Chances are, if you’ve been to the French Quarter, you’ve noticed the performers on almost every corner. This includes bands, tap dancers, and even the strange little statue men, for whom a name escapes me. Though not commonly known, this practice of performing in the streets for money has a name. It is called busking and for many, it is a way of life.
The Hundreds Brass Band is a product of this lifestyle, a rather young band comprised of high school and college-aged members. As I accompanied them, it quickly became evident that they take their music very seriously.
For saxophone player Efuntola Akinlana, a typical high school week looked like this: school on the weekdays during the day, followed by basketball practice and busking on the weekends, sometimes followed by a gig or two.
What also became evident was that there is structure in the way French Quarter busking is set up, a method to the madness. When I arrived, they were about to move from a highly-coveted spot in Jackson Square to their usual spot by the French Market because a band that usually plays in Jackson Square at 3 pm on the dot had just arrived.
As soon as The Hundreds played their first note at the French Market, it became a spectacle. A crowd began to form. Tourists swarmed to record and contribute money to their box. Natives working in nearby shops began to dance. Both groups visibly enjoyed the performance. Eventually, even renowned trombonist Corey Henry of Galactic and Corey Henry and the Treme Funktet showed up.
It was clear that music was ingrained in this young group for as long as they could remember. It was as if smooth jazz notes flowed through their bloodstreams and percussion thumped in their hearts. This would be no surprise, having been reared in the city of New Orleans, the birthplace of jazz and home of good times.
School band programs, for many, provide a way to keep children off the streets. Many of the Hundreds members came together at KIPP McDonogh 15. Their band program was a safe haven. These music programs also provide a safe way for children to express themselves and channel their energies. Teach a child an instrument and give him somewhere to be after school and it turns into the spectacles that we see every Mardi Gras and at football game halftimes.
Growing up in New Orleans, there have always been Mardi Gras parades. Just about everyone I know has marched in at least one parade in his or her lifetime. And for as long as I can remember, the bands in the Mardi Gras parades have been one of the main events. From St. Augustine’s “Marching 100” to The Roots of Music, the bands have always been a source of excitement. Crowds of people even gather at the intersection of Tchoupitoulas Street and Napoleon Avenue before Bacchus just to see Southern University and Talladega College battle before the parade. Here, music is a way of life.