The band started in 1991 and taken has up residence on Thursday nights at Le Bon Temps for six years and counting, doing whatever post-Katrina arrangements that are necessary to keep this gig, which helped them build a loyal following over the years. The Soul Rebels' show on this particular Thursday night is a microcosm for the style of music they play, and where they currently stand as a band.
The scene at the club resembles a block party more than a typical music show. The diverse crowd gives the impression that people from all four corners of Uptown and everywhere in between have descended upon the bar for what trumpet player Tannon Williams calls not your average gig but rather "a Thursday night house party." People come in and out of the music room in the back, navigating through the dancing crowd to get a drink at the bar or talk with a friend in the front.
Midway through a song, Williams casually announces that the owner of a black Honda needs to move because they are blocking somebody else in, all the while the rhythm section behind Williams continues its second line beat. During the set break, the crowd spills out onto the side street, drinks in hand, to cool off and socialize. The band, blending in with the crowd, leans against parked cars to greet friends, take requests for the next set and also hang out with each other, as this often is the only time they see one another.
The Soul Rebels separate themselves musically as one of the few brass bands that consistently incorporate elements of hip-hop into its traditional brass band music. Leblanc attributes this combination to their musical upbringing and to the music they heard around them when they started the band.
"From the band's inception, we were part of the hip-hop generation," Leblanc says. "When hip-hop started to trickle into the mainstream, that's what we were listening to on the radio and looking at on TV. So, naturally, we wanted to mix that into the New Orleans jazz," says Leblanc. Besides the influences of hip-hop, every band member grew up playing in the high school marching bands that reverberate through the streets each year during Mardi Gras. Several members also continued on college as members of the famous Southern University marching band.
The Soul Rebels choose the elements of hip-hop that naturally fit with their celebratory brass band style. This unique blend of styles is evident in the similarity between the atmosphere at Le Bon Temps and the environment in which hip-hop started in New York City. Hip-hop blossomed in the neighborhood dance parties held spontaneously in the street as DJs overlapped snippets of everyone's favorite dance tunes while the master of ceremonies led the party-goers in dance instructions that rhymed cleverly.
The Rebels' show at times can feel like an old-school DJ mixing in crowd favorites to get people moving and shaking. The music never stops during their set and they play brass band versions of everything from Marvin Gaye to OutKast to Phil Collins, to Louis Armstrong to instrumental versions of the latest hip-hop club hits. Trumpet player Damion Francois and trombone player Winston Turner also lead the crowd during their first set in call and response dance instructions, calling out and motioning to the crowd to follow with their hands as everyone chants "five, oh, four!" to call out the New Orleans area code.
However, the band's music remains within the framework of brass band music and is still immediately recognizable as such. There's no long-winded self-boasting rapping, as often is the case in hip-hop, which means there is no glorification of violence or outrageous portrayals of wealth either. Additionally, Francois and Winston sing their instructions instead of rapping them. Just like their name indicates, they are loyal to their tradition yet willing to stand out.
The group remains conscious of the delicate balance between tradition and their own style by acknowledging the difficulties the band faced when they first started.
"When we first started," says Leblanc, "we were heavily criticized because the purists of jazz felt it wasn't pure jazz, and the other New Orleans musicians felt that we were disrespecting a tradition."
The band was started as a collection of members from the Young Olympia Brass Band who wanted to experiment by adding styles of music to their set like hip-hop. Cyril Neville heard the side project and gave them their first big show opening for the Neville Brothers at Tipitina's in 1991. After a successful set, the band gathered backstage to come up with a name and put forward the name "The 8 Ball Brass Brand." Cyril interrupted the conversation by saying 8 Ball was too negative with its association to a popular liquor drink, and said the band reminded instead him of the Bob Marley song, "Soul Rebel."
The name stuck, but it wasn't all smooth sailing for the band after that.
"It was rough at first," says Leblanc. "We would go on gigs, and people would request other bands' songs. People wanted us to be a regular brass band." Despite a love for traditional second-line music, there was more to it for Leblanc and the Soul Rebels. "I think it's beautiful art form on its own, but we just had to what was in our souls, you know, doing the music the way we were, that's just something that was in us."
The turning point for the band came when they released the song, "Let Your Mind Be Free," which some people refer to by its unofficial title, "Walking in the Sixth Ward."
"For some reason that song took off," Leblanc says with a laugh.
With a popular brass band song that was uniquely its own, weekly gigs like Thursday nights Le Bon Temps followed, and the group was able to grow its following.
Currently, the band members still struggle in the aftermath of Katrina in trying to move themselves and their families back to New Orleans. They were able to overcome some of the initial obstacles in the weeks just after Katrina, like receiving donated instruments for example. "We left a lot of our stuff because we thought we were coming right back to New Orleans," Leblanc says. Yet, most of the band resided in what is now devastated parts of eastern New Orleans, and the majority of band remains unable to return permanently.
To play Thursday nights at Le Bon Temps, the band members stay with friends or whoever will welcome them before returning to their evacuated families, but, Leblanc says, "It's hit and miss." Despite what seems like an extremely impractical set of circumstances for the band to continue at Le Bon Temps, they insist on it being necessary. "That's why we make the drive. We don't want it to die down. We know that if we do this, people will appreciate it, and it will show some normalcy to the city." Thus, as the name of the club Le Bon Temps indicates, the block party continues.
Just as their set break was coming to an end, a short old man that looked well into his sixties comes up to Leblanc and says, "I want to make a request, can y'all play something for me?" The old man went straight into his own request, singing the words for "Let Your Mind Be Free" as he tapped his foot and clapped his hands. Leblanc responded with a smile, "Let your mind be free. We are going to play it my brother. Let your mind be free."