Last February, just before Fat Tuesday brought the Mardi Gras celebrations to a fever pitch in New Orleans, the Preservation Hall Jazz Band suited up in bubblegum pink jackets and led a crowd through the streets of the French Quarter.
Win Butler and Regine Chassagne of Arcade Fire marched with them, Butler shaking a giant maraca and beaming while and Chassagne twirled with a group of dancers in matching satin skirts. Haitian bands RAM and Boukman Eksperyans joined them as well, with choruses ringing throughout the Quarter in English, French and Haitian patois. Their procession filled the block as it grew before rolling into the next neighborhood, a boisterous, shaking, drum-beating, clapping collective body that moved and grooved as one.
The vibe was an inclusive one, and its welcoming tone sounded the same in every language: This is your party, too, and you belong here. You always have.
That parade was the first part of the inaugural Krewe du Kanaval, the joint philanthropic venture between Butler, Chassagne and Preservation Hall that celebrates strong cultural ties and shared heritage between New Orleans and Haiti. The second was a ball that benefited KANPE, Butler and Chassagne’s Haitian-focused nonprofit, that took place later that evening. This year’s Krewe du Kanaval will reprise both the procession and a ball — with performances from Diplo and Trillionaire of Major Lazer, Boukman Eksperyans and a DJ set from Butler (as DJ Windows 98) — but Preservation Hall is also throwing a screening of the forthcoming documentary about them, the Danny Clinch and TG. Herrington-directed A Tuba to Cuba, into the mix as well on Friday (Feb. 22).
The film follows Preservation Hall Jazz Band on a pilgrimage to Cuba, and it further strengthens the band’s — and New Orleans’ — cultural and spiritual ties to the Caribbean. Scenes from A Tuba to Cuba are strikingly similar to the multicultural soiree hosted by Preservation Hall, Butler and Chassagne in the French Quarter, and it’s a perfect addition to the Krewe du Kanaval festivities for that reason: This whole celebration celebrates connections, and specifically those strong enough to travel across the Gulf of Mexico and flourish in the islands and in the Crescent City.
“Part of what is important in New Orleans history to us is not just our history, but our shared history with other places,” says Ben Jaffe, Preservation Hall’s man behind the tuba and the creative director for the organization. “A lot of this has to do with post-Katrina New Orleans for me, and a heightened awareness of the things about New Orleans that are precious to me and are important to Preservation Hall and our collective and members of our community.”
In a conversation with Billboard, Jaffe touched on everything that went into, and connects, Krewe du Kanaval and A Tuba to Cuba, from the personal ties between band members and Mardi Gras to Caribbean musical traditions and the importance of celebrating them with a parade and the showing of their film on the same day in their hometown.
On New Orleans’ Caribbean connection:
Two of the most important places that share the closest history to New Orleans are Cuba and Haiti. You live in New Orleans and you understand this; you even study it in school. If you’re African American and in the lower 9th Ward, and grew up in a spiritual church, there might be elements of voodoo incorporated into the ceremony. You might be a member of a Mardi Gras carnival Indian tribe, and you might dress up in feathers and sing African chants and play African rhythms that have arrived on the shores of New Orleans through three different journeys. There’s this DNA connection to these places. As soon as it became possible for us to go to Cuba, we knew — I knew — that we had to do it, and we had to do it as quickly as possible because we’d been waiting all of our lives to do it, including Charlie Gabriel, who’d been waiting since the 1950s to get there and connect again with musical family.
Haiti was introduced to me by Win Butler and Regine Chassagne from Arcade Fire. They were the ones that took me there for the first time. They’ve been involved with Haiti for quite some time because of their own foundation. Regine is of Haitian descent: her mother immigrated to Canada from Haiti, so she has a very close connection to Haiti. They brought me down to see some of the work and humanitarian projects their foundation, KANPE, has been involved in for quite some time.
I knew before I went there that this was one of those holy journeys I was taking. Some people go to Israel; some people go to, I don’t know, to sacred places. This is one of those sacred places for me. Not only did it immediately transform me as a person and a musician and an artist and activist, but I knew immediately that I had to find a way to get the Preservation Hall band there. I also realized that, man, I have to find a way to bring these people and this community of musicians and artists to New Orleans. It just made that connection not something we talk about, but something we physically experience.
On founding Krewe du Kanaval with Butler and Chassagne:
It was really an afternoon of me sitting around with Win and Regine talking about New Orleans and our sacred traditions here, specifically the Mardi Gras indian tradition and how it’s something that happens on Mardi Gras Day. This is something that you have to be a part of the community to know where it’s happening and to be accepted and to participate. That was where this idea — it’s like, “Gosh, there are all these traditions and there will be new traditions. What will be our form of celebration? How do we acknowledge it?”
Preservation Hall was established to acknowledge and celebrate and honor the New Orleans jazz tradition. You don’t just do something once and then think it just remains one thing forever. You have to constantly keep looking around you and seeing all these things that are important that are going on all around you. And that was Kanaval: It was this big idea that all happened over a cocktail on a back porch one day in October a couple years ago, but it’s something we’ve spent our lives building up to.
On the decision to throw Krewe du Kanaval before Mardi Gras:
Preservation Hall actually did stuff on Mardi Gras Day as a band — we just never announced it. This was also part of us creating Kanaval. When I was growing up, it was a tradition for several members of the Preservation Hall band to march in different Mardi Gras parades in New Orleans. That’s when I was a child; I mean, the first Mardi Gras parade I marched in, I was probably nine years old, marching with my dad and all the members of the Preservation Hall band. Post-Katrina, we started parading in the French Quarter. We wouldn’t announce it. We would make a meeting place and the band would gather and we would just march. It was one of those things where you really had to be a founding member or just happen to bump into us. You could start to see people’s expressions when it came into focus, like, “Oh my gosh, it’s the Preservation Hall band marching down Royal Street!”
Recently, our drummer who joined the band about four years ago, Walter Harris, is a Mardi Gras Indian. It became very clear to me that Mardi Gras Day was a sacred day for him, and if we were doing anything as the Preservation Hall Band on Mardi Gras Day, that it would impact his ability to participate in something that’s very sacred to him. That was also the beginning of this idea, of creating something new for us as a way to express the carnival season and still allowing people like Walter to go do these things that he’s been doing since his childhood.
On screening A Tuba to Cuba on the same day as Krewe du Kanaval in New Orleans:
I mean: It’s heavy, it’s really heavy. I wanted to make something that not only told the story of our trip to Cuba, which I knew was going to be life-changing, but the story of these musicians and the members of the Preservation Hall Band, and give some insight into their lives and what is our normal, which is extraordinary.
I’m very fortunate. My parents aren’t from New Orleans. I was born here, but we don’t go back eight generations, we go back one generation. So I’ve always been an insider and an outsider, you know? I’ve always had the ability to have perspective. Sometimes that’s difficult to have when you’re so close to something. When you’re in a relationship, whatever, whether it’s with another person or a business relationship or a relationship with your community, sometimes you’re so close to it that your perspective is challenging.
I’ve always had the ability to see New Orleans from the inside and the outside. I’ve always wanted people to see the inside the way that I see it, the way that I grew up. I wanted them to see the beauty of these incredible musicians that I’ve grown up with and that have the blessing to call [them] not just my bandmates but my family. That’s what it is — the film elevates. That’s what Preservation Hall has always done: It’s elevated people, elevated a community of people and said, “This is something to pay attention to. This is a community that deserves to be honored and respected.” This film is in that tradition.
It’s very heavy that it’s coming Friday, the same day that we have Kanaval. I’m very happy for our city. I think about when the Saints won the Super Bowl and how that brought us all together and we all felt such pride to be from New Orleans at that time. I want to create things that tap into that energy, that allow us to be proud of the city that we live in for the right reasons.
On the impact left both Krewe du Kanaval and A Tuba to Cuba left on Preservation Hall Jazz Band:
All artists look back, and when you start to look back you realize that you’re not really doing anything new. You’re using new techniques and you’re building on all these things that come before you, but I mean, a wheel is a wheel at the end of the day, you know? Haiti has been the bedrock of New Orleans music long before jazz came along.
Going down and actually meeting people who could be the guy living down the street from you, but they live in Santiago or Havana — you know what it does? It’s an affirmation that, first of all, you’re not crazy — which as a musician living in New Orleans, you can feel that way often. It also reminds you that New Orleans is not the South, we’re the North — we’re like the northernmost part of the Caribbean. You can’t think of New Orleans in the same terms as you think of any other American city. That’s why we have to look south to Cuba, to Haiti, even further south to Brazil and Africa to really find our family and really feel connected to something. That’s where we look.
That’s what these experiences have done for us as a band. It allowed us to feel connected to something bigger than New Orleans — and New Orleans is pretty big! And I’m not saying physically big. The energy that we create is big, and you can feel it. You can feel it through everything.