Book Review: Read My Lips
Coffeetable book on New Orleans? Dense ethnography and oral history of Crescent City brass bands!
Reviewed by Thomas Fawcett, Fri., May 29, 2015
Talk That Music Talk: Passing on Brass Band Music in New Orleans the Traditional Wayby Bruce "Sunpie" Barnes and Rachel Breunlin
UNO Press, 240 pp., $35
Like blues poet Willie Dixon famously proclaimed, you can't judge a book by its cover. Based on its oversize frame, you'd be excused for thinking Talk That Music Talk: Passing on Brass Band Music in New Orleans the Traditional Way was a photo-heavy coffeetable topper for casual browsing. While it collects arresting black-and-white images, it's instead a dense ethnography and oral history of Crescent City brass bands past, present, and future. A collaboration between musician Bruce "Sunpie" Barnes and Rachel Breunlin, anthropology professor and co-director of the Neighborhood Story Project, the book roughly divides into two parts. The first half uses interviews with musicians and community leaders to tell a broader story about life in the Big Easy, from civil rights activism and the desegregation of public schools to Mardi Gras Indian tribes and jazz funerals. Born of a desire to keep the traditional form and rich history of brass bands alive, that history culminates with the formation of the Black Men of Labor Social Aid & Pleasure club in the mid-Nineties. Members, who hail from brass bands including Dirty Dozen, Young Fellaz, Stooges, Rebirth, and more, diligently pass these traditions on to future generations, so the latter half of Talk dedicates itself to conversations between young musicians and their mentors. As Woody Penouilh of the Storyville Stompers notes, "At its best, musicians in New Orleans won't look at each other as competition. They look at it as just friends joining together to make a good sound. Everybody shares their knowledge."