A Book Review: Talk that Music Talk

By Orissa Arend

IMG_6605In this city we are quick to claim that we gave birth to jazz in the early 1900s. We celebrate its endurance today in myriad forms – church choirs, music clubs, second lines, brass bands, Mardi Gras Indians, and Social Aid and Pleasure Clubs.
But how did we get from there to here?

Talk that Music Talk is a collective ethnography compiled by Bruce Sunpie Barnes and Rachael Breunlin from interviews conducted between 2012 and 2014. The genius of this book is that it illuminates how each generation has nourished the roots of traditional music. It does this by recording the words of musicians themselves, young and old, living and deceased. Each interview includes a discussion of music and the technique for making music. And then the interviews go beyond that to include the intimacy of family relationships, community connections, and a record of social movement toward civil rights and inclusion. The book makes it clear that, for New Orleanians, music is much more than some packaged and sold form of entertainment. Indeed the passing on of traditional brass band music is a way to invest in the social and cultural well-being of the city.

One hugely enriching aspect of the book is its stunning black and white photographs, several on each page. They were inspired by a series of dreams that Barnes had in the year leading up to the book project, a portrait studio admired by Breunlin in Mali that used textile backdrops for photos, and the archives of the Black Men of Labor Social Aid and Pleasure Club (BMOL), an African American benevolent society with roots in the Civil Rights Movement.

BMOL was founded in 1994 after Danny Barker’s funeral. Says Fred Johnson, Jr., one of BMOL’s founders, “Danny’s funeral inspired me to return to the street. As I had worked my way up through the business and nonprofit world, I had observed that many middle-class Black folks felt that once you got to a certain quality of life, you don’t need to participate anymore – you are beyond that, you are above that. I wasn’t buying into that perspective. I believed you could make a good living and still be part of the culture that you grew up in. Tootie [Montana] was a very good counter-example. The man worked every day. He wasn’t in and out of jail. He paid his bills, and he made that costume.”

The name of the organization came about because, “Black men always get a bad rap about how they don’t take care of their business or their house. I said, ‘That’s not true for most of us,’ Now, let’s go on the other side – the labor part.”

The book uses the actual words of musicians over the decades to break down the various elements involved in the transmission of traditional music. They include innate talent, a teacher, the music itself, dance, an instrument, travel, church, the radio. Also seen as vehicles of transmission are family tradition, church, God, the Yoruba spirits, a mentor, the lyrics of a song, school bands, friends, a class. Musical technique can be learned by imitation and then internalized and experimented with to make it the new musician’s own. Several musicians spoke of a desire for salvation through the communication of an international language which is music.

As a laboratory to test and study all of these elements of transmission, the National Park Service began a program called Music for All Ages (MFAA) on January 7, 2006. The inter-generational program for kids under 18 and adults over 50 teaches young people how to play traditional brass band music by working with professional bands. A core group of 10-15 students attend the program regularly.

MFAA uses “ear training” which stresses listening and working with others. Barnes, a founder of the program and co-author of the book, tells his students, “Be open to the whole embodiment of what the music is. When you play it back, it’s not going to sound exactly like me. It’s going to be in the same spirit, but it’s going to sound like you. And that’s what passing music on in the city is about – developing your own voice and being able to make your own mark.”


A key adviser for the program is Jerome “Big Duck” Smith, co-founder of the New Orleans chapter of the Congress of Racial Equality, a nonviolent direct-action civil rights organization that helped dismantle Jim Crow segregation in the American South. For 60 years he has been a cultural investor, forming Tambourine and Fan to allow children to experience how an understanding of music, street culture and social justice are connected in New Orleans. Here is an example of his poetic wisdom: “You know where you hear music at? In your mama’s womb. You hear her heartbeat. And then you come attuned to your own creation.”

Smith also points to the cries of the produce vendors.

“Watermelon, watermelon, red to the rind. Come here pretty lady; ain’t nothing sweeter than mine! That was his magic,” says Smith. “His magic wasn’t his produce. The magic was him. He’d sing about the okra and potatoes. It wasn’t like they were buying, it was like he was bringing them gifts because of the way he would handle the music.”

It’s also about survival, he says.

“Black people used the streets and the music they created to express themselves. They invented something that prevented us from committing suicide.”

So Smith decided to create an organization, Tambourine and Fan, to “use [children’s] fun time for social awareness and historical linkages, especially to the music.”

Another adviser to MFAA, Doratha “Dodie” Smith-Simmons, was the secretary of New Orleans CORE before working for Preservation Hall and the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. Her youngest brother William Smith says Dodie saw Civil Rights as her way out the Ninth Ward – which he claims wasn’t just a place, but a state of mind, “that people accepted that this is where they belonged.”

One of the young people in MFAA is Jose Bravo Besselman. Originally from a remote jungle village on the Guapi River in Colombia, he came to New Orleans as a baby through Operation Smile to correct a double cleft palate. After drastic complications from surgery and the inability of his family to raise him, he was adopted by a white couple in River Ridge who had raised six kids and were looking forward to their parental freedom. But blessings come in strange forms and music has helped Jose through the pain of numerous surgeries and the adolescent agonies of fitting in. According to his parents, now 70, they get to second line in parts of the city new to them, instead of sitting at home in front of the TV.

Hart McNee, who passed away on Bastille Day of 2009, shares much more than music in his interview. After discussing his drug use, past regrets, and confidential clearance in the military, he concludes: “I guess all my secrets are obsolete now.”

Perhaps that’s true of most secrets. But his musical wisdom certainly is not: “If you could say it, you wouldn’t have to play it. Words are a different thing. Music is a different thing. The answer is really a sound.”

One teacher in MFAA addresses the fear of playing bad notes: He tells Barnes’ son Aurelien, “I don’t care about you playing bad notes. Bad notes will turn into good notes eventually.”

Kenneth Terry, a trumpet and cornet player, explains to the world at large, “The difference between New Orleans and a bunch of other places is that here, a lot of these musicians don’t just play music. They live it. They actually live it. This is every day for us. This is our life, and it’s not taught strictly out the book.”

Long live the music!

Orissa Arend is the author of Showdown in Desire: The Black Panthers Take a Stand in New Orleans.

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