“That’s where it all got started, that’s where you feel it at, that’s where it runs. It runs deep in Congo Square.” On March 12th, 2022, the rich history of brass persists in Congo Square through the fourth annual New Orleans Original Brass Festival, featuring artists such as Glen David Andrews, the Trombone Shorty Foundation Brass Band, and many more. It’s the biggest fundraiser of the year for the Save Our Brass Foundation. Founder of the foundation, Ersel Bogan III, widely known as “Garfield”, discusses the importance of this location for the festival. “Brass culture was born in New Orleans. It was born in Congo Square…The souls sing in Congo Square. When you’re in there, you feel their energy. That’s where it all started; that’s where I want to keep it.”
Garfield refers to the souls of the enslaved Africans whose gatherings were restricted to “la place congo,” known today as “Congo Square,” in 1817 by the mayor of New Orleans. This corner of Armstrong Park, recognized for its rich history of African American music, is where the enslaved would sing, dance, and play music each Sunday on their day off. The little freedom they did have was expressing themselves through music. Amidst their joyous spirit, they would set up markets in hopes of raising money to purchase their freedom.
Brass musicians today face a similar struggle. Both the history and the future of brass culture are tied to the grounds of Congo Square, where the enslaved of the past and brass musicians of tomorrow express themselves through music, while bearing the shackles of their environments and hoping to break free.
Brass bands, a musical ensemble consisting of brass instruments, are a key part of New Orleans history. From Mardi Gras, weddings and funerals, to picnics, a party isn’t a party unless there’s a brass band performing. Every parade features a second line to keep viewers moving and grooving. Brass music is organic, resonating up out of the streets. Some may say it’s quintessentially New Orleans. This doesn’t exist anywhere else but here.
Historically, some of the best musicians in the world who come from New Orleans came from brass culture. Among them are Louis Armstrong, Trombone Shorty, Kermit Ruffins, and Sammie ‘Big Sam’ Williams of Big Sam’s Funky Nation. Unfortunately, they had to leave New Orleans in order to be recognized by the world.
Garfield believes, “that’s not good for our culture, because in order for our culture to stay rich, we should be able to grow from anywhere. We should be able to glow from anywhere. There’s a lot of different platforms and social media, so I’m hoping this year we can get some real attention and show the world New Orleans brass music is one of the richest cultures of music in the world.”
His own life was deeply influenced by the rich brass culture and music. He grew up in an area of New Orleans known as the Ninth Ward, a neighborhood stricken with poverty and drug abuse. “A lot of people I grew up with are either dead, in jail, or on drugs. People from school, and some of my classes. Everybody don’t look good. They let their environment take over their life. And that’s one thing I can praise music for. It took me out of my environment. It took me from being one of those stubborn kids that just wanted to destroy stuff or that was on the block just watching the drug dealer making all this money and wanting to become a drug dealer. It took me from that. I thank god for music. I thank god for brass.”
Garfield’s music journey began as a choir boy and drummer in his local church. He then picked up the tuba and joined The Stooges- a brass band from his junior high that still exists today- and later picked up the trombone. To this day, he still plays drums in his church and picks up gigs here and there. Music came into his life, guided him, and never left. But the life of a musician, especially in brass culture, isn’t an easy one.
Brass musicians struggle to make ends meet. “Being a musician is a blessing and a curse. You’re blessed as a musician, but if you don’t have a 9-5, no paper trail, you can’t really buy a house. You can’t do taxes. That’s hard for a lot of New Orleans musicians because we wanna be street musicians.” With so many brass musicians competing for gigs, they often end up undercutting one another. If one band charges $350, the next band will do it for $300, and the next for $275. “That’s not building our brands, that’s not building our character. That’s not building the level of success we need to be on.” But that’s what the festival will do, by giving these artists both a community they can trust, and exposure by showcasing their unique sound.
In order to ease the uncertainty of earning a living, the Save Our Brass Foundation has helped musicians obtain health insurance and become first time home owners. But in order for musicians to live sustainably, the awareness and appreciation for brass music needs to change.
Many people remain unexposed to brass music until Mardi Gras season. Garfield emphasizes the importance of not only honoring history, but also of creating new music and musicians. He wants the public to listen to what they’re playing and saying throughout the year, especially the younger generation. He turns to them to help keep brass culture alive.
“You had kids coming out of high school, out of a brass school band and just starting a second line band and they don’t know anything about the culture. They don’t know the people in it, so they don’t have respect for the actual culture.” Garfield decided something had to be done. Through the foundation, brass musicians travel to different schools, churches, and afterschool programs, teaching students about the culture and the music.
The kids “get to see us in real time. They get to see real people from brass band music that they can actually put their hands on, touch, and say ‘I learned from a guy from the Rebirth,” or “I got a chance to have someone from the Big Six Brass Band or Stooges Brass Band come to my school and teach us a little bit of history and give us some knowledge’… If you stop teaching the kids, the culture dies. If I’m the last generation to play the horn and I don’t teach kids that are coming up, once I die, right now, we’re an endangered species. We need more brass musicians.”
This festival is essential for the Save Our Brass Foundation as it introduces their mission to the public, and invites them to experience brass culture in real time. “Brass fest is our biggest fundraiser to get people out to see this and what we’re doing. This is why we need horns. This is why we need money for musicians to teach. This is why we need lessons to be taught.”
Garfield urges observers to absorb the rich culture and the strong souls of the people that play the music. “The funkiest, soulful musicians are the ones who went through the most, because they have so much to say. Their hearts- they’re going through something at the time, so they express their feelings through their instruments. That in itself speaks volumes. Just pay attention to those musicians. They’re talking… LOUD. They’re asking for help. They’re asking for strength. They’re telling you to look at their environment. Some of them can’t get out of their environment. A lot of people say ‘I’ll never leave home.’”