Les Misérables Brass Band / Manic Traditions

Fun naif lithograph of brass instrumentplayer in orange and blue

Les Misérables Brass Band
Manic Traditions

Northeastern Records 1990, NR 5004-CD

If you think back to the first Klezmatics album (Shvaygn=Toyt), you'll remember a piece called something like "Shneider, Tailor" that was accompanied by this bunch of folks called "Les Misérables Brass Band. Just prior to hearing that, I had heard the same song on a brass cassette from Yugoslavia, providing further proof to my theory that all music was connected.

Further reinforcing this thesis Les Misérables did produce an album eventually. It is the sort of album that I wished I'd had as a role model back when I was an aspiring French Horn player in my high school band and, five years on, had hit upon exactly one solo moment for French horn--the overture to the rock opera, "Tommy." Had I heard "Manic Traditions," opening with the dance-compelling soca of "T.T.," moving from (yet another recording of the impossible to record too much) "Ramo Ramo," to the 40s noir of "Encounter on a Foggy Night" to marches from Bolivia, gospel, New Orleans sounds, and even an mind-altering cover of Jimi Hendrix' "Manic Depression" I might still be a musician today. (I'd still have had to find talent, somewhere, but that's another story.)

This is the sort of album that exemplifies all that is fun with world music. I would contend, of course, that this album is fun precisely because it consists only of brass (and a modicum of percussion) played by a liberal selection of exceptional musicians. It is also worth noting that the closest the band gets to John Philip Sousa is a medley of Bolivian marches, proving not only that brass is fun, diverse, and essential, but that you don't have to listen to "Stars and Stripes Forever" to appreciate the artform.

This is the sort of album that ends up on my permanent "in play" CD pile. Play it loud.

Reviewed by Ari Davidow, 11/2/97

Personnel this recording:
Matt Darriau: alto sax, clarinet
David Harris: trombone
Frank London: trumpet
Takaaki Masuko: drums, percussion
Vinnie Nobile: trombone
Marcus Rojas: tuba
W. Marshall Sealy: french horn
Jeanne Snodgrass: trumpet

John Arrucci: add'tl drums, 1, 2, 6, 10, 13


  1. T.T. (Frank London) 4:03
  2. Jhanibar di Panwan Chankar (Trad., Pakistan) 4:01
  3. Ramo Ramo (Trad., Serbian, arr. LMBB) 4:39
  4. Encounter on a Foggy Night (David Harris) 4:30
  5. El Abandonado (trad., Mexican) 3:07
  6. Three Bolivian Marches (trad., South American) 5:38
  7. Precious Lord, Hold My Hand (trad., American Spiritual; arr. LMBB) 2:40
  8. Harlem Nocturne (Sid Robin/Earle Hagen; arr. David Harris) 5:43
  9. El Dios Nunca Muerte (trad., Mexico) 5:06
  10. Manic Depression (Jimi Hendrix; arr. Marcus Rojas) 5:06
  11. King Street Tango (Miriam Rabson) 4:54
  12. Nyoro (trad., African) 3:28
  13. Phoenix City (Roland Alphonso; arr. LMBB) 3:28

Once I published this review, I heard from the band's original drummer, Charlie Berg, [also the original drummer for the Klezmer Conservatory Band, (KCB)] with more about the band. Charlie's article on Klezmer Drumming is the definitive article, so far. He's a great storyteller, and tends to remember true. With his permission, I have taken his e-mail and present it as a history of Les Misérables BB prior to the recording of the album reviewed, above:

From: Charlie Berg
Date: Mon, 10 Nov 1997
Subject: Les Miserables BB

"Manic Traditions" is the second, and last of LMBB's recording [the first is on Global Village. ari] (although I think Dave [Harris] told me they've just put another one in the can and it will be out on Piranha). The first one is only on tapeOom Pa cover, I think, but was well reviewed. I especially like our version of "Me & Mrs. Jones", featuring a trombone as the lead voice. That cut was particularly liked by the Washington Post when they reviewed it some years back.

The history of the band is somewhat interesting. We started it back in 1981, not too long after KCB grabbed that tiger's tail. It was originally Frank [London] and Dave's idea. We were learning stuff off of tapes for KCB, which was a new experience for most of us. Somebody had turned Frank onto a recording of a Bulgarian (or Romanian) brass band, and Frank got the idea to apply the repertoire learning techniques to this particular form of world music (we were treating klezmer as world music, at the time).

The original band included those 2, me, Taki Masuko, Samm Bennett, who's now a well-known percussionist on the Downtown circuit, Jeanne Snodgrass, who Ingrid Monson knew from the white-women on the salsa-circuit circuit, Hermguildo Pena on tuba (the band always had Puerto Rican tuba players, for some reason), Mimi Rabson [violinist with KCB and Excelsior. ari] on Euphonium (she had played trpt. in high-school, I think), and a couple of other art student types. Soon after we added Marshall Sealy and Vinny Nobile (who was for years the trombone player for Bim Skala Bim, a big East Coast ska band ... before the Bosstones). Eventually Herman left, and was replaced by Marcus [Rojas], who was just finishing up at the New England Conservatory, Mimi & the art students left, and Matt Darriau came on (who we all knew from Boston).

We started out as purely a rehearsal band -- we met every Friday afternoon to run the new tunes we had learned off of tapes that Frank assembled. Pretty soon, we moved away from the solely world-music, scholarly approach to all kinds of stuff. I contributed an Archie Shepp tune, Dave, a Kool & the Gang tune.... Mind you, no klezmer (that was our day gig :-) [I wondered! ari]).

By 1982, or 1983 LMBB had moved enough to a more "professional brass player" line-up so that we could start gigging out. We started playing punk bars -- the old "Ins-Square Men's Pub" and the like. Hooked up some outdoor festival gigs, got some radio play on WGBH and WERS, and we were off.

The 1st big gig we did was probably a nite we did at the Public Theatre in NYC, with guest artist Lester Bowie. Lester did not have his Brass Fantasy band yet, and I can't help but wonder whether he got the idea of a brass band playing all kinds of out stuff from us. We got an ok review from the Times, but I don't think they really understood what we were doing (kind of like how most critics approached klezmer at the time).

By the end of '84 it was clear that there was some real fame & fortune in this band as well. Dave & I left the KCB to focus on the Miserables after the 1984/1985 New Year's KCB concert. Frank stayed on, even tho' he was essentially the artistic director for LMBB -- I think he felt that KCB was too good real money to pass up.... I didn't have that worry, and Dave was more adventurous (Dave?).

More festivals, including Jacob's Pillow, where it is believed that somebody heard us who knew David Byrne. Consequently, in 1986, when he wrote music for a Robt. Wilson play with the Dirty Dozen's Brass Band in mind, and they couldn't cut the reading, he contacted us. So the Band (some of the band at least...) was to become the touring band for this show on and off for the next 2 years.

After that, there was more work, including the band's trip to Germany with the Klezmatics, where we recorded Shvegn=Toyt. We opened for the Klezmatics (they were better known), but I always thought we blew them off the stage. Actually, your review only talks about being on the Schneider cut -- we did the Klezmatics original version of Brider, Brider as well ... and a couple of others.

By this time Frank had moved to New York, as had Marcus. And these guys were working more and more with other bands, so LMBB started to go on the back burner. [I was gone by the end of 1987.] At any rate, they recorded Manic about 9 mos. after I left, and then pretty much stopped working. A gig here, a gig there, but no continuity, and little rehearsal. More people moved to New York (Matt [Darriau], Marshall [Sealy]), started getting married and having kids, and there was always this element that LMBB was a serious musical hobby for everybody, as opposed to their main gig.

Then a couple of months ago Frank got word that some guy in Greece was looking for LMBB on the Internet, to book them for a brass band festival, and the guys got back together, rehearsed and went back out on the road in Europe for a month? (Dave will fill you in on this part). So, I think the band remains a favorite pastime for everybody involved, even if it's not a "real" gig.

BTW, the band is not named after the show; in fact we used to joke that since we came before the show, we were going to sue them for trademark violation. Frank came up with the name because we were playing "people's music", and the Hugo novel is a novel about "the People".

Charlie Berg

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