Hope from the Drumline

Derrick Tabb, executive director of Roots of Music, teaches a young percussionist.

IAN MCNULTY PHOTOGRAPH

It is the interplay between present and past which gives history its fascination,” historian Alan Bullock once wrote.

Only in New Orleans, however, can a broken traffic light change the interplay between past and present, opening a window to a brighter, violence-free future.

It happened on Saturday morning, Nov. 22, 2008, the 45th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.

After a dispiriting week of monitoring the city’s malfunctioning criminal justice system, this reporter drove toward the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center – and the promise of national legislation to end rampant gun-violence in crime-wounded communities such as New Orleans.

U.S. Rep. Bobby Rush, D-Ill, was scheduled to discuss his proposed Communities in Action Neighborhood Defense and Opportunity (CAN DO) Act at the State of the Black World Conference, the first major meeting of black leaders since the presidential election of Barack Obama.

Rep. Rush himself is no stranger to history.

A former leader of the militant Black Panther Party in Illinois, Rush, with the backing of then-President Bill Clinton, beat back a challenge to his congressional seat in 2000 from then-state Sen. Obama (to date, he’s the only politician to defeat Obama in an election).

According to the conference agenda, Rush’s CAN DO bill (House Resolution No. 7115) called for a four-pronged strategy: “aggressive law enforcement and community policing,” increased access to mental health counseling, job training and economic opportunities and better education and recreation for at-risk youths.

The only obvious downside to the proposal (the cost was unclear) was language in the bill calling for a five-year pilot program.
New Orleans can’t wait that long.

Still, when a former Black Panther calls for tougher law enforcement, he gets your attention. When local leaders can’t seem to stop violence, you shop the marketplace of ideas.

Unfortunately, a traffic light malfunctioned in the vicinity of Convention Center Boulevard. I was still stuck in traffic, long after Rush’s speech was scheduled to begin.

Fortunately, this is New Orleans, where the interplay of past and present provides local alternatives.

Shortly after 10 a.m., a drumline suddenly rumbles to life in Mid-City, just paces away from Mandina’s Restaurant on Canal Street.
Boom, boom, boom, boom, BOOM!

Rat-a-tat, rat-a-tat.

Determined-looking black boys practice marching band music outside of a two-story house in the 100 block of South Cortez Street.
Two square-shouldered men (both music instructors) look on, their arms folded.

More kids arrive. They tumble out of cars and SUVs. Tugging at trombones, clarinets and drum sets, they race inside the house.
It is a Saturday carpool line.

Judging by the expressions of gratitude and relief, the drivers are parents, grandparents or guardians.

Soon, more than 80 kids (ages 9 to 14) are settling at The Roots of Music, a free music instruction program for boys and girls from public middle schools citywide.

Co-founded by the world-renowned Rebirth Brass Band, snare drummer Derrick Tabb and Troy “Trombone Shorty” Andrews, Roots of Music is a nonprofit organization designed to keep kids off the city’s mean streets.

How?

By training them in music, music theory and rigorous physical exercise, during three-hour classes five days a week at the Mid-City house and neighboring Grace Episcopal Church, organizers say. By developing their talents for other intensive music programs such as the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts; by making New Orleans’ needy youths a nationally recognized marching band; by rewarding months of training with black-and-gold uniforms and a musical role in three Carnival parades – Bacchus, Zulu and Muses.

In short, Roots aims to develop the potential of New Orleans’ youth.

“The students must keep a 2.5 grade point average, the same requirement as the TOPS college scholarship program,” says Lawrence Rawlins, the band director of the Orleans Parish Public School System, who serves in the same capacity for Roots of Music.

Unruly students simply can’t play, Rawlins says.

Staffed by experienced music educators, the program boasts a seasoned board of directors, including: Rebirth founder Philip Frazier; Carol Kolinchak, legal director for the Juvenile Justice Project youth advocacy organization; and Martha Murphy of Murphy Oil.

As Rep. Rush presumably drew his remarks to a close at the Convention Center, Roots of Music co-founder Tabb arrived at the Mid-City training grounds, cell phone in hand.

A towering figure in an oversized white T-shirt and Yankees baseball cap, Tabb said he began thinking about forming the program some five years ago, partly as an alternative to gangs and violence.

“A lot of kids take wards and turf serious because it’s all they got,” says Tabb, a band instructor at Orleans Parish Public Schools in the 1990s, before his own music career took off with Rebirth.

“I feel like it’s starting too late when you catch them after they have already done something,” Tabb says. “I want to keep them from jail.”

A lot of kids are still “dealing with Katrina,” he adds, adjusting to strange neighborhoods and new schools, often without family members or friends they knew before the storm.

“They ought to have more parks. Right now, everybody’s hurting.”

Tabb doesn’t recite Louisiana’s chronically grim statistics for crime, poverty and school dropouts. “As a city, I don’t think we’re doing anything for these kids,” he says.

Music seems like a good place to start.

“They all want to learn music.”

The name for his young music program, begun in late 2007, is succinctly explained, too.

“I always think of kids as the roots.”

Following a thundering afternoon of practice (18 days after the election of the first black president), the young Roots wait for the Saturday carpool to return.

The Jacobs brothers are among them.

Bruce, 12, plays baritone horn but says he wants to switch to snare drums. Payton, 10, a trombonist, confides he wants to be “an inventor.”

Christopher, 8, sees professional football in his future. Smiling proudly, he holds up his drawing of a dollar sign. In clearly legible Crayon, he has written “I like money.”

The day after Christmas 2008, the Roots are back at work. In 10 straight lines they march in place inside Grace Church. Five music instructors thread the ranks of youths, drill sergeants for a Carnival marching band.

“Left! Left! Left!”

Drums rumble, symbols crash.

“Two-four-five-six-seven-eight!”

Drummers suddenly change cadence.

White tubas sway in the back line.

“We have 80 to 90 kids off the street today!” instructor Rawlins says, triumphantly.

Come Carnival, they’ll be marching.

One hundred kids, worthy of public praise and applause – loud enough to drown out any self-doubts from growing up in a storm-broken city. That’s the kind of interplay New Orleans needs now and in the future.

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