you, thank you. I needed that all my life.'
"We played this gig in New York at the Knitting Factory," he continues. "When we started playing, they used to have chairs in there. After we got through with the Knitting Factory, we ain't seen chairs in there no more."
For Philip Frazier the call to dance goes beyond mere notes and melodies. "It's because of the instrumentation," he explains. "'Cause you have the tuba, and you have the bass drum -- it's like a heartbeat. If you have a heartbeat in your body, or soul in your body, if you hear that music, it hits you. If it don't hit you, you must be dead."