Feel Like Funkin' It Up (Homage to Treme) Print

69-og(Written June 15, 2014)

“Feel Like Funkin’ It Up”

In the HBO series Treme, the opening parade sequence, all of 6:46, heralds the program—in its entirety—one that will ripple and storm and flood into 36 episodes over four years. The mise-en-scène depicts the post-Katrina re-jiggering of New Orleans, three months after, as it affects one neighborhood, the Treme. It’s a noisy array of street sounds and band music—a trumpet player oiling his valves, a glaring cop expecting trouble, a man lustily tipping a beer, a van going by blasting hip-hop, a fade-in/fade-out snippet of that wanton lullaby, “Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans.”

Music/sounds consolidate the images. We feel the horns and drums grounding us—in the street space, in the parade rumble—while the individual drama of cops and musicians, barkeeps and chefs, families and loners, has not yet begun. But it doesn’t matter, this bright late November day. The music buoys the out-of-doors freedom, a return to normal chaos.

Members of the social club who want to parade are negotiating the fee with the musicians: How much will the band get for the first street party since Hurricane Katrina hit?

$200 per man with six members, $1200, right?

OK, yeah, man, but you promised Trombone Shorty who’s a big draw; without him, it’s less.

He’ll be here.

But he ain’t here now.

OK. Done—$1000 total.

The club—later named on a banner: A Few Good Men / Black Men of Labor / Money Wasters / Treme Sidewalk Steppers—is one of New Orleans' social and pleasure groups. (They follow the band, as the first line, while locals who follow them, the second line, enjoy the free music.) Cash exchanged, members seem relieved to have a gig. Under do-rags and slouched fedoras, they strut out the club door where, one member says, the joint took six/six-and-a-half feet of water.

The players—the Rebirth Brass Band, an actual New Orleans group (Treme uses many actual musicians in fictional roles, one mark of its ingenuity)—rattle bass drum and tambourine to life. A tune takes shape. It's Rebirth's big hit from 1989, "Feel Like Funkin' It Up." The blaring melody in the trumpets is answered by the trombones, the sousaphone (commonly called a tuba), pounding from behind, "the back pushing the front."

It's not long until the parade effloresces into Major Significance—the release of a mostly black, pent-up, FEMA-hating New Orleans' neighborhood, the Sixth Ward. That's the drama, where several of the interlaced stories are headed. But, again, we stay with the sound: Cash for music elicits musical improvisation, which is itself an exchange among players, a brass and percussion dialogue, which, in turn, signals the improvised two-step bounce and glide of the band and the ward's neighbors, magnetized out of their homes to move.

And then, another negotiation: a "bone man," Antoine Batiste, is late getting to the gig. He arrives, begging a cab driver to spot him a loan because he can't pay the full fare. OK? OK. "Thank you, brother, I owe you." Play, get paid, and then pay the debt that got you to the gig. The musician's creed.

Raising his trombone, Antoine runs at the band from behind, riffing off the trumpet's line—his trotting-up solo calls out his coming, alive with growl-sliding swells. The band hears him, lets him catch up.

And another negotiation—squeezing him in, he, a quick study, who seems ever-late for gigs and whose presence (in the annoyed stare of the bass drummer) means that the group, now expanded, has to split the $1000. Each gets a little less. Antoine says he's Trombone Shorty's replacement. Once he's shouldered his way in and trades jabs with the band, he shouts: "Play for that money, boys; play for that motherfucking money." And they do, the melody, in unison.

In all this parading, note the camera's restlessness, how it homes in on then circles the musicians, as though they are prey, and we are closing in on fleshy contact. In the lyric—I feel like funkin' it up, f-e-e-l like funkin' it up—you hear these disparate voices blending in a many-voiced one. You hear the quick offbeat on "I." You hear the stretched out before-the-beat "e" on "feel."

One of the many things the "I"s of the band feel like funkin' up is the tradition. That's their M.O. Players in second line parades—which began in the late 1800s, a couple generations before the first bona fide New Orleans jazz recordings in 1917 and the listen-and-dance Jazz Fest in 1970—used to be a tad square, marital, Sousaesque; eventually, they worked in a backbeat, their solos, blues- and swing-inflected, a la Sidney Bechet, making the music social and danceable, its greatest charm; musicians changed the tenor of jazz again with R&B and soul in the 1960s and 1970s; and they re-synthesized the stew two decades later with hip-hop—fast beats, riff lines, funked-up syncopation—the pulsing heart of Rebirth's sound.

That jazz is always old and new may sound tritely paradoxical, a subject for an undergraduate English theme. But it's true.

New Orleans jazz is a crowd-responsive improvised performance of a recognizable music that moves in an actual time (now), through an actual place (say, down Bourbon Street), and into and through actual listeners (tourist and local alike). But the music has something else the audience doesn't know it's hearing: a subtle existential mutation that repeats what was and also creates what is, that is, what's never been heard and will never be heard again if living musicians have anything to say about it.