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Root Causes 

In the cool darkness of Tipitina's Uptown at 4 p.m. on a recent afternoon, 70-80 middle-school students, some clutching drumsticks, wriggle in their seats with enthusiasm while Edward Lee, sousaphonist with the Soul Rebels brass band, hollers out some basics of music theory. 'C sharp is the same as " he bellows, and a chorus of young voices yells back, 'D flat!"

Lee is teaching the first section of the program. In half an hour, the students, most of whom haven't played before, will split into groups and work on the fundamentals of their chosen instruments. Roots of Music " an independent year-round music program masterminded by Derrick Tabb " is nearing its second month, and so far, it's going great.

Tabb, the Rebirth Brass Band's snare drummer, is a tall, soft-spoken man with a paternal vibe. At today's Roots of Music session, he's wearing an understated, grown-folks' version of hip-hop fashion: an immaculate white ball cap and a long silver chain with a chunky cross medallion. It's a balanced blend of authority and street hip — the kind of cool teacher kids respect and want to be like.

If it takes a village to raise a musician, the Tremé was one for Tabb as he grew up.

'I was always around music," Tabb says. His grandmother's house was a popular visiting spot for brass band musicians and well-known locals like Anthony 'Tuba Fats" Lacen, and a cousin owned the neighborhood club that would become Joe's Kozy Corner. In middle school, when he was the same age as the kids enrolled in Roots of Music, Tabb learned technique from his marching band director, Donald Richardson.

Since Katrina, though, Tabb feels the same musical opportunities are no longer there for younger children, at school or around their homes, with communities still scattered from the storm. He hopes Roots of Music will pick up the slack. He's building his own village: Local musicians like Lee help teach after school, his wife Keisha Carmouche handles administrative duties and parent relations, and vice president Allison Reinhardt works with Derrick (whose title is executive director) to mastermind programming and funding research. Consultants and board members include Tulane music professor Matt Sakakeeny, Free Agents Brass Band leader and St. Augustine Marching 100 alum Ellis Joseph, Troy 'Trombone Shorty" Andrews and Rebirth Brass Band leader Phil Frazier.

One goal is to have a marching band trained and ready by the time parades roll this season. 'There's not but one junior high marching band right now," Tabb says. 'And I feel kids are more receptive musically at a younger age. By the time you're in high school, if you don't have the discipline already, you don't have time for all that."

For its first few weeks, as the school year drew to a close, Roots of Music met for two hours each evening, three days a week. Now, they've stepped it up to four days, from 3 p.m. to 7 p.m. When they move into the Jazz and Heritage Foundation building on North Rampart Street in two weeks, they'll shift the summer hours to midday, and when the school year starts in the fall, it'll be five nights a week. It's an intense schedule, but necessary if Tabb, Rawlins and the other instructors want to have the students in shape for a planned Christmas concert, not to mention the Mardi Gras parade season. The Tipitina's Foundation has, according to Roots of Music band director Lawrence Rawlins, pledged to donate up to 200 instruments to outfit the band; they also hosted a fundraiser with Irma Thomas last month at Tip's. Volunteers bring food and are available to tutor the kids on their academic subjects. After the 2008-09 school year begins, Rawlins says, Roots of Music will require students to maintain a 2.5 GPA to stay in the program, with a two-semester grace period to bring necessary scores up. They also provide pickup and drop-off transportation from several points around the city. 'So the parents have no excuse," Rawlins explains.

As Gambit Weekly's photographer snaps photos of the kids practicing at Tip's, woodwinds instructor Allen Dejean notices something. 'Hey! No gang signs!" he says, pointing sternly at a student in the second row. If the Roots of Music staff has their way, soon things like that won't be a problem. 'I'm gonna spoil them," Tabb says. 'It's gonna be more fun than anything else they could possibly get into."

click to enlarge Rebirth Brass Band drumer Derrick Tabb started Roots of Music to train another generation of local musicians. - CHERYL GERBER
  • Cheryl Gerber
  • Rebirth Brass Band drumer Derrick Tabb started Roots of Music to train another generation of local musicians.
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