The Original Pinettes Brass Band

Meet last year’s winners of NOLA's Red Bull Street Kings contest

As the first notes of a somber unison horn line reverberated beneath the Claiborne Avenue overpass, a crowd of costumed dancers lifted a coffin painted with the names of three rising-star New Orleans brass bands-the TBC (To Be Continued), New Breed and New Creation-along with the letters “R.I.P.” Leading the coffin’s way, the Original Pinettes Brass Band played a dirge to honor the deceased and a crowd formed to march behind the mourners. Only nobody was dead.

The last of four ensembles to second-line in to this year’s Red Bull Street Kings brass-band contest in New Orleans on Oct. 26, the Pinettes were making it clear, via a faux jazz funeral, that they intended to win. At the end of the hymn, a handheld confetti cannon erupted and the all-female band went about “cutting loose” the non-existent body, ditching the coffin and launching into the Rebirth Brass Band’s classic battle tune “Let’s Go Get ‘Em.”

It was the first of many moments during the competition when it seemed clear that this year’s “Street Kings” title would end up being a sort of malapropism. And it was. The Pinettes ultimately won the contest, forcing event organizers to accommodate the feminized moniker “Street Queens” as they second-lined off the stage in victory at the end of the day.

Held in a historic section of the Treme to which Social Aid and Pleasure Club parades and Mardi Gras Indians frequently gravitate, Red Bull’s contest pitted four local brass bands against one another to vie for the Street Kings title and an opportunity to record with Trombone Shorty at the energy drink company’s New York studios. It was Red Bull’s second successful brass-band battle, the first of which crowned the Stooges as Street Kings and inspired a documentary about the 2010 event.

This year, Stooges leader Walter Ramsey joined Kermit Ruffins, Trombone Shorty and OffBeat Magazine founder Jan Ramsey in the judges’ booth, where they evaluated each group’s proficiency in style, presentation and musical performance during four rounds of competition (including second-line entrances). As each band performed a combination of original, traditional and contemporary cover tunes, the judges winnowed down the finalists to two before the Pinettes bested the younger New Breed. “[The Pinettes] followed all the rules of the contest and they were playing with so much intonation,” Ruffins later marveled. “They deserved it more than anybody else. They were group-minded and they worked together. There’s a lot of love happening in that band.”

During the event, however, no judge gave much hint of what impressed him or her. As the final round approached, Trombone Shorty was stoic and focused on his scoring clipboard. “Everyone can’t win,” he said, adding only that the judges were enamored with the “great music and great New Orleans representation.”

Musically, the New Breed kept things soulful throughout the day, relying on multi-part melodies and smooth harmonies. They also sidestepped the potential hiccups of moving from the parade to stage format by tying sections of music together with a series of horn solos, including a few sustained bouts of circular breathing courtesy of the trumpet players.

Later, the TBC followed up a series of almost experimental horn lines and funk-driven parade triplets with a breezy rendition of “Everyday People.” One of New Creation’s most memorable moments involved a creative arrangement of the Daft Punk single “Get Lucky.”

But the Pinettes remained unflappably tight as they alternated church-ready vocals with Natasha Harris’ groove-drenched sax solos. Illuminating the diversity of their range, they nailed a crowd favorite in A Taste of Honey’s “Boogie Oogie Oogie,” and later changed key mid-song during “Gloryland,” shifting the mood without compromising the gospel number’s foundation. The original, hip-hop-inspired “Ain’t No City” closed out their set with an ode to New Orleans.

After their win, Pinettes bandleader and snare drummer Christie Jourdain admitted that although her band has been around since the early ’90s, she still felt challenged to overcome the gender issue. “They didn’t expect us to come as hard as we did. It was already a strike against us,” she said. “But with the coffin it was like, ‘Y’all really mean business.'”

Almost as noteworthy as the performances themselves was the fact that Red Bull managed to merge corporate needs like giant cameras and signage with a sacrosanct tradition in a historically significant part of town. The contest’s second-line element, the murals of musicians that helped advertise the event and the local vendors who became part of it certainly helped draw what Red Bull estimates to have been 7,000 people, many of them local.

In a city that’s recently seen community needs from housing to live music jeopardized by outsider and corporate interests, Red Bull deserves credit for working within, rather than in spite of the culture.