(By Keither Spera for NOLA.com The Times-Picayune | Photo: John McCusker, NOLA.com | The Times-Picayne archive) – New Orleans trumpeter Shamarr Allen is a veteran of multiple State Department-sponsored “cultural ambassador” overseas tours to former Soviet republics. But a just-completed two-week tour of the Republic of the Congo affected him far more profoundly.
“For the whole band, it touched emotions that we’d never touched before,” Allen said this week. “I think I learned more than I taught this time. I learned so much about myself by going over there.”
Between shows with his band the Underdawgs – they were the only American act among the thousand-plus bands at the massive Pan-African Festival of Music (FESPAM) – they visited slavery museums and orphanages.
“It felt like going into the past,” Allen said, noting the unpaved roads, extreme poverty and intermittent power and water supply, even at the relatively nice hotel where they stayed. “But the people are so happy. They appreciate what they have, and it’s not much at all. It made me appreciate the small things here. It was a valuable lesson. I can’t even put it into words.”
On Saturday (July 25), Allen and the Underdawgs headline Tipitina’s for a combination homecoming and 34th birthday celebration. Guests scheduled to perform include trumpeters Kermit Ruffins and James Andrews, bounce artist Big Freedia, and Da Truth, Hot 8 and TBC brass bands.
Allen and the Underdawgs, drawing on rock, funk, R&B and traditional New Orleans music, will likely alternate party songs with sometimes frank “message songs.” The latter include “Kurt Cobain,” named for the suicidal Nirvana singer. In the accompanying video, Allen is seen holding a shotgun to his head before ultimately deciding that he has too much to live for to commit suicide.
His Congo experience gave him much more to contemplate. In some ways, the Congo reminded him of New Orleans. “There are a lot of similarities to home, all the way down to people not being on time,” he said, laughing. He was especially struck by recognizable elements in Congolese music. When local drummers sat in with the Underdawgs on New Orleans-style songs, the beats dovetailed perfectly, he said.
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