Wednesday 18 April 2018

In New Orleans - Rod Bishop uncovers a superb documentary about New Orleans music THE WHOLE GRITTY CITY (Richard Barber and Andre Lambertson, 2013)

Class Got Brass competition, New Orleans, March 2018
(phot: Rod Bishop)
Last month, the Landry-Walker High School from Algiers in New Orleans won the top prize at the annual Class Got Brass. It’s a contest held every year in Congo Square at Louis Armstrong Park and offers $US40,000 in prize money for school instruments. The size of the bands is restricted to 12 with only one bass, one snare and one tuba, but in New Orleans tradition, woodwinds are allowed and “steppers” or dancers encouraged. The contest takes the form of a traditional second-line parade.

Class Got Brass competition, New Orleans, March 2018
(phot: Rod Bishop)
It’s a community event, parents and relatives give loud vocal support and the bands warm up before the contest with impromptu performances designed to out-psych the opposition.

The Whole Gritty City
But compared to the sophistication of the high school marching bands in The Whole Gritty City,Class Got Brass is a very benign event. This 2013 documentary, apparently ignored by all outlets in this country, shows three enormous high school bands – the Rabouin High School Falcons, the O. Perry Walker Chargers and the Roots of Music Marching Crusaders. Extravagantly costumed, rigorously rehearsed and fronted by outstanding steppers, we see their preparations for the fortnight-long Mardi Gras season parades. 

Half the students live in poverty and many are regarded as at-risk. When not at school or in overcrowded homes, they negotiate dangerous lives on the streets. Band rehearsals on a football field are abandoned when a gunfight breaks out. Rival bands abuse each other after parades and drunken spectators try to physically disrupt parades. Band leader Wilbert Rawlins Jr talks about the seven friends he once had – four shot dead and the remaining three overdosed.

Rawlins also talks about the transformative effect of the bands on the students: “I don’t care if you just had something very tragic happen to you in your life. Once that band gives you that downbeat, and the music is right…just for that brief two or three minutes you forget everything, every problem you had.”

The Whole Gritty City
Two members of the Roots of Music Band, 10-year-old Jaron “Bear” Williams and 13-year-old Jazz Henry play the trumpeters Robert and Jennifer in Antoine Batiste’s high school band in Treme. Jaron’s 19-year-old brother was shot and killed “I cried the whole day, I can’t get him out of my head”. After joining the band his life has been transformed, music has become “25% of me” and after the parade “I feel like I’m the best thing in the world and can’t be stopped”.

The deaths of two band leaders haunt The Whole Gritty City. Dinerra Shavers was a member of the Hot 8 Brass Bandand band leader at Rabouin and the widely beloved Brandon Franklin was assistant to Rawlins at O. Perry Walker. The Times-Picayune tribute to Franklin described him as a “charismatic, out-going band leader, but also a quiet counselor.” His popularity was evident at his funeral, when 300 high school band musicians (including 15 tubas) perform outside the church under Rawlins’s direction.

The sound of the music is simply astounding as the 300 segue through Richard Smallwood’s Total Praise, Sting’s I'll be Watching You (Every Breath You Take) and, in a fitting end to the memorial and the film, finish with I’ll Fly Away,the great New Orleans hymn composed by Albert E Brumley in 1929

1 comment:

  1. I'm happy to see this appreciative and informative writeup of my film "The Whole Gritty City". Just to note: the film actually did get a burst of exposure in the US in a February 2014 nationwide primetime broadcast on CBS News hosted by Wynton Marsalis. It's also been in theatrical distribution in France. It's available on Amazon, Vimeo, and DVD. Here's the website:


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