With overwhelming numbers of public school students still in Katrina-induced exile, the familiar sound of marching-band music is rare in New Orleans these days. But just over the Press Street tracks one recent Tuesday evening, the sound of Carnival is in full joyful cacophony, emanating from the lower level of a two-story house bearing a faded 2-foot high-water mark. Through the open door, a cardboard sign, propped up by a stack of flood-sodden LPs by a defunct local rock band, reads, "Ninth Ward Marching Band Practice Here."
Inside, about a dozen brass and drum players are warming up for practice, slowly being herded into place by arranger Eric Belletto (of the band Egg Yolk Jubilee) and bandleader Mr. Quintron, a local musical presence more known for his experiments in underground dance music than the uniformed structure of a marching band. The musicians, whose ages range from 16 to 41, include members of New Orleans indie-rock outfits Morning 40 Federation, the Detonations and the Interlopers. The space is the former and future Spellcaster Lodge, where Quintron and his artistic partner in crime, Miss Pussycat, once threw legendary underground house parties. Floodwaters from Katrina ruined the drywall and soundproofing 3 feet up the Lodge's walls, as well as a 1937 Hammond B-3 organ, the room's PA and the prototype for Quintron's patented light-sensitive instrument the Drum Buddy, as well as soaking most of the band's red-and-white uniforms.
But it's Carnival season, so the Ninth Ward Marching Band is ready to play.
"This band is the most important thing in music I've ever done in my life," says Brian Marchese, the tri-tom player who leads the drum corps. He notes that he's the only band member actually born and raised in the Ninth Ward. Marchese also is a veteran of the St. Paul's High School marching band. "Being from New Orleans, getting to actually be involved in Mardi Gras instead of seeing it from a sideline perspective, is amazing."
The band tears into its three-song repertoire for this season -- the Sweet's "Love Is Like Oxygen," the Scorpions' "Rock You Like A Hurricane," and the Animals' "House of the Rising Sun." As the band performs, it's clear that this gang -- mostly representative of the core of nontraditional artists and musicians who have set up housekeeping in the inexpensive Ninth Ward -- is serious about Mardi Gras custom.
Mr. Quintron, who Marchese describes as a "master organizer," has long been a force in linking the city's hipster underground to its musical and artistic traditions. "We don't want to be this tribal renegade anti-Mardi Gras, anti-tradition thing," Quintron explains. "What New Orleans is, is weird enough. Hipster culture is reactionary in this knee-jerk, anti-tradition way, but traditional New Orleans is subversive in a way that the Sex Pistols never were or could have been. And even after a devastating hurricane, we still have those values intact. All these rich people deciding to stage Mardi Gras anyway, to buy plastic beads, instead of more important things -- there are no more important things."
The band, which started a decade ago with 20 members and has since swelled to nearly 70 (including musicians, cheerleaders, baton twirlers, a rifle corps and a gong) began by parading from the Ninth Ward into Jackson Square early in the morning following the Spellcaster's all-night Maritime Ball, traditionally held the Friday before Mardi Gras. In its fifth year, the band received a parade permit and began parading down St. Charles on the second Sunday, before the Bacchus parade, from Louisiana Avenue to the Circle Bar. They've also paraded as part of the Krewes of Shangri-La and Muses. This year, they have landed at the top of the Carnival heap with a spot in Proteus, the second-oldest parading krewe in New Orleans, and which also shares the band's colors of red and white. "To be part of that culture was the aim for us from the beginning," says Quintron, who last October released his most recent CD, Swamp Tech. "Not just being in the Ninth Ward in front of a bunch of the same people you always see at rock shows. We wanted to see what it was like to go for 6 miles, past families and kids."
The musical structure of the marching band and its emphasis on unity also drives the project. "Most of us live in this artsy world where individuality is fetishized," says Quintron. "That's the most moving thing about a marching band -- to dress the same and play the same thing at the same time and lose that focus on the individual -- to do that makes a thing better than any of us could do individually."
The Ninth Ward Marching Band will perform in the Krewe of Muses parade at 7 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 23; will parade from Bacchanal in Bywater to Mimi's in the Marigny at 4 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 25; and will perform in the Krewe of Proteus parade at 5 p.m. Monday, Feb. 27.
- The Ninth Ward Marching Band, which celebrates a decade of existence, features musicians, cheerleaders, baton twirlers, a gong, and its very own a rifle corps.