Widely regarded as one of the most vibrant music scenes in the world, New Orleans’ offering of the Hot 8 Brass Band are another on a long list who have set their world alight. Having been drawing together influences from jazz right through to hip-hip since their formation in the mid 90s, the group have continued to channel the spirit of New Orleans through their instrumentation, with a strong message never to distant from the music. This summer, Hot 8 Brass Band find themselves on the other side of the Atlantic showcasing their talents at number of UK festivals including Madness’ House Of Common on Monday August 29th. Ahead of their UK shows, we caught up with band leader and founder Bennie Pete to help provide a unique insight to Hot 8’s story.
Hi Bennie! Hot 8 Brass Band have a lot of great releases in their back catalogue, but are probably best known for their live performances, with soulful, high energy shows. Is the travelling element of performing live something which you enjoy?
I would say yes, we love to travel and for many different reasons, but also we love to perform in front of an audience. So to travel and receive the reception we have been receiving, it shows us our growth and progress from all the struggling and hard work that we put in from our earlier years. Also it gives a new confidence and a big sense of achievement that feeds the band morale, but also it turns our dreams to a living reality right before our eyes and that fuels us to pray harder and dream bigger.
The history of Hot 8 goes back a long way to the mid 90s, so can you tell us a bit about how you guys came to form?
Well before we were the Hot 8 we called ourselves the Looney Tunes Brass Band. I know that sounds funny, but we were all high school students at that time, going to the same school, so it was more about all of us having different characteristics that were similar to the cartoons characters. Anyway, when we all graduated from high school some guys went on to get married and have families and moved on, and there were four of us who still wanted to play music and continue the band. We joined with four other local musicians and began to rehearse and came up with the name Hot 8. The rest is history.
"It turns our dreams to a living reality right before our eyes and that fuels us to pray harder and dream bigger."
As well as jazz clubs and parades, Hot 8 are well known for playing jazz funerals, a tradition that developed in New Orleans which a lot of people over here in the UK might not be aware of. Can you explain a little bit about how you treat performances at such sensitive and emotional events?
Well with the funeral tradition we, as musicians, make sure to play at least one or two dirges or slow tunes and some traditional gospel hymns for the family and to show respect to the church, family and the tradition itself. Sometimes families are too emotional for us to continue and may even request for us to play something more up-tempo. We make sure to pay respect to the tradition but also cater to the family’s request.
You’ve got a lot of fantastic covers in your back catalogue, with the likes of The Temptations, Basement Jaxx, The Specials and of course Marvin Gaye all getting reworked by Hot 8. Tell us a bit about the sort of artists who have inspired you over the years.
Well for starters all of the artists you listed, but the list goes on and on. From Rance Allen with the gospel hymns to Snoop Dogg, all the way to Stevie Wonder. Inspiration is always around when it comes to the band. A lot of times our real life situations both personal and as a group bring the best music out of the band.
As part of your summer tour you’ll be playing at House of Common in London on August 29th. How have your previous experiences of audiences in the UK been?
The experiences have been over whelming to say the least, but as I said before, a dream come true.
You guys seem inextricably linked to the New Orleans area through your history, and the city’s rich cultural and musical history must surely have played a huge role in the band’s development. What makes New Orleans so special for musicians?
It's arguably the greatest place to grow up as musicians as there are so many down to earth people around you. Growing up, there were times a family member, close friend or person in your community would be hanging out as a regular guy on the block. Then to see this same person performing in front of large audiences and traveling the world and then coming back to your community all in one life time is amazing. You would want to be just like that person, as a child growing up, witnessing this type of thing along with coming to the understanding the culture behind this great thing. You get a feeling that you've got to be a part of this, some way, some how, because you’re living it everyday, so then you take a stand and find your position whether it's being a musician or being a part of the social scene.
The band is also heavily involved in the Silence Is Violence campaign which aims to bring peace to New Orleans, an issue that must be close to your hearts considering the tragic loss of three members to handgun shootings. Do you believe that music can facilitate more hopeful futures for residents in communities ravaged by gang conflicts?
Yes, I totally believe that 100 percent. I believe that if it can happen for us as the Hot 8 and many other of our fellow musicians in New Orleans, I believe that positive facilitation and inspiration can cause a reaction that can play an essential role in conquering these type of conflicts in our communities all over the world.
After the death of drummer Dinerral Shavers in 2006, Hot 8 walked under the banner “Violent Systems Create Violent People” in the subsequent protest march to City Hall. Having experienced the devastating effects of city violence first-hand, what do you think needs to happen before the “violent system” can be truly corrected?
I believe we as a people will have to address these issues in our own home and our own communities and then be able to get together as a people and appoint the right people in leadership to implicate the system that we would like to see in our communities.
"Positive facilitation and inspiration can cause a reaction that can play an essential role in conquering these type of conflicts in our communities all over the world."
In 2004 your friend and fellow bandmate Joseph "Shotgun Joe" Williams was shot by police despite eyewitnesses claiming that he was unarmed and not resisting arrest; such a tale has become heartbreakingly common in the US, and it seems that being young and black in many of America’s inner city areas has become dangerous in itself. Is it possible or desirable for groups like the Hot 8 Brass Band to distance themselves from this kind of political context, or is it part of their responsibility to challenge the institutional racism that seems so prevalent in America at the moment?
I believe whenever you have the resources to reach a large number of people, or have the ability to highly inspire a large number of people you should use that platform to do just that. Especially when it's a lot of negativity and people are losing their lives to a high volume of violence, not only in New Orleans but in America, period. So yes, I feel it's a responsibility.
It seems a wonderful tribute to those friends that you have lost along the way that you continue to take such pride in your music and your community, so I thought maybe we could use this last question to ask about some of the new talent coming out of New Orleans. Are there any young bands coming out of the city at the moment who you think we should be keeping an eye on?
I believe New Orleans has always been, and always will be a revolving door for talent. There is some great young talent coming from New Orleans at the moment. As for brass bands, I would say the New Breed Brassband and also the TBC Brassband among a few others, but those two for sure are doing a lot of good things for youth and the Brassbands.
"Whenever you have the resources to reach a large number of people, or have the ability to highly inspire a large number of people you should use that platform to do just that."
Hot 8 Brass Band play Madness Presents House Of Common Monday 29th August at Clapham Common, London.
Interview by Andrew Kemp
Photos courtesy of Hot 8 Brass Band