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The Bands Will Sound Again: Preserving NOLA’s Marching Band Tradition at The Roots of Music
Ben Makarchuk, writer for The Roots of Music
Silence does not belong in New Orleans. Here, any excuse for a celebration is met with a full-blown, over-the-top extravaganza. Noise is welcomed, and our best noise-producers—musicians—play a crucial role in everyday life.
Of course, one type of ensemble represents New Orleans better than any other: the marching band. In New Orleans, a marching band is a magnet; it brings people together and shares with them a piece of the region’s soul. But in 2020, the silent spread of the coronavirus left New Orleanians without this deep tradition. It left New Orleans without its noise.
It has been more than a year since a marching band has paraded through the city, almost impossible given New Orleans’ rich musical legacy. But New Orleans’ proud music culture has not been silenced. Just temporarily muffled.
At The Roots of Music, we uphold New Orleans’ musical traditions by offering middle-school students the opportunity to play in a marching band at no cost. The brainchild of Grammy-winning New Orleans percussionist Derrick Tabb, the program began in 2007 with a $20,000 budget, enough to accommodate 20 children. When 42 students showed up on the first day, Tabb and his colleagues knew they had started something special.
Tabb—a New Orleans native and drummer in the world-famous Rebirth Brass Band—has always felt a desire to give back to his community. “My junior high band director showed a special interest in me,” Tabb said. “The disciplinarian that I needed in my life: he was that guy for me… And I used to always say: ‘Man, if they had more of this guy, he could save a lot more people like me.’”
In addition to music instruction, Roots provides students with meals, transportation, and tutoring. Instructors focus on the needs of the whole child, not just their musical development. Once they’ve earned students’ trust, they can mentor and mold students into professional musicians.
Although musical excellence is an integral part of Roots’ mission, the staff focuses primarily on the fundamentals of music-making. That means teaching music theory, improvisation, and ear-training in addition to the repertoire. As Matt Sakakeeny, professor of ethnomusicology at Tulane University and Roots of Music board member, explained, “There’s a pedagogical function of band… Once you pop the lid and ask the top-tier musicians in the city how they learned, almost all of them went through a marching band program.”
It’s not only about technique. Participating in a strong marching band means a great deal culturally. Players who may never continue performing learn to share custody of a musical lineage that is central to the city’s persona and history. This is especially true during Mardi Gras season, when marching bands from all over come to perform and “battle” one another. Young people get to see themselves as central to the city’s identity.
Today, The Roots of Music’s Marching Crusaders band has over 200 members, motivating Roots staff to find new ways to serve our students. To that end, the organization recently launched the Roots Academy: a studio program designed to teach high school–aged students the skills they need to succeed in the music industry.
Still, the organization remains concerned about the impacts of the pandemic. Students have suffered from a lack of in-person socialization, leading to consequences that staff members are still trying to understand. “My biggest concern is, how do we keep our kids engaged and excited; not just about music, but about life,” said Executive Director Suzanne Raether. “I’ve seen kids who, before the pandemic, never put their horn down for anything, now saying they barely want to look at it. It’s hurt a lot of their souls.”
But students like tubist Mackyrin “Tubadu” Holmes made sure that the city’s old sounds didn’t disappear from regular life. Mackyrin, 11, joined the Roots family three years ago. When the pandemic forced classes online in March 2020, Mackyrin’s first thought was for his instrument.
“Mackyrin would not stop calling on the phone, saying, ‘I need my tuba, I can’t do this without my horn,’” said Raether. “We’ve taught them that no matter what happens, you can turn to music; you can turn to your band; you can turn to your horn. And that’s what Mackyrin did.” Soon after, more children began calling for their instruments, so Roots staff disinfected and safely delivered instruments to any program participant who wanted one.
Over the next several months, Roots staff slowly braided their band back together—first online and then in limited in-person sections. “We tried to put it all online at first,” recalls Raether, “but we soon realized that music education doesn’t work that way. You can’t just throw it online and expect it to work. Music is too human for that.” Instead, instructors met students at parks or in their front yards. They found their students on Instagram and Snapchat to remind them to practice. They sat on their phones listening to an F sharp on the other end of the line. “Once we stopped putting so much pressure on how to use technology and just focused on how to reach the child, it got easier,” Raether said.
Or, as Director of Bands Darren Rodgers said: “When we started just having fun, they finally loosened up enough to play music.”
Today, New Orleans’ streets are still missing their marching bands. While some music venues have reopened, the city now faces the Delta variant. Indoor mask mandates have returned, and festivals scheduled for October wait to learn their fate. Roots instructors don’t know what the future will bring. But they have learned that as long as there are youth like Mackyrin and a loving network of mentors and musicians, the city will never lose its sound. “As a section leader, I must always have my tuba,” Mackyrin said. “And I learned at The Roots: if you stay ready, you never have to get ready.”