It was a scene straight out of Mardi Gras — parasols out, horns blaring that familiar sound.
But the celebration played out thousands of miles from the French Quarter, along a Japanese coast still digging out of last year’s catastrophic tsunami.
The rousing performance by New Orleans’ Tipitina’s Internship Program Band, and The Chosen Ones brass band from O. Perry Walker High School brought traditionally shy Japanese musicians to their feet, dancing.
“We did the performance to show that there’s no bad thing that can happen,” 16-year-old trombone player George Brown said. “There’s nothing that can keep people down. The music will just lift you up.”
The sounds of “Bourbon Street Parade” marked the latest chapter in a unique cultural exchange that has forged an unlikely friendship between young musicians in New Orleans and Japan.
Disaster first brought the two groups together.
When Hurricane Katrina struck, flood waters nearly silenced the Crescent City’s famous jazz music – washing away the only instruments the musicians had.
“My entire family played so you could just see something was taken away once the piano was gone,” said Joe Dyson, 22, a member of Tipitina’s Intern Band. “There was nothing. That release was gone.”
The silence didn’t last long, thanks to help from Japanese trumpet player Yoshio Toyama and his World Jazz Foundation. A fixture at New Orleans’s Satchmo Festival, Toyama and his wife Keiko were first drawn to the city by its jazz music nearly 40 years ago, and lived there for five years. Dismayed by the gun violence, the couple began their foundation to “save kids through music.”
They began by donating a handful of trumpets and trombones, but Katrina kicked the foundation into high gear.
To date, Toyama has donated nearly 800 instruments to New Orleans’s schoolchildren, on behalf of the people of Japan.
“I think Jazz is the most wonderful present from the United States and New Orleans to the world,” he said. ” I wanted to give back and say ‘thank you.”
When a powerful earthquake and tsunami struck the northeast coast of Japan last year, the tables turned. O. Perry Walker band director Wilbert Rawlins, who had long been on the receiving end of Toyama’s donations, rallied his students to host a fundraiser for musicians in Japan.
The Tipitina’s Foundation joined him, and donated $11,000 to his tsunami fund.
“When I saw the tsunami on TV, it reminded me so much of New Orleans. My heart just went out,” said Donald Harrison Jr., artistic director for Tipitina’s band.
Roughly 13,000 homes were destroyed in the city of Kesennuma, but the local Swing Dolphins band never missed a beat, thanks to the generous donations. The 24 elementary and junior high members performed outside a temporary shelter a month and a half later, with the very instruments they received.
Earlier this month, 16 students from O. Perry Walker and Tipitina’s traveled to Japan for the first time, to perform with the Swing Dolphins.
When they entered the band room in Kesennuma, they got a hero’s welcome.
There were few words exchanged, but the beats, the rhythm spoke a universal language. By the time the group finished the second line at the Kesennuma Street Live Music Festival, even the oldest in the crowd were on their feet, parasols in hand.
With the first duet complete, the groups are now preparing for the next. The Swing Dolphins plan to travel to New Orleans next year.
“This collaboration is going to change lives,” Harrison said. “In the future, we’ll see the effects. We’ll see great musicians come out of Japan, who will be our brothers and sisters.”