Thursday, April 1, 2010

Treme - A preview of the music in David Simon's HBO series

Posted By on Thu, Apr 1, 2010 at 7:53 PM

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Kermit Ruffins appears as himself at one of his longstanding Vaughan's Lounge gigs in the HBO series Treme. Steve Zahn (left) plays a WWOZ DJ. Wendell Pierce plays a musician surviving gig to gig.

Photo courtesy of HBO.

By Noah Bonaparte Pais

Sometime around 9:10 p.m. CST on Sunday, April 11, minutes after the curtain draws on David Simon’s HBO drama Treme, thousands of Americans who have never set foot in New Orleans will get a taste of its most basic musical ritual.

The series’ third scene is an elaborate Central City street parade featuring the Rebirth and New Birth brass bands and close to 100 dancers from three social aid and pleasure clubs. It’s likely the most accurate fictional depiction of a second line ever captured on film — and the first of dozens of live performances by local musicians in the show’s 10-episode debut season.

“When you look at how to bring something like that to the screen, there are huge technical challenges,” music supervisor Blake Leyh says. “The way the music is done in most TV shows and most movies is, you take the musicians into a studio and record them playing the music, and then on set you play that music back and they pantomime to it. Knowing what the Rebirth’s music is like and having friends in the Sidewalk Steppers, I just knew that we couldn’t do it that way. We had to do a real second line.”

Leyh’s qualifications go beyond his two decades of film and television credits, which include five years as a composer and music supervisor on Treme predecessor The Wire. His sister, Genevieve, lived in Tremé while attending the University of New Orleans in the 1990s. “She painted the sign on Donna’s Bar and Grill; she painted Uncle Lionel (Batiste)’s drum,” says Leyh, who went from visiting the city regularly to splitting time between production here and post-production in New York.

“That was the first thing that I brought to the project: that all of the music that we would do in the show, we would do it for real and perform it live. It’s a huge conceptual difference in the way that music is usually portrayed on screen. We weren’t going to ask Kermit (Ruffins) to pantomime to a recording. We tell him to do what he normally does.

“By the end of season 1,” he says, “Americans in Milwaukee who have never thought about New Orleans or Mardi Gras Indians, they’ll know the difference between a spy boy and a trail chief. They’ll accidentally learn a lot of the details about the culture and how it all works.”

Eight episodes in (shooting for No. 9 began March 26), the crew already has employed hundreds of local musicians and songs on the show. Many, like Chuck Carbo’s “Second Line on Monday,” were written into the script, Leyh says, which posed another challenge: “It turns out no one’s ever licensed that song. Or at least it’s been a long time. No one could figure out who owns the rights. It’s a song that we really wanted to use, because it’s one of the 20 songs that you hear all the time on Mardi Gras.”

Leyh will discuss his approach to licensing music for Treme at the annual Sync Up panel during Jazz Fest (visit www.jazzandheritage.org/sync-up to register). Also sitting on the panel is True Blood music supervisor Gary Calamar, but despite the shared network and Louisiana setting, Leyh says he’s never seen that show — nor has he seen any of HBO’s current shows. His head is in another place.

“Maybe it would serve me well to watch TV sometimes,” he laughs. “That’s just not what I’m thinking about. I’m thinking about the music of New Orleans, and who is at the Spotted Cat tomorrow night, and how to get that stuff out into the world.

“I think most music supervisors, their reference points are other shows and other films and what’s hot in the music industry right now. They’re much more involved with the business of music. Really, I’m more a guy who just loves to be on a second line. I’m trying to figure out how to get that story told to a bigger audience.”

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