New Orleans' own Roots of Music Marching Crusaders chosen to play in Rose Bowl Parade
As anyone will tell you, music is deeply woven into the fabric of the New Orleans community. When the afternoon sun sets on the French Quarter, one may pass several street musicians, a small brass band and kids tap dancing. Also, one would find it hard to miss sounds of brass instruments and drum lines practicing in the streets next to the Roots of Music's home base, The Cabildo. Inside, lines of children with instruments in hand are being instructed and inspired through scales and songs by a number of talented band leaders. The program forms the Roots of Music Marching Crusaders, an award-winning, student-only marching band. A regular show-stealer during Mardi Gras parades, Jazz Fest and French Quarter Fest, the band is now bigger and better than ever. These days more than 130 kids are in high gear, practicing day and night, working to make it to their biggest event yet, the 124th Tournament of Roses Parade in Pasadena, California, on Jan. 1, 2013. Any mention of the big trip to California, and you see faces light up as a wave of excitement passes through the lively bunch, looking forward to taking part in "America's New Year celebration."
The Roots of Music is a local, non-profit organization providing free year-round music education, academic tutoring and mentorship to New Orleans' at-risk youth. The program offers kids in all areas of the city, ages nine through 14, an opportunity to escape the dangers of New Orleans' streets and learn what it means to be part of such a rich musical tradition. Roots of Music meets five days a week, inspiring kids through academics and music. Volunteer tutors provided by local colleges come every day and help kids do their homework. The program also includes a hot meal each night and transportation to and from home, all at no cost to the kids or their families. All they have to do is attend practice and keep a 2.5 GPA in order to be included.
Funding for the award-winning non-profit comes from performance revenue, grants and dignitaries. They also receive help from celebrities and local musicians who have taken to the cause. Active supporters include local legends Ani DiFranco and Trombone Shorty, actor/ director Tim Robbins, and "Treme" creator David Simon. Fundraising allows the program itself to run monthly but is being stepped up in a huge effort to send these kids to the Rose Bowl parade.
Roots of Music came out of the bleak aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, when school systems were suffering. Roots of Music sought to fill the great void left in middle school music education programs and aid young people at a crucial point in their lives. Co-founder and communications specialist Allison Reinhardt teamed up with native New Orleanian and snare drummer for the Grammy-Award-winning Rebirth Brass Band, Derrick Tabb, and began the marching band program in 2008. Tabb just couldn't stand to be a part of another jazz funeral for a kid and decided, with Allison, to do something about it and drew inspiration from his own junior high program and mentor. Their mission: to take New Orleans kids off the streets and put them in a marching band. The Roots of Music aims to provide a program for kids all over the city to express themselves through music while coming together in one safe, neutral spot. "The kids are our hearts," says Allison. "They're children who've been faced with every kind of challenge that you can imagine, that you could not imagine, and the program evolved based around their needs."
Nineteen kids were expected at Tipitina's for the first Roots practice in 2008, and 42 showed up. Since then, they have grown to accommodate more than 130 kids and have found their own home base in the state museum's Cabildo. "The need is out there, and the kids show us that they really want to be a part of this program," says Tabb. "If we put them in the right environment, a safe environment, it gives them the opportunity to do whatever it is they want to do."
At four years old, Roots of Music already has a waiting list of more than 600 kids, all of which they aim to save by putting instruments in their hands. Derrick says, "One hundred percent of our kids right now haven't had any background in music, so the music education part of the program is important because they're not getting it in schools."
Students are picked up and bused to the program each day after school and go straight to homework tutoring until band practice starts. Eighty-five percent of the students have raised their overall GPAs, and behavioral transformations have taken place because of Roots' tutoring and mentorship. Students are no longer mingling in dangerous neighborhoods after school getting into trouble.
After the tutoring portion, the students break up into their band sections and have about two hours of musical instruction from band leaders, who Allison has dubbed "creative geniuses of the program." The band directors act as musical educators and encouraging mentors to the kids, choosing songs and rewriting the music to ensure everyone in the band has a part to play.
Involved parent, Mr. Mitchell, who has two young sons in the program, ages nine and 13, says: "Roots of Music changed the lives of my two kids dramatically.
The youngest has come completely out of his shell as a shy, shy kid to one playing and loving music. The other has gone from running the streets to settling down and focusing on school and his music."
Roots of Music's enduring success in each child's life is because of every member of their hardworking staff and volunteers. "We're all one big family at Roots, and we all take care of each other," says 12-year-old drummer, Andrew. The environment kids are a part of at Roots, has to do with the extreme labor of love by all of their staff whose work tirelessly makes these kids' dreams a reality. The passionate dedication to music education and crime prevention rubs off on students like Tyler, age nine, who plays the symbols. "Just be yourself and practice hard," he says. "Every day, every night."
Roots of Music has received an invitation to perform in the 2013 Rose Bowl Parade on Jan. 1 in Pasadena, Calif., one of the highest honors for a marching band, especially a marching band that is only four years old. Roots of Music's talent earned them a place as one of approximately 20 outstanding bands from across the U.S. to march in the parade. The prestigious event is internationally televised and attended by more than one million people. They will be forging new ground as the only out-of-state, non-profit, middle-school-aged band to participate. Roots of Music will represent New Orleans' culture and powerful musical heritage. As Allison says: "While we make our big debut in California, we will essentially be telling the world that Louisiana is back and we are recovering. Telling that we are a very strong and very talented group of people."
They must raise more than $300,000 by the end of September in order to send each child involved in the program to California by plane and suited up in special new uniforms. Fundraising for this event is the biggest goal as of yet. Not being a traditional school, or an affluent one, with music programs or parents to fund band trips, Roots of Music is imposed with every kind of expense in order to provide for this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for the at-risk youth of our city. "We're taking all of our students, they've all worked extremely hard and they deserve this," says Allison with a smile. "This will be their ultimate debut and time to shine."
In hopes of reaching their goal and doing it on time, Roots is putting on fundraising events, selling shirts, writing grants and taking donations.
The children - some of whose only experience flying was traumatizing and was immediately following Hurricane Katrina - are both scared and exhilarated. They are all looking forward to taking part in the biggest adventure of their lives so far. Chico, a fiveyear-old drum major, exclaims he "can't wait for California!" Co-founder Derrick says, "Kids coming up today...if you give them the right way to do it, they're going to fly with it." Roots of Music provides these low-income kids a chance for a future they might have missed out on otherwise and opportunities, like the journey to Pasadena, that will shape their lives.
To donate or become involved please visit RootsofMusic.com.