Instrumental Players



L.E. Rabouin Senior High School at 4 p.m. on a February afternoon is an exciting place. The buzz of tired excitement on the students waiting for rides or just milling around, hanging out on Carondelet Street, is contagious. It's easy to flash back to the feeling of getting released from another day of high school, with the warming weather smelling like spring and Mardi Gras. At the back of the school, though, in the de facto band room, there's a different kind of excitement building.

Rabouin (pronounced rob-WAYNE), a Recovery District school, has historically never had a marching band. All that changed, though, at the beginning of the 2006-07 school year, when 25-year-old instructor Dinerral Shavers, who also played snare drum in the Hot 8 Brass Band, petitioned the school to start one. Once he got the go-ahead to post a call for students interested in playing in the band, Rabouin band director Darryl Person -- who took over the band after Shavers was murdered on Dec. 28, 2006 -- says the response within a day was more than 80 students. He estimates that all but about 10 had never played before.

This wasn't a unique problem, though, according to Wilbert Rawlins, who along with his brother Lawrence, currently directs the band at O. Perry Walker Senior High School in Algiers and for six years directed marchers at George Washington Carver. With students reshuffled between schools and many still in exile (or by now simply relocated), more than a few marching bands are prepping for this parade season with fresh rosters wearing the colors and toting the drums and brass. Rawlins suggests, with some pride, that this season will truly be a test of the band directors -- the generals on this field -- as much as their student musician troops.

"We've got 70 or 80 kids who never played before," says Rawlins over the phone the week before parades start, as trumpets blare in the background. "Every director in the city is starting over with new musicians. Every hand we've got is having to teach these children. So these bands will truly be a product of the teachers."

At the start of the daily three-hour practice (they also practice from 9 a.m. until 4 p.m. on Saturdays) at Rabouin at T-minus three days before parades roll, some of that teaching is on display. Before the 80-odd drummers, horn players, drum majors, flag girls, dance team, cheerleaders, majorettes and drill team split into sections to practice their routines, principal Kevin George stands at the front of the room to address them. The razzle-dazzle electricity of a first-time parade season may be in the air, but George is here to remind them that representing their school also carries a certain responsibility. For one, trash is being left in the outer yard where the drums and different dance groups practice.

"There ain't nobody in this room but y'all," George points out in a voice that means business. "So if there's plates out there in the yard, it means you did it. They have garbage cans out there, right?" he asks, answered by a "Yes, sir," from the back of the room. More serious is the issue that some students have been telling their parents that band members aren't required to come to class on parade days, which doesn't fly with him. George -- a fit, well-pressed natty dresser with a natural air of authority -- is obviously interested in and proud of the band (it's his own first year as principal, and he stays watching practice for more than an hour), but he's not willing to let the profile mean that accountability is going to slide.

"Marching band students, they're popular," explains Matt Sakakeeny, a doctoral candidate in ethnomusicology at Columbia University. "When Mardi Gras comes, and they're rolling down Canal, all the other kids are watching and yelling. The girls are hitting on the boys, the boys are hitting on the girls. It's their moment of celebrity." To get to that moment, though, takes an extraordinary amount of work, which leaves a mark that everyone in the community agrees is a positive one.

"These high school-age kids are the same age as the kid who's accused of killing Dinerral Shavers," says Sakakeeny, "and the lure and temptation of the streets is the same, for all of them. ... It's the structure, the pride, the respect of these gigs, it keeps you off the streets. Even if it was just the timing issue, that they have an activity from four until seven every day that's positive. They learn teamwork, how to get along with the person playing next to them, who they may or may not like in other circumstances, but they damn well better play their part. And the section leaders learn leadership, discipline, responsibility ... when they come together at six, the band director isn't going to walk up and down the line and see who's not holding up their end. He'll go to the section leader and say, 'You better get your section together, or else."

Person notes that when teachers at Rabouin have disciplinary problems with band members, they often come to him. "If I can't control them in the school," he says, "then in the streets, anything can happen."

So close to parading time, Rawlins says he is starting to see that change in his band. It's ready for the seven parades O. Perry Walker has lined up.

"They're starting to feel it now, starting to realize the meaning of band. Before that, we were just here. But we did the Martin Luther King Day parade in Atlanta, and we did the Rose Bowl, and the band is starting to become a band now," he says.

Sakakeeny's dissertation focuses primarily on brass bands, with a section on high school marching bands because of their tendency to serve as feeder systems into New Orleans brass and other local bands. Needless to say, his research took a slightly different turn -- as his subjects did -- after Katrina, and now he, like everyone else, is watching the map get redrawn.

"Unequivocally, every brass band musician in this city came up in a high school marching band. If the city is trading off of this music to attract tourists, the No. 1 industry, how are they nurturing these musicians? If music is the magnet to bring that money into the city, the infrastructure needs to be there to nurture those musicians," he says.

At Rabouin, the section instructors are all volunteers, whether they're members of the community, like band director Person and majorette leader Kenyon Carter, or teachers, like dance team leader Patricia Alexis and cheerleading instructor Tamika Saul. Before the storm, though, things weren't especially different, with little money dedicated to music education. Sakakeeny gradually learned, through his research, that most music teachers and bandleaders did their own fundraising, with little supplementary money coming in from the school system -- paying for transportation to and from parades and football games, food, instrument repair and other expenses. Bands can earn around $1,500 per parade from the krewes, and Rabouin is marching with nine parades in the coming weeks. But as a brand-new band with more than 80 students, each needing everything from uniforms (which can cost up to $600) to sheet music to instruments (a trumpet can cost $700 easily, and a tuba in the thousands), that's not a lot to earn.

At the end of August, the Tipitina's Foundation, through its Instruments A-Comin' program (started before the storm) began donating this year's load of instruments to area schools that started new bands, like Rabouin, or had lost their instruments due to Katrina. The Foundation reports having raised nearly $500,000 to spend on instruments, says New Orleans Music Exchange owner Jimmy Glickman, who purchased the instruments at below wholesale cost for Tipitina's. Glickman adds that instruments were donated to about 15 area middle, elementary and high schools. Rabouin's instruments, about $100,000 worth, came through Recovery School District (RSD), according to Person, with a few donated by Tip's. Instruments A-Comin' also sent some to O. Perry Walker as well as renowned marching outfits like Warren Easton High School and the St. Augustine Marching 100. According to Glickman, band directors and principals gave their wish lists to Tipitina's, which in turn did its best to accommodate them in a timely way, donating to RSD, New Orleans Public Schools (NOPS) and charter schools like O. Perry Walker. Rabouin's instruments and uniforms were requested from RSD well after Shavers formed the band in October of last year. They weren't received until the end of January, which adds to the urgency of their practice. When asked how they practiced up until then, Person answered, "Books and humming."

Actual budget numbers for marching band programs in NOPS and RSD weren't available at press time, and it's too early to tell whether, or how, music education and its funding in New Orleans will be redesigned in the post-Katrina landscape -- although most involved agree it can only get better. This year isn't going to be a reliable model because of special fairy godmother presence from third parties like the Tipitina's Foundation. Rawlins, for his part, speaks glowingly of the Algiers Charter School System's commitment to his band at O. Perry Walker.

"This is the best situation I've ever been in," he says. "I don't have to worry about fundraising, don't have a budget, don't have an account. I just go to the principal and let them know what I need."

Back in the grassy lot behind L.E. Rabouin, Person, an alumnus of Southern University's world-renowned marching band, is surveying his team as it gets ready for its trial by fire -- after already having been through plenty. According to principal Kevin George, for the two weeks after Christmas vacation, Rabouin "wasn't the same place ... some of them couldn't overcome Shavers death. Some kids just couldn't bring themselves to come back out here without him being here."

"Right after Christmas, when you walked in the band room, you didn't feel happiness, or a lot of joy," Person says. "There were a lot of pictures of Mr. Shavers around -- they didn't want nobody sitting in his chair."

Person took the position of band director (which is unpaid) after being coaxed to apply by one of his own former band students, now at Rabouin. But the early days of 2007 were difficult, both from the lingering tragedy and the pressure to prepare for parades with only a little over a month to go.

"I'm not going to say it was hard, because the kids were already motivated and they wanted to do this for Mr. Shavers anyway," he says. "But it was crazy, because we were still waiting for stuff to come in here. We didn't have any instruments, we didn't have any drums, we didn't have anything. It's kind of sad that [Shavers] isn't here to see what he started. I tell the kids we're going to keep marching on, you know, we're going to do this for him, not for me."

This week, though, the kids are feeling good, and already talking competition with other bands.

Back in the band trenches at O. Perry Walker, assistant band director Lawrence Rawlins is adamant that the New Orleans marching band sound is not just something special -- in the end, they're essential.

"Marching bands add the spirit to the parade," Lawrence Rawlins says. "Without a band, there's no excitement. Beads are fine ... but, you know."

L.E. Rabouin Senior High School students practice to march - in the school's new marching band. - CHERYL GERBER
  • Cheryl Gerber
  • L.E. Rabouin Senior High School students practice to march in the school's new marching band.

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