Clash Road Trip: Matt Sakakeeny Interview

New Orleans brass band expert
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In search of the roots of rock and roll, Clash embarked on a pilgrimage across America and discovered the musical foundations the country was built on.

Visit the Clash Road Trip hub page for more exclusive content.

Read an interview with Matt Sakakeeny, assistant professor of music at Tulane University, New Orleans, an expert on the city's brass band music, below.

We went down to Dockery Plantation. It tells you about everything that was there - it had its own post office, all of these things - and you literally drive down the road and there’s nothing now. It kind of makes it seem like a holiday camp when you drive past it - the signs make it sound like it’s a nice little area, it’s got shops, and its own post office, and it’s just like a million miles away from the actual reality of what happened there.

Matt: I thought that documentary on Muddy Waters, it might be called Can’t Be Satisfied, was actually pretty good. It was made by the guy who wrote the biography, Robert Gordon, he directed the film. The book was pretty good. It was cool to see the movie because you get all this footage - he did that same interview I think with that guy at Dockery, and then he does the same thing in Chicago for Muddy Waters. You might want to check that out.

We started in Chicago, went to Chess, and then we ended up in Clarksdale and saw Muddy Waters’ shack, so each genre that we’re looking at, it’s kind of went full circle.

Matt: New Orleans fits in there too, obviously [with] jazz. Really in 1922, when Louis Armstrong goes up from New Orleans to Chicago, he never comes back to live here again. And there’s a straight train of course - what was called the Illinois Central and is now the City Of New Orleans - connects all the places you went. So it’s not just the Mississippi river, it’s the actual train, which was the main form of transportation, bringing people back and forth to all these cities. And that’s one thing that’s hard to get a picture of if you’re not from here: all these places we’re talking about were big bustling urban areas - even Clarksdale in its time was a city; it was modest, but it’s not necessarily this backwoods, rural, plantation life that is at the root of all American music. And that book Escaping The Delta is my favorite book for kind of showing that. You know, Muddy Waters used to go to jook joints and listen to the latest happening R&B records, and jazz, swing records - he loved Duke Ellington - and so it starts getting a little unsettling when you know that. Because [Alan] Lomax, the great folklorist who discovers Muddy Waters, really wants him to be this traditional, pure figure, but Muddy Waters, just look at the way he dressed: he’s a very modern, sophisticated guy, and world traveller eventually. But he also came from a place where he learned, frankly, Robert Johnson songs from records, too. I mean, he had that modern technology even though he was poor…anyway you don’t want to hear about all that.

So, what’s your area of speciality as a music professor?

Matt: I specialise in the music you saw last night, but it’s got this deeper history in the community. I’m kind of curious what you’re thinking of how New Orleans will fit in first.

I’ve only read Louis Armstrong biographies, so kind of know about the correctional school he went to and the band that he joined there, and that kind of brass band history, but not a huge amount. I kind of know of all the ingredients that made New Orleans what it was musically, but other than that…

Matt: New Orleans is a very interesting place, because way back it wasn’t a part of America, it was a French colony. The French had very different approaches to slavery than the British - no offence - but the French were Catholics, they believed that intermixing with slaves was fine. The rest of the US was Protestant and the master and slave classes were kept entirely separate. So right away in New Orleans you’ve got these two things that are happening: one, there’s a lot of intermixing going on, and two, that the French and Spanish who ran this place felt that slaves should have a day off on Sundays. And so they let slaves walk about unsupervised, which is pretty much unheard of in the rest of the United States. And what they did was they formed a market right outside the French Quarter called Congo Square, and they not only sold stuff to eventually buy their own freedom - ideally - they also held these Congo Square dances. And so, New Orleans is pretty much the only place in America where African ritual drumming and dancing took place on this American soil, and so it kind of set from there this pattern of New Orleans, one, being a very musical city, always, from day one, always being associated with music, and two, of being unique, of basically in terms of rhythm, obviously it’s very important to allow slaves to continue to drum in areas where elsewhere they might’ve only been allowed to sing. In terms of setting a foundation, knowing what you know about New Orleans music, you can see how important that would’ve been for the development of New Orleans and all of its association with rhythmic music, dance music, party music; that’s ground zero. New Orleans is also a very diverse place, so, the Louisiana Purchase is 1803, Americans come and establish government here, and the French leave. But there are still a lot of French speaking people here, and lot of those French speaking people are these in-between mixed race group that were called Creoles. And so they’re all here and they’re relatively educated and well-trained in music - they play ballroom dance and opera music; it’s kind of startling how much of what we would call ‘black’ but they would consider French Creole culture was settled here, all in those downtown neighborhoods: French Quarter, Tremé, a neighborhood very famous as the oldest free black neighborhood in the United States, and the Marigny, that kind of downtown zone there was the hub of French Creole culture. And uptown was where the white Americans were settling, there were also Irish, Italians, and Jews coming in waves, and Germans as well. So you get Jelly Roll Morton looking back on his childhood in the 1880s and ’90s saying that he thought “New Orleans was inhabited by every race on the globe”. This is where you get this gumbo idea. So you’ve got these two things in motion already: on the one hand you got New Orleans as a hub for really specifically black music - Congo Square, drumming, ritual - but then you’ve got that in this context where there’s every conceivable race and ethnicity intermingling, interacting in this very urban area. It’s different in that way from a plantation. New Orleans was always a bustling city. In fact, the story of the 20th century in New Orleans is really New Orleans kind of constricting and getting smaller, and so it’s hard to imagine that back in this time, when it was called the Jewel of the South or the Great Southern Babylon, it was the place that you went in the South. It had the biggest slave market, a very dark history, so there’s all this kind of activity going on, and then leading up to the civil war they shut down Congo Square. But then when the civil war happens, the city really changes. One, because first there’s this issue of freedom. Well, now African Americans and Creoles are allowed to make music anywhere - theoretically - in public spaces, but very quickly a different political system sets in, what eventually becomes the Jim Crow era, and what happens is those French speaking Creoles who are light-skinned but still black get lumped together politically with all the free people of colour, free slaves, etc. And at the same time, all those people from the rural plantations up and down the Mississippi River are moving to New Orleans - New Orleans is growing in huge numbers, and it’s predominately African Americans who are coming here, forty thousand of them, we think, between the civil war and the turn of the century, which is right around when jazz comes about. And what that tells us is that jazz arises out of this kind of dizzying mix of people, but really, at its most crucial, is this African American legacy that is pretty deep, it’s pretty multifaceted. On the one hand it’s this legacy in New Orleans from Congo Square, but on the other hand, it’s all this blues and spiritual music that was happening out on these plantations that we associate with other places you’ve been, like Mississippi. So, you take the first generation of jazz musicians, though I don’t want to say first generation of jazz musicians because they were a little bit later too, but you take Louis Armstrong, or his predecessor Buddy Bolden, these are people whose parents were slaves that were freed from these rural plantations who were Baptist or Protestant, religions that have these long histories of ecstatic worship and church services - the congregation singing, not just the preacher and the choir, but everybody just cutting loose and catching the spirit - and playing this blues music that comes from these work songs and these field hollers and all this stuff that was going on in the Mississippi cotton fields. They’re bringing all that in, and that’s meeting with these Creole musicians who have this long legacy of being trained how to play clarinets and trumpets and trombones and knowing how to read music, and the African Americans, it’s pretty contested at that point. The Creoles as a rule are thinking, ‘Look, we have this pretty secure position in-between the working class and the slaves and the ruling class. We were pretty comfortable there, but now the government has just told us that America has this one-drop rule; we’re all together, we’re all in it together.’ And so there was a lot of fighting going on, but at the end of the day, these cultures had to come together, and that was really what produced jazz music - all of the blues and spiritual music that came from African Americans, all of the ballroom dance and European quadrilles, and all this stuff from the Creole population, there was a big opera town: it all came together, and jazz represents the mix of all those things. And this kind of critical element that I’ve left out but that lasts longer than that is that New Orleans also had this very strange tradition of these marching bands playing at funerals, playing slow, sad music at the beginning but then kind of cutting loose and really playing this up-tempo music. That tradition eventually became called the jazz funeral, but of course it started long before jazz even existed, but this idea that you worship the dead by celebrating life, by cutting loose and enjoying yourself. That tradition sort of came up with the jazz tradition - it’s the same instruments, it’s really the same musicians: Kid Ory, Louis Armstrong, Louis Armstrong’s mentor Joe King Oliver - all of that first generation of jazz, Buddy Bolden, they would play jazz in the clubs, but they would play this marching brass band music out on the streets, and it really... when you’re out on the streets and you keep people moving with these dance tempos, and people are screaming and yelling and dancing in the middle of the street, and that had a lot to do with these jazz clubs, these basically honky tonks, where the same thing is going on, except we’re not moving through the street, we’re partying indoors and feeling that kind of unity that the music brings us. Basically the history of New Orleans music, from my point of view, an important part of it throughout the 20th century is that jazz kind of becomes America’s music. Everyone recognises that it has its basis here in New Orleans, but everyone also recognises that it was in Chicago and New York and LA, and even London and Stockholm and elsewhere, where this music flourished and developed and changed. The fact that Louis Armstrong left New Orleans and lived the rest of his life in New York is one indication of the sort of trajectory of jazz. It comes to be recognized as America’s really basic artistic contribution to the world. In England you have these long traditions of poetry and other cultural forms, and in America, really at the end of the day it’s jazz that we’ve given to the world as something that’s uniquely American. And it came from here but it didn’t only come from here, it developed in all these places. And so of course that’s why in New Orleans, really the jazz that took hold here is called traditional jazz, and it’s really a pretty faithful replication of the way things went before, happened back in the day. And what happened though with the brass band music is that it really stayed in tune with new generations of musicians. It just constantly incorporated rhythm and blues and swing music first of all - that’s when the saxophones come in, in the Thirties, when you’ve got Ellington and those bands, Coleman Hawkins and Lester Young really making the saxophone a primary instrument in jazz. And rhythm and blues music; we’ve got not only Fats Domino, Professor Longhair and Little Richard recording all of their big hits here in New Orleans, but we’ve got young black New Orleanians listening to Ray Charles and everything that’s hot and happening around the world. And it’s not the jazz music that grows with that, it’s really the brass band. In the Fifties it was The Olympia [Brass Band] - their audiences would not stand for them not knowing how to play the latest rhythm and blues tunes, and so what you saw last night is kind of an extension of that, that basically at this point what those musicians in the Rebirth Brass Band listen to in their cars when they drive around is hip-hop, and you can hear that in the music they’re playing. It’s these antiquated instruments, these 19th century, seemingly obsolete horns and drums, but they’re kind of using them in a hip-hop way, and they’re literally playing hip-hop songs and composing hip-hop songs on this ancient ensemble of instruments. So that’s kind of my basic rundown of why I wound up with a brass band. But there’s all kinds of other music in New Orleans too of course that I could talk about but that’s just my particular style.

How is music from New Orleans celebrated now? Is there a legacy, does it celebrate the fact that it has this heritage? Most of the places we’ve been, there’s a very small pocket of people that are interested in saving it, but in London, in the UK, places of interest are preserved, that’s not always the case here.

Matt: In London there’s this long tradition of celebrating New Orleans music too, as its tradition, as its legacy, like you’re talking about, and New Orleans absolutely does. This is a two-sided question to me. On the one hand, New Orleans is a tourist town, I mean it’s really the basis of our economy, especially because the oil in the port hasn’t really done so well for us, as this latest oil spill has shown us. It’s dangerous out there, and there’s a lot of downfall to tying your economy to that very volatile industry, so in the Fifties New Orleans really invested in tourism, basically becoming self-aware that the world recognised them as this really unique place. And that’s when you get Preservation Hall being founded, there’s a jazz fest that comes out in the late-’60s, but the first attempts to mount a jazz festival, which obviously shows some awareness that your city has this musical heritage that’s worth presenting to the world... And it’s also economically viable; like if we throw a jazz festival and people come, it benefits everybody, that’s the thinking. So I would say absolutely. I mean, our current mayor, Mitch Landrieu, his previous job was the head of the culture, recreation, and tourism industry. He’s very attuned to the fact that people come to New Orleans because New Orleans has unique, what they call the trinity: unique food, unique architecture, and especially unique music. And really try to capitalize on that. Part of where your question was going though, is does that necessarily reflect the way musicians are treated and the lives they lead? That’s pretty uneven. It’s hard out there on a musician like it is in any town, just because this city makes its economy off the backs of musicians doesn’t mean that that money trickles down to them and gives them solid careers - Rebirth is an exception. Rebirth, The Dirty Dozen - I’m trying to think of other New Orleans musicians and other styles that would come to London that you might be aware of. Obviously traditional jazz bands and rhythm and blues artists like Fats Domino, of course those musicians did really well by furthering New Orleans music, but there’s a whole underclass of musicians that’s constantly struggling even though the city is reliant upon them to kind of function on a day-to-day level economically. So Preservation Hall goes really, really strong, some of those bands like Rebirth go really, really strong - but other bands have to struggle to get by and you wonder why the city is cutting music education programmes in school when this is like a potentially real economic opportunity to educate young people in music? That’s a real passion of mine, so I think your question cuts both ways. Definitely New Orleanians recognise across the board that their legacy is based in this city’s rich heritage in music, but does that necessarily put food on the table at the end of the day?

Clash has interviewed Dr. John a couple of times, the last time he pecifically mentioned the oil spill, and he kind of talks about the optimism of New Orleans. Obviously lots has happened here, Hurricane Katrina and everything, but is that kind of optimism typical of New Orleans?

Matt: I think it stems from pride. You talk about Katrina - it was obviously a very hard time for everybody and there’s a lot of sad stories, but the uplifting stories were people saying things like, ‘I’m evacuated to Houston and I can’t hear New Orleans music here. I can’t buy a po’boy here. I can’t get red beans and rice here. I can’t get all the things that I can only get in New Orleans in these far-flung places.’ It was uplifting to hear those stories because it means so much to them to be a New Orleanian, and they don’t take that lightly. On Mardi Gras, everybody’s off. The freaking Post Office is closed on Mardi Gras. The whole local government shuts down so that we can have a big party for ourselves - that tells you something right there. So yeah, I think the issue beginning with that pride is that that pride has had to be very resilient, because the city keeps taking these knocks, and frankly the musician class is pretty used to that. I know Katrina was a real single, unique, and devastating event, of course, that doesn’t even need to be said, but black New Orleans musicians have known struggle since long before Katrina. Does that mean that a catastrophic event took away their houses overnight, all their possessions? Absolutely not. But they’ve been marginalized very openly until at least the ’50s, and then in a more indirect way ever since, and that’s a problem that’s unique to America that’s different - although The Clash sang greatly about England’s problems, their problems are different, they’re not equivalent. That’s America’s problem, that’s not even New Orleans’ problem, that’s America’s issue and history and legacy, and so this resiliency comes from a very strong place. It comes from a place where people have had to be resilient for a very long time. Katrina comes along and it’s devastating but people bounce back because they care about this place and because they bounce back from lesser tragedies before.

How has the class structure had an impact on the music? In the UK, major music cycles and genres such as the ’60s or ’90s saw predominantly working class bands achieving success. On our journey, we haven’t seen any American music coming from money, it’s all coming from poverty...

Matt: That seems to be the story of America, even with country music or blues... Hank Williams and Muddy Waters’ stories are different because one’s a black artist who plays blues and one’s a white artist who plays country, but they come from the same class position. I think the interesting part of that is that it seems like working class musicians have a perspective where they can see the whole world from the bottom. Hank Williams’ lyrics, it’s just heartbreakingly, achingly beautiful stuff because they speak to everybody. It’s a common language that rich or poor, you can understand because it’s very plain spoken, but it’s also about human emotions. And you can say the same thing about all of the musicians you’ve been following on this tour, and definitely the musicians in New Orleans as well. The harder question that I never know what to do with, so I don’t know why I’m bringing it up, is do you almost in a sense sort of need poverty for this music to flourish? That question is heartbreaking in a different way. Does economic comfort come bundled with kind of complacency in terms of artistic creation? I’m not philosophical enough to tackle that one, but I literally get that question a lot. The mayor actually asked me that the one time I met him. He said, ‘I never know what to tell, frankly, rich white people in New Orleans when they say, ‘Why should we educate young African Americans, because they keep providing us with this unique culture that props up everything’’. In other words, ‘what’s our impetus to change?’ Obviously it’s more than distressing that someone could think that way, but on the other hand, coming up with an actual answer of what is the relationship between struggle and creativity, man, I don’t know.

We just had a change of government back in the UK - it’s gone back to the Conservative government, which was always deemed as helping the rich. What bands have said after that was at least we might get some decent music out of it. The last time the Conservatives went into government, The Sex Pistols, The Clash and The Jam all had something to say about it. Then it changed again in the Nineties - it gave hope and aspirations and the music reflected that. It was the us against them attitude. But it’s all about ambition at the end of the day, rather than class. It’s like that famous picture of Muddy Waters after Alan Lomax recorded him - he’s wearing a suit and holding his vinyl, and that was his publicity photograph. So he’s obviously got this vision of ‘I may be poor but I’m going to make it’. He went to Chicago determined to do something.

Matt: I love that quote from him where he says basically it wasn’t until he heard his voice coming off the record that he knew he was good. It took Lomax coming in and saying, ‘Here’s your record alongside all your idols’ - Robert Johnson, Son House’s records - and he puts it on and he thinks, ‘Oh man, I’ve got my own thing going’. And then he spends what little money he has on a suit to get this picture taken, and meanwhile Lomax finds him - he doesn’t have shoes on his feet, his guitar’s in pawn - so he’s obviously very humble, economically, but it’s very important for him to make it, to strive through his music.

What do you teach the students here about brass music - are you teaching history or the practice?

Matt: I don’t teach practice. There are teachers here who do that, you mean instrument instruction? Yeah, I don’t do that. My job has two parts to it, one is that I have classroom teaching, like this semester I’m teaching a class called New Orleans Music and I have forty students. Just like when you went to school, we have a reading assignment except that they’re reading an excerpt from Louis Armstrong’s biography, and maybe another scholar who’s done work on Fats Domino, something like that. That’s the class, and then they come in and we teach it just like a class, and there’s discussion about this. That’s an interesting class because my assignment for that class is a little different; I require them to do what are called Concert Reports. In other words I really want to get them off campus and out seeing live music in New Orleans, and so I literally force them to go see a show and write a concert report about it. And frankly, off the record, I don’t really care if it’s very good - it’s more important to me that they go out and see something and develop that passion and know that there’s a whole world of music out there out of the confines of their private school experience at Tulane, that they’re not at the university of Iowa or Utah or something, where you really have to make a social life of your own. They’re in New Orleans, they can go do a million things, and people would kill for the opportunity to do that. But some of them need some real prodding - they’re very comfortable in their frat party world, and you know, I was in college too, I know what that’s like, and so that’s an example of a class I teach. I teach all kinds of classes. I teach a class called Music And Politics, where we look around the world at say what happened during Nazi concentration camps as far as music, what happened in the Cold War as far as music and looking at these various things - that’s an example of a very abstract, theoretical class. But the other side of the my job at Tulane and any professor’s job is to do research and to publish, and so I’m writing a book about brass bands in New Orleans, I’m publishing articles - mostly in scholarly journals but some early stuff I wrote was in Mojo and I’ve done stuff for NPR and that kind of stuff, so I do more journalism than most of my peers, but writing, like all of you do I’m assuming, getting the word out, if I don’t do that, I don’t keep my job. So that’s where my really intensive work in brass band, parades and those kinds of musicians comes from.

Those seem like the same ideals we have at the magazine - Clash mixes brand new music and new bands, but we get to delve deeper as well and introduce people to things, older artists you might not know, but in this day and age of digital downloads, you can investigate. So the point of this trip is a) a vacation of a lifetime for us, b) enlightening and enriching the music we love, and c) be able to write about places we went to and musicians we’ve met in Clash. The history you just talked about, it’s a layer of New Orleans you wouldn’t normally see if you came here - you’d just end up on Bourbon Street and get hammered - so we’re just going a bit deeper.

Matt: Sometimes I feel like a public service advocate. Of course I don’t have time to show everyone who emails me around, but I think it’s really important that people know that there’s stuff out there and that New Orleans music is really alive and there’s cool stuff going on. And some of the tourist things, I think Preservation Hall is really cool, I think it’s really important, and so I think basically telling people it’s okay to go there and appreciate the job that it does - keeping these musicians in business. There’s also some non-profit organizations who post-Katrina have really tried to make sure the musicians had money in their pockets and a place to live, and I put Preservation Hall on par with those kind of places; they’re really making sure that real New Orleans music continues to be played and that the musicians that play it get rewarded for it. That’s a service in a way, in a time when the market economy could allow that to disappear. It’s funny, about a week before you emailed me, a woman I really respect called Daphne Carr, who’s a music journalist, I just noticed on her Facebook page she had joined your page. So I had that name in the back of my mind, like, ‘Oh, I should check this out, it looks really cool’. One thing that you’re doing that’s different, I’m sure I don’t have to tell you, but to congratulate you, is that almost all music journalism is driven by new industry product, and so I think it’s really hard to be a magazine that’s coming out saying, ‘Look, this isn’t attached to a particular CD that you need to go out and buy that’s coming out right now or even a DVD, but this is important for you to know and that maybe you’ll go back and fall in love with this music’.
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It’s been such an interesting journey of discovery to understand how and why each music genre happened in America. It’s fascinating about the music travelling by the train route. That just didn’t exist in the UK.

Matt: Obviously the UK has these very deep musical traditions, but what shaped a lot of the US music that is different is just this tension between people who are very, very different. Basically you take people who look different from you and make them an underclass essentially, and then find out that those people have unique gifts in terms of music - if they bring something to the table that wasn’t here before... It’s almost like American music comes out of this war of the worlds between creative people from all sides of the equation. In a sense it’s like that kind of struggle that we talked about, that’s the history of America. It’s a very different history of struggle for England, which has its own history of empires collapsing and immigration that comes later in very different ways. It’s got its own story, but America’s story relates very specifically to the history of it. In other words there’s no history of American music without a history of African American music.

You mentioned getting your students out and about into the field, which would draw comparisons with Alan Lomax, who was physically out searching for new music. Do you think there’s still the opportunity for the next Alan Lomax to discover something new?

Matt: People are still doing that. Yeah, that’s a great question, I don’t know. There’s Art Rosenthal, who if you don’t know, you should look into. He’s basically, I think, still doing this in Mississippi, and recently this record company, Fat Possum, they’ve started releasing his field recordings. Some of them are on 45s, but most are on CDs. In fact, Fat Possum in general is a great example of a label that found this whole Mississippi, hill country blues tradition, and put out the first Junior Kimbrough and R.L. Burnside records. So that possibility still exists, but I think a lot of it has to do not so much with discovering timeless traditions, but finding out how innovative people are combining that with what they’re experiencing around them in the modern world. And so not to give a personal anecdote, but there was this fife player, Otha Turner, and he was in his nineties. It turned out to be the second-to-last picnic he would have on Labour Day - he would play fife and drum music and he would open up his farm essentially as a concert space and sell fried catfish and moonshine - really strong moonshine! So I’m there and this tradition... I mean, nothing ever struck me as more ancient than this like military but kind of African drumming and fife playing, and it’s very - and I don’t mean to use this word lightly - but it sounds very primitive to my ears at the time. Meanwhile, I was there with my wife and we noticed that all along the country roads that wound around his house, way on the outskirts of Clarksdale, were like gangbanger cars blaring hip-hop, with the full tricked-out wheels - like basically young rural, Mississippi kids listening to the music of their time but also aware of this music that this old guy on a farm still played, and probably aware of the blues and stuff too, who knows? Music has come out of that - there is southern hip-hop, of course, but whatever the future of music is, and let’s face it, hip-hop’s getting pretty old. What’s next? Who knows, but it seems like something’s going to come out of young people with that kind of experience. Maybe more so than stumbling on some completely preserved, forgotten tradition.

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