• News/Talk
  • Music
  • Entertainment

They Made It Through That Water

Joel Rose

Full Episode Audio
Larger view
Band of Brothers
(Terence King)
View the Slideshow

It's five o'clock on a recent Saturday afternoon and the Free Agents are already on their third gig of the day. This one is a house party in the Eighth Ward, in a neighborhood of faded shotgun houses near the I-10 overpass. About two-dozen people are gathered on a front porch for a repast, meaning a birthday party for someone who died in the past year.

For the next 20 minutes, the band leads a parade through the neighborhood. Nobody explains the route. The revelers follow the band without putting down their drinks, dancing between potholes and the occasional oncoming car. Some are wearing custom-made t-shirts with the name and picture of the deceased, who looks to be a young man in his 20s.

The Free Agents are done so quickly I don't even catch the name of the guy who died. Before I get a chance to ask, we're in the car on the way to the band's next gig. Tuba player John Cannon confesses he didn't know the guy, either.

"Eighty-five percent of the business here right now is playing for funerals," Cannon says. "That's how they celebrate the life of a human being in New Orleans. It's a celebration. You celebrate instead of mourning the death."

And that celebration traditionally requires a brass band. They also play for parades, wedding receptions and birthday parties. The Free Agents' next gig tonight is Krewe de Vieux, the first official parade of the Mardi Gras season. But Cannon says Saturdays are always a party in New Orleans.

"We got a couple gigs after this parade. It doesn't stop. It doesn't stop at all." On a busy Saturday, Cannon says, "We might play from seven in the morning until two the next morning."

Cannon grabs his well-traveled tuba out of the back of his truck, and we head off to wait for the rest of the band at the start of the parade route near the Mississippi River, below the French Quarter. A brass band requires a lot of players: two or three trumpets, two trombones, a saxophone and two drummers. After Katrina, most of the brass bands here were scattered all over the country. That's when the Free Agents got together.

Their biggest problem wasn't getting gigs, it was finding places to live. Trumpeter and co-founder Shannon Haynes commutes from the other side of Lake Pontchartrain.

"There was 11 feet of water in my house [in New Orleans East,]" Haynes says. "I wound up selling the house. I stay in Slidell about 40 miles away. I travel in and out daily. That's all we could do right now."

Before the storm, tuba player John Cannon lived in a house in the Lower Ninth Ward. For now, he's renting a different place. He says he'd like to fix up his house and move back in, but it would be too expensive to do that.

"I'm still paying homeowners insurance on a house I can't live in, because it's required," Cannon says. "But if I put up one piece of fresh drywall, I'd have to have flood insurance. So it's six of one, half-dozen of the other. "

The Free Agents aren't getting rich doing this, but they are getting paid well tonight. The Krewe de Vieux is known for that. It's also famous for wicked social satire, and for floats so obscene I can't even describe them here. The Free Agents are marching in front of a paper-mache tank with the words "Extended Tour of Booty" on the side and a giant paper-mache penis for a cannon pointed right at us.

Even before the parade starts, everyone in the crowd is getting louder and more drunk. The Free Agents pass around a bottle of rum, among other things. After the flood, the band's drummer and co-founder Ellis Joseph spent a few months in Atlanta. He says this kind of scene is why he had to come back to New Orleans.

"The music really does something for us, it's like our healing," he says. "All the shit we went through? The first time we played for people that hadn't heard a band in a while? Oh man, it's like they just let everything out."

It will take the Free Agents more than an hour to march a couple miles up to the French Quarter and the end of the parade. After that, they've got two more gigs to play before they call it a night.


  • Comment | Refresh

  • Post a Comment: Please be civil, brief and relevant.

    Email addresses are never displayed, but they are required to confirm your comments. All comments are moderated. Weekend America reserves the right to edit any comments on this site and to read them on the air if they are extra-interesting. Please read the Comment Guidelines before posting.

      Form is no longer active


    You must be 13 or over to submit information to American Public Media. The information entered into this form will not be used to send unsolicited email and will not be sold to a third party. For more information see Terms and Conditions and Privacy Policy.

Download Weekend America

Weekend Weather

From the January 31 broadcast

Support American Public Media with your Amazon.com purchases
Search Amazon.com:
 ©2015 American Public Media