New Orleans thinks of brass band music as its own, the unmistakable mix of live horns and percussion, and the traditional brass band songs. But a 20-piece brass band from Rhode Island swept through town recently, with Balkan, Klezmer and Bollywood beats thrown in the mix. These Providence musicians call New Orleans their sister city, and play a different kind of brass when they're here.
Approaching the Allways Lounge on St. Claude Avenue, I could hear the music from across the street. The very loud music. Walking inside, I saw shiny reflective horns spilling over the slightly elevated stage onto the floor, rubbing shoulders with the crowd as the What Cheer? Brigade opened the show. Six trumpets, Six trombones, and six in the percussion section — and those are only the members of the band who were able to come on tour.
It’s hard to define what type of music the What Cheer? Brigade plays without listing most genres known to man. This rambunctious blend of brass is a workout for everyone in the room, whether you’re jumping up and down like you’re at a metal show, or kneeling to the ground like you’re in a Greenwich Village coffee shop. But why are there so many of them? Dan plays sousaphone for What Cheer and says it’s all about volume.
"It’s the legacy we’ve inherited from the noise scene in Providence, and so if you’re a band that’s completely acoustic and you want to be really loud, you need a lot of people."
CJ plays the cymbals and is the band’s newest member, and says it’s the party factor.
"I think it was Athens, Georgia where we showed up to a house party, and I thought it was like really bumping inside and I was like, 'Alright, this is gonna be really great.' It was just us and like three other people."
Naturally, they love New Orleans. For the past eight years, the group has been coming down to play gigs and march in Mardi Gras parades, and discovered that this city has a lot in common with their hometown of Providence, RI. Especially the people in them, says percussionist Chop Chop the Chimp.
'The people we know in both cities really seem to possess this do it yourself attitude: finding a place where they can afford to do it yourself, finding a place where there aren’t the hindrances you might have in other places, just to make what you want to happen happen."
But trumpeter Nick Horton says the music scenes are really different.
"In New Orleans, obviously there’s years and years of appreciation of brass music and you guys are blessed for having that. We unfortunately don’t have that in Providence; the high schools don’t bring people up playing music, there’s not that same tradition in marching bands or anything like that. But people still love it!"
And people love What Cheers’ own traditions, their game-day/warrior face paint, the frenetic intensity, and their party tricks — like bass drummer Norlan’s newest trick: playing his drum while standing on it, crowd surfing. Norlan says playing here makes you bring your A game.
"You don’t want to show up to new Orleans playing songs that carry the tradition of new Orleans horn players and do them sloppy or bad, so it puts you on your toes in this good way where it puts a little pressure on you," he says.
In most towns they visit, the New Orleans songs are the crowd favorites. But here they avoid the standards, not just because they don’t want to mess them up, Dan says, but because their role here is to bring a different kind of brass.
"When we’re in a place like Columbia, South Carolina, we played like all of our New Orleans songs, because people there are going to associate the sonic pallet that we have with that style of music more, and be more ready to hear it. When we’re here, it’s funny — we have this built in audience of people that are ready to go on a whole other journey with us."
With no second lines or jazz funerals, What Cheer? creates its own cause for an occasion. This is part of a new trend of activist street bands that support protests and community organizing.
The band took a stand with Sousaphone player Joey when he decided to quit his job at a hotel after four years of unjust working conditions. The "Joey Quits" video went viral on YouTube with four million views, and he did interviews on CNN, ABC's 20/20, and a slew of Serbian reality TV appearances. Check it:
Chop Chop the Chimp recalls the band’s beginnings.
"We started partly from a true love of Balkan brass music, and true fascination with bands like Extra Action, one of the earlier brass bands out there doing that sort of no holds barred, we’ve got unplugged instruments so we can go where we want sort of situation."
Chop says it’s not having the history of brass music that allows for this interpretive freedom.
'There’s no place in providence that says 'We need a brass band for this.' So, instead we just said 'Hey, we're a brass band, this is the music we love to do, this is the environment we create,' and we just do it."
It’s actually happening here too. Local bands like Panorama Brass Band, Why are We Building Such a Big Ship?, Tuba Skinny, and Sweet Street Symphony are taking the history of New Orleans brass and making it something new, with Eastern European and Afro Brazilian beats. And then, in the blink of an eye, leading straight into "St. James Infirmary", proper. Which What Cheer can play, too; they just don’t do it here.
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