Rising From Ruin

Students from recovering New Orleans fight the misfortunes wrought by nature and man as they work hard to start a new marching band.

Don’t pity the L.E. Rabouin High School Marching Band. Sure, it’d be easy to make the young students from this resurgent New Orleans high school just south of the French Quarter a symbol of a city on the rise after Hurricane Katrina.  Or you could frame the band’s ordeal as a “human interest” story in light of the tragic death of its band director just months after he started the program.

But really, the Rabouin (pronounced rob-WAYNE) story is just that of a group of high school musicians and auxiliary members striving to have the best marching band in the city’s yearly Carnival parades. This past August, they had a chance to get closer to this goal with a trip to Southern California for some intensive training with the USC Trojan Marching Band. Rabouin students can handle a little work, though; it’s everything outside of band that’s difficult.

Marching band is both an escape and a refuge for Rabouin students. On the streets of New Orleans, it’s too easy to get involved with the wrong group. Christopher Lee, the Rabouin drum major, puts it this way: “Everybody wanna be like somebody, and they either end up dead or in jail.”

So when the band’s first director, Dinneral Shavers, formed the band in the fall of 2006, 85 of the school’s 615 students signed up. Shavers was Rabouin’s day-to-day substitute French teacher who moonlighted as a snare drummer for the Hot 8 Brass Band, playing gigs around the city. He dreamed of forming a Rabouin band that would perform during New Orleans’ famed Carnival season when there is at least one parade per day in the two weeks leading up to Mardi Gras.

The odds were against him, but he forged ahead—even against the reluctance of the school’s principal, without a classroom to practice in, and without music, instruments, or uniforms for the band members.

Personal Vision, Personal Tragedy

Shavers’ dream was gestated in the watery remains of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina’s devastation in August 2005. Most of the city’s populace, including Rabouin students, had been scattered throughout the South where they had lost touch with New Orleans music, a style so unique and steeped in tradition that it can only truly be experienced in the Crescent City.

When Rabouin High School reopened in September 2006, New Orleans was just beginning to recover. Morale was low, and crime was high. Shavers wanted to help bring the city back with music, which he did first by playing with the Hot 8 Brass Band and then by fighting to form the Rabouin band.

By the holiday season last year, he had secured music and instruments for the band. He taught students before and after school and during lunch since no time slot was available for a band class. And then, one evening just after Christmas, Shavers was shot and killed while picking up his stepson, who was visiting the wrong neighborhood at the time.

Rabouin students were devastated, and the dream of a Rabouin band nearly ended before it began. But they persevered. In February, they marched in a few Carnival parades—dressed in dark blue and white-striped warm-ups with black shoes and spats— if only to honor the memory of Mr. Shavers.

“I felt like he went through all this trouble to get to this point to have a band,” says Ana Gray, a member of the Sapphires, the Rabouin dance team. “He did it for us, and we should do it for him.”

New Beginnings

But now the real work of becoming a better marching band has begun for the Rabouin students. The school hired accredited music teacher Lonzie Jackson this July to bring legitimacy to the program.

And Jackson realizes that developing the talents of the inexperienced Rabouin musicians won’t be easy. “It’s challenging, but it’s also inspirational because having gone through what they went through and to still see that enthusiasm and interest is inspiring and amazing at the same time,” he says.

Band members also received help from an unlikely source when Julie Benson, a part-time resident of New Orleans, read about their ordeal in a local newspaper in February 2006.  She knew that she had to do something. “Many, if not most of them had never been outside of the city of New Orleans until they were forced to leave due to Hurricane Katrina,” she says. “Most of them had never been on an airplane, set foot on a college campus or had the opportunity to ever see an ocean,” she says.

And Benson knew that if they could visit Los Angeles, they’d both improve themselves as musicians and experience life outside of New Orleans. She contacted administrators at University of Southern California, where her son was a student, and the trip was soon organized.

Fighting On!

In early August 2007, 50 members of the band made the flight out to Los Angeles. The heart of the trip was a one-day intensive band camp with members of the USC Trojan Marching Band. Director Dr. Arthur C. Bartner and a group of his staff donated their time for the cause. Even a couple of USC Song Girls, the Trojan dance squad, pitched in to help. They taught the Rabouin Sapphires and cheerleaders to dance to “Fight On!,” the Trojan fight song. “They’re very talented and they’re super enthusiastic about being here,” says Teni Panosian, a two-year member of the Song Girls.

Although the Rabouin girls had a different style of dancing, Panosian laughingly admitted that “I might use their moves. I might steal them.”

The Rabouin musicians spent a full day with Dr. Bartner and his staff. In the morning, they attended an indoor music rehearsal, then went out in the hot sun for marching practice in the afternoon. Bartner led them through the same training that Trojan Marching Band members receive during their band camp. For many of the Rabouin students, it was some of the most intense training they’d ever experienced.

Thankfully, a lunchtime performance by USC Band members provided a respite. They entertained the Rabouin band with a few of the band’s trademark “rock charts” while showing off some of their dance moves. The Rabouin students even learned to respond to the familiar Trojan Marching Band cry of “Fight On!” with their own New Orleans-flavored response: “Who Dat!”

During their stay in Los Angeles—they boarded in the USC dorms—band members had an opportunity to visit Disneyland where they attended a clinic by Robert Feller, a world-renowned trumpet player and music instructor. But new experiences at the theme park— which most of the students had never visited—were the highlight.

Christopher Lee especially enjoyed the nightly fireworks show. “I saw some stuff I never saw before,” he says. “It was ridiculous.”

Overall, the Rabouin band had a busy touring schedule with tickets to the Drum Corps International World Championships at the Rose Bowl, a visit to the beach and even some charity work for a local community center. After a short five days, it was time to go home to New Orleans.

Gray, who had never been on an airplane before this trip and had always wanted to see California, says it did not disappoint: “It was a wonderful experience,” she says.

Carnival Time

This fall, L.E. Rabouin High School has a football team for the first time (at the junior varsity level), but the Rabouin band will only be playing at half the games. Jackson and the students are already hard at work preparing for the next Carnival season, when they’ll be marching in six parades. The Rabouin band is even starting to score some outside gigs and is booked for the Pensacola Christmas Parade in Florida this December.

Meanwhile, the band has become a group of Trojan fans in the heart of LSU (Louisiana State University) country. It is even learning to play “Fight On!,” and Lee is now considering applying to USC.

Certainly, the young musicians and auxiliary members of the L.E. Rabouin High School Marching Band are remarkable because they have “fought on” through all the misfortunes wrought by man or God. But more amazingly they’ve stayed, well, normal.

They’re just kids who want to have fun, who pick on each other, who share inside jokes and who want to be the best at what they do. When Carnival season returns to New Orleans this winter, you know they’ll be there—in brand-new uniforms—playing and marching their hardest and not asking for pity from anyone. They just want what Mr. Shavers always dreamed of: a great band that will lift up New Orleans with its music.

Sidebar: NOLA Kids Rising

Julie Benson has founded a not-for-profit organization, NOLA Kids Rising, to benefit underserved teenagers like those at L.E. Rabouin High School. Its mission is to offer unique opportunities for personal growth for New Orleans’ most at-risk teenagers, many of whom are already embroiled in the Juvenile Justice System. By creating special one-on-one experiences that directly relate to each child’s personal strengths and interests, NOLA Kids Rising helps struggling youth see that they have an opportunity for living a happy, productive and fulfilling life.

For more information and to support the mission of NOLA Kids Rising, contact NOLAkidsRising@aol.com.

About the Author

Brett Padelford has been assistant director of the USC Trojan Marching Band for four years and is in charge of booking the band on more than 325 special engagements each year. He has been involved in marching band since he started playing clarinet in elementary school. He holds two degrees from USC: a bachelor’s of arts in English literature & language and a master’s of arts in communication management. When he’s not doing gigs with the band, he handles the band’s publicity and writes for the band newsletter.

Photo courtesy of USC Student Affairs.

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