Bit of the Big Easy in Yellow Springs
- Published: December 12, 2013
There’s a new sound to be heard around the halls of the Yellow Springs High School thanks to the recently formed street band Sassabrass. Drawing from New Orleans’ traditions of brass bands and street music, the group is entirely mobile, walking and sometimes dancing as they play their instruments.
“You’re not confined to one space like most buskers,” says Connor Gravely-Novello, one of the band’s founders. “Yellow Springs is the perfect place for this kind of music because it’s a small town. You can walk around the whole town three times in an hour.”
“I like the freedom of it,” says Maddie Allen, another founder and the group’s baritone and trombone player.
Allen, Gravely-Novello and Josh Seitz were inspired to the create the band after taking a class on New Orleans street music at the Friends’ Music Camp over the summer.
“I tried the class at Friends’ Music Camp,” says Seitz. “It was so much fun, I thought ‘Why does this have to be only a one month thing that I do?’”
For Gravely-Novello, the unique style of the music also filled a niche in the area. “I thought ‘This is a really good idea and we don’t have something like this here.’”
The brass band tradition of New Orleans began in the late 1800s as traditional European-style marching bands mixed with the music created by former slaves, most frequently heard in what was then known as Congo Square. According to GoNola.com, jazz funerals, in which a band accompanies a funeral procession, provided another opportunity for music of different ethnic groups to mix.
“Those bands would not necessarily know all the tunes of a particular ethnic group,” the website says, “so the bands developed a common ground, a sound unique to New Orleans.”
According to knowLA.org, an online encyclopedia of Louisiana history and culture, the brass band was also a crucial element in the beginnings of jazz, and over time, elements of jazz, including rhythmic syncopation and improvisation, influenced the brass bands. The result today is mobile music whose role is to “to bring people together in an expression of collective pleasure.”
Many of Sassabrass’s other members were drawn to the group for exactly this reason, attracted by the celebratory nature of the genre.
“It’s really active music,” says Max Mullin, the group’s manager and bucket player. “It almost demands that you move.”
Lucas Mulhall, who plays the maracas, joined the group after stopping to watch them practice one afternoon.
“I just started playing the maracas,” he says. “The music is really fun. Even though I play such a small part, it’s still a lot of fun to listen to and be a part of.”
Like Mulhall, tenor saxophonist Meredith Rowe only had to hear them once to decide it was something she wanted to be a part of.
“They told me I should join,” she says. “I thought I would come to one rehearsal and see if I liked it. I was like ‘This is awesome!’”
While Sassabrass’s mobility helps make the band unique, other aspects particular to the group have attracted other members. For example, every member has a solo and all of the music is learned by ear.
“I like the idea of memorizing the music,” says Gabriel Day, who plays the alto and baritone sax.
The band is also entirely student-run, which appeals to tambourine player Peter Day.
“I enjoy the informality,” he says. “It’s not something that is being imposed on us.”
“It’s cool because we get to decide what we want to do,” agrees Jack Lewis, who plays the clarinet.
Although the group is student run, they have been supported by the school and Mr. Krier in particular.
“We started playing after school and didn’t think it would be super serious,” says Allen. “But then we started getting gigs.” Specifically, the principal asked them to perform at a pep rally and the homecoming pig roast fundraiser in early October. Because the school does not have a marching band or a pep band, Sassabrass has the potential to fill an important role in the school.
Seitz and Mullin hope that their music generates interest in the wider community as well. According to Mullin, they would eventually like to be playing regular shows in town, and Seitz hopes to become better known in the general area.
“We’re trying to get ourselves out there in the music scene,” he says, “so that people around here recognize us.”
Sassabrass will be playing at this year’s Friends’ Music Camp fundraiser in December and also have plans to perform at the Spirited Goat. Those interested can also look the band up on Facebook to find out about other upcoming performances.