BARRY LEIGHTON meets the New Orleans band that have turned personal tragedy into triumph

IF ever a group mirror the city from whence they hail – its spirit, its never-say-die attitude, its sheer and utter determination to survive and to press ahead and to thrive — then it is surely the Hot 8 Brass Band.

Like their beloved New Orleans, a city devastated a decade ago by one of the United States’ worst natural disasters, this closely-knit band of brothers have suffered appalling set-backs and tragedy.

Four of the original group which formed in 1996 from a mutual love of The Big Easy’s legendary marching band culture, are no longer with us. Shockingly, three of them were shot dead in separate incidents.

Trumpet player Jacob Johnson, 17, was murdered at home in 1996. Trombone player Joseph “Shotgun Joe” Williams, 22, was gunned down by police in highly controversial circumstances in 2004.

And two years later drummer Dinerral “Dick” Shavers, 25, was shot and killed while driving with his family.

A fifth member, trumpet player Terrell “Burger” Batiste, lost both legs in 2006 when he was hit by a car while fixing a roadside blow-out. As if to emphasise the group’s togetherness and essence, he’s still blowing strong from a wheelchair.

Did the Hot 8 Brass Band ever feel like chucking it in as a result of these catastrophes? “To be honest one of the main reasons we’re still a band is because of what’s happened,” says founder member Bennie “Big Peter” Pete.

“It’s a struggle, sure. But it’s something [performing music] that all of us wanted to do, right from the start. This was the dream. To quit because of what happened to those guys ... it would be a lost cause. All for nothing.”

In his deep Louisiana drawl, Bennie goes on: “It can be hard, thinking about it all. Some days you cry. You have ups and downs. But for us to walk away I think would be even more tragic.”

I’m speaking to Bennie shortly after he and the boys pulled into Sheffield for part of a 20th Anniversary UK Tour.

They’ve since returned to the States but are heading east again for some choice European festivals including what promises to be a memorable showcase for their strutting brand of traditional New Orleans brass, jazz and funk, R&B and rap at the WOMAD Festival at Charlton Park near Malmesbury from July 28-31.

Bennie was 12 in 1986 when he learnt to play the sousaphone, a type of tuba that fits around the body, making it easier to handle while marching.

His aim, of course, was to join one of the Crescent City’s marching bands that perform during assorted events from mardis gras to jazz funerals and have become such an important part of its culture.

“Yeah, it was fun,” says Bennie, “but not only fun. There was a lot of respect too, from the neighbourhood, the community. We’d rehearse and practise every day.”

Bennie and comrades were in the second line – the musicians and dancers behind the main group in the parade who whooped and twirled in a manner that has become a New Orleans art form.

Formed with the merging of two high school bands, the Hot 8 Brass Band had become regulars at the city’s festivals and parades when Hurricane Katrina struck in 2005.

Like most of its inhabitants, members of Hot 8 were dispersed all over the country – Bennie spent five months in Atlanta and Montgomerie, Alabama – before all making their way home to reunite.

The city that is the acknowledged home of jazz and gave the world the likes of Louis Armstrong, Fats Domino, Professor Longhair, Dr John, Allen Toussaint and Lee Dorsey, was “all beaten-up.” He said: “You’d bump into neighbours, old friends, we’d be hugging each other.”

Back in action, the Hot 8 – with their trumpets, trombones, tuba, bass drum and snare – found wider acclaim after appearing in Spike Lee’s 2006 Katrina documentary When The Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts.

National Public Radio said: “A new legion of fans caught onto the band’s mix of traditional marching music, hip hop and R&B.”

Three albums down the line, the Hot 8 Brass Band have performed all over the world and continue to throw all genres of music into their personalised cauldron of gumbo.

Bennie says it’s all about getting the audience out of their seats – or in WOMAD’s case, out of their collapsible camping chairs – and losing themselves in the funky, brassy moment.

“We do rap, gospel, older traditional stuff – we welcome requests. We like to loosen everyone up” while opening the door, he asserts, for the audience to “set themselves free.”

Before heading off for a soundcheck, Bennie adds, in reference to Hot 8’s forthcoming WOMAD gig: “There’s going to be a party in the house. It’s going to be a hell of an experience.

“We are bringing New Orleans to the audience.”

n Among around 100 acts at WOMAD 2016 are legendary groove machine George Clinton ex of Funkadelic and Parliament, giant of African music Baaba Maal, one of the world’s foremost current singer/songwriters John Grant and leading UK rapper Roots Manuva.

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