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Dirty Dozen Back with Katrina Tribute

ED GORDON, host:

The Dirty Dozen Brass Band is among the most famous purveyors of that unmistakable New Orleans jazz sound. After Hurricane Katrina, the band found itself looking for good ways to express the pain, resilience and hope of the people of New Orleans. The result? A remake of Marvin Gaye's classic, What's Going On?

Reporter Tony Cox talked with the band's leader, Roger Lewis.

TONY COX reporting:

So here we are, new music sort of to put the soul back together and try to help people rebuild, is that right?

Mr. ROGER LEWIS (Member, The Dirty Dozen Brass Band): Yep.

COX: Why this music? Why Marvin Gaye's classic?

Mr. LEWIS: Well, you know, I really been talking about doing Marvin Gaye's music for I guess a few years now. And when Katrina hit, you know, like, it was a perfect - I guess perfect time to do it because it's like what's going on? What's going on with the federal government? What's going on with state government, you know, after the storm hit? And not only that, what's going on in the world? All these wars and what-not. You know, it's like what is going on? What is really happening?

COX: Now from a musical standpoint, when you look back at the songs that are on here, these are - this isn't just the title track from What's Going On, but it looks like it's all of the songs from that seminal album. What stands out for you as the song that comes closest to making the point that you wanted to make?

Mr. LEWIS: What's Going On?

(Soundbite of song, What's Going On?)

Mr. CHUCK D (Musician): (Rapping) What's going on when all them guns is drawn? Here's a memo, remember there's a few wars going on. A couple overseas and on my front lawn, when common sense was common and now it's all gone. What's going on if that's going on? And what's going on…

COX: Now, when I listen to that that - now this features Chuck D - now this is completely different than the way Marvin Gaye put that song together. So tell me how you guys - you agreed upon this approach.

Mr. LEWIS: Well, you know, it was really quite amazing, you know?

COX: (Unintelligible)

(Soundbite of song, What's Going On?)

Mr. LEWIS: It was like total improvisation. Everybody had input so it was quite amazing how all of it came together. We just did bits and pieces. We created -well like me myself personally, I'm baritone player, so I created all my baritone parts. Took some of the rifts that were in the song and we juggled that and put that together.

COX: It's almost like sampling, wasn't it?

Mr. LEWIS: Yeah.

COX: Almost.

Mr. LEWIS: Yeah. Almost like sampling but everybody had input. It was like a creative effort to do this. Because I was wondering how in the world we was going to pull it off myself, personally speaking.

COX: I tell you. From listening to it, creative is a good word for it. It's interesting. At first, you know, you hear it, it's a little bit of a shock to the system. Okay. To be straight with you. But then it's like, okay, I'm feeling that.

(Soundbite of song, Holy, Holy)

COX: There's another cut I want to talk about, Roger, on here. Because, after all, you are The Dirty Dozen Brass Band.

Mr. LEWIS: Yes we are.

COX: And you are associated with a certain sound coming out of New Orleans, and the second line in all of that. And there's a tune on here that has that feel to it although it's a Marvin tune. I'm talking about Holy, Holy.

Mr. LEWIS: Holy, Holy, Holy.

(Soundbite of Holy, Holy)

Mr. LEWIS: Yeah, it's like almost like a dirge.

COX: Almost - right, right.

Mr. LEWIS: It's, you know, like what we do at a funeral. You know, like as the body is coming out the church, as they bring the body out the church, you play a slow dirge kind of a feeling. It's that kind of spiritual feeling that you get when you hear that particular piece. And I think that's what we had in mind, you know, because it's part of the culture of New Orleans music.

(Soundbite of Holy, Holy)

COX: So, Roger, what happened to your house, man?

Mr. LEWIS: Well, my mother's house, we had about 15 feet of water that covered the entire house. You know, and the house that I lived in, we had about five to six feet of water in it. So, I mean, you know, it destroyed everything in the house.

COX: Really? You lose instruments too?

Mr. LEWIS: Oh, instruments, a lot of family history, you know, as far as pictures and important documents and stuff like that. Like I was telling a guy the other day, I can't even show - I have an 8-year-old daughter - I can't even show my daughter a picture of me when I was a baby. You know, and like a lot of the pictures that I had when I first started playing music, all that history. You know, I kept a record of every stage of my musical career up until now. All that's lost and gone, you know.

(Soundbite of song from album, What's Going On?)

COX: It's great. I wish you guys all the best of success with this. It's been a number of years that your band has been around making great music. Where do you think this will fit in the line of music that you've produced?

Mr. LEWIS: I think it's a very, very good CD. I mean, of course, you know, we're jazz musicians so it's going to be a little bit different from maybe what people are used to hearing. You know, because when you're a jazz musician you're steady creating, you know. You know, it's like painting a picture. I mean, you know, you really have to sit down and really listen to all the little intricate things that's happening within the music. So I think it's going to be a classic CD.

(Soundbite of song from album, What's Going On?)

THE DIRTY DOZEN BRASS BAND: (Singing) Help me, somebody…

GORDON: NPR's Tony Cox talking with Roger Lewis of The Dirty Dozen Brass Band. The new CD, What's Going On? will be released August 29.

(Soundbite of song from album, What's Going On?)

THE DIRTY DOZEN BRASS BAND: (Singing) Help me, somebody. Help me, somebody…

GORDON: That's our program for today. Thanks for joining us. To listen to the show, visit And if you'd like to give us a comment, call 202-408-3330. NEWS AND NOTES was created by NPR News and the African-American Public Radio Consortium. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.