Lecture: “Instrumentality: Technologies of Voice in the New Orleans Brass Band,” Matt Sakakeeny (Musicology, Tulane University)

Event Date: 

Wednesday, May 28, 2014 - 3:30pm

Event Location: 

  • Music 1145

Matt Sakakeeny (Musicology, Tulane University)

The instrumentality of musical instruments is to act as a voice unmoored from language. Linguistic anthropologists have argued that speech acts produce subjectivity through vocal sound, and instruments extend this sonic materiality into domains where semantic meaning is augmented or even replaced by musical voicings. In New Orleans, the instruments of the brass band are sound technologies utilized to communicate particular messages to a community of listeners. In the local tradition of the jazz funeral, musicians determine the emotional register of the procession: mournful hymns regulate the slow march to the gravesite and upbeat popular songs signal the transition to celebratory dancing after burial. The musicians not only organize the memorial by changing tempo and repertoire, they communicate to the living and the dead through the material sound of their instruments. Black New Orleanians occupying public spaces where lynchings, race riots, segregation, and gentrification have taken place “give voice” to these submerged histories by marching and dancing to the beat of the brass band. And the most recent generation of musicians has drawn upon hip-hop, integrating the direct language of rap into a polyphony of voices that includes horns, drums, and group singing. In this case study of the brass bands of New Orleans, a holistic approach to sonic materiality integrates the spoken, the sung, and instrumental sound in a densely layered soundscape that creates meaning and value for racialized subjects of power.


Matt Sakakeeny is Associate Professor of Musicology at Tulane University. His book, Roll With It: Brass Bands in the Streets of New Orleans (Duke University Press, 2013) is a firsthand account of the precarious lives of brass band musicians in New Orleans. He has published in journals such as EthnomusicologyBlack Music Research JournalContemporary Political Theory, and Current Musicology, and filed reports for public radio's All Things ConsideredMarketplace,  and WWOZ's Street Talk. He is also a board member for the Dinerral Shavers Educational Fund and volunteer for the Roots of Music afterschool program.