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Shamarr Allen: From the Congo to ‘True Orleans’

Written by  Nick Garrison
(Photo by Will Brown)

“For me, it’s more about capturing a moment versus writing a particular style,” said New Orleans trumpeter and U.S. Department of State Cultural Ambassador Shamarr Allen during an interview last Saturday about Allen and his band’s, the Underdawgs, recent trip to the Republic of the Congo.
This particular trip brought Allen and the band fresh perspectives on life and music on a worldly level. “The Congo had a different vibe, a different feel,” Allen said. “These people literally have nothing and they’ll give you the clothes off their backs.”
Shamarr Allen: From the Congo to ‘True Orleans’ |
According to Allen, the only paved streets are those used by the President of the country while the rest remain as sandy roads. Water runs every other day, and kitchens and bathrooms are unusable for most. When Allen and his crew arrived at an orphanage, the children there hadn’t eaten in two days. “Those kids don’t have a chance; they’re already set up for failure,” he groaned. “But if you give them a situation where they have somebody to look at and say, ‘I could strive to be this,’ then it makes it easier for them to have something to shoot at. It gives them a goal to reach.”
Following in the footsteps of the great Louis Armstrong, Allen takes certain responsibilities upon himself to fulfill the role of U.S. Cultural Ambassador. On every trip, he spends time preserving New Orleans culture, forwarding the information from our great city as a direct source to people across the globe. “You’re playing for the government officials and the people of the town. You’re doing workshops with a lot of the music students, even sitting in university history classes teaching about the culture of New Orleans as a historian, which is kind of weird,” he chuckled. “But it’s fun, man. It gives you a different perspective of what they see, and it’s cool to be able to give a true assessment of New Orleans versus what you see on TV or in books.”
Shamarr Allen: From the Congo to ‘True Orleans’ | 
Allen’s musical “learnings” come from a long lineage of jazz musicians and bands, including Hot 8 Brass Band, Rebirth Brass Band, Soul Rebels Brass Band, Treme Brass Band, and The Original Royal Players. On preserving and demonstrating New Orleans culture through playing music, Allen said, “It’s so deep in me that even when I don’t want it to come out, it comes out.”
To celebrate the success of another life-changing tour, as well as his birthday bash, Allen the band put on a highly anticipated party at Tipitina’s. As for the show, the line wrapped around the door like usual, bringing in a wide range of demographics. From young college girls to middle aged married couples to even the 60 plus mature crowd donning True Orleans T-shirts (a new venture of Allen’s), the crowd proved Allen’s reach is widespread. Birthday balloons, crunk cups, and cakes were abundant as lights flashed and the bass thumped.
Shamarr Allen: From the Congo to ‘True Orleans’ | IntheNOLA.comThe opener for the night was Da Truth Brass Band, a younger generation of up-and-coming brass musicians. But the powerful ten-piece band didn’t show their age at all. Hot 8 took the stage and riled the audience with commanding woofs from the sousaphone, chant choruses for some crowd participation, and killer solos across the board complete with a 15 year-old special guest who slayed the snare drum in the back. “That’s my son,” Allen beamed with a father’s pride in his voice.

Seeing the connection between Allen’s bloodline and the musical family he has made with Hot 8 only furthers the notion that this event was all about the meaningful people in his life. Even though Shamarr was the one being celebrated, he couldn’t help but to honor about ten of his other friends in the crowd who all had birthdays around the same time, including his own mother who danced with the band on stage! There was also a special tribute to the late Travis “Trumpet Black” Hill who had a birthday around the corner.
Starting at his silver Nikes, up the white pants, across the decorated tunic, and into his dreadlocked hair, Shamarr Allen brought presence! In between rocking the vocals, he would throw a tasty trumpet line in the two beats before a chorus, give himself just enough time to catch a quick breath, and slam right back in on the vocals. In fact, he didn’t touch his horn unless he was going to unleash a string of carefully crafted squeals, pure nastiness that everybody couldn’t get enough of. His pocket trumpet delivered a bright, shimmering tone that was surprisingly mellow for the high range in which Allen employed it. Swag dripped from the tip of his upturned mic to the water key at the end of his horn. Weight on his back heels, he leaned so hard, he could’ve passed the limbo test if only allowed to play high notes while dancing under the bar.
The rest of the Underdawgs filled out the sound with a natural chemistry that a band only gets after playing together for so long. The drummer was relentless. Accompanied by a Congo hand-drum-playing musician to the left (who also doubled on trombone and backing vocals), the two percussionists brought a tribal feel to their usual hip-hop, rock-funk sound. The bassist and keyboardist filled out the rest with thick lines that weaved in and out of each other.
“Going to all these different places, it opens your mind,” Allen said. “You start hearing things differently; you start hearing other sounds that are going on in the music.”

Surely, the band has developed as a single force since the Ambassador Tours began in 2011. “Every musician has certain weaknesses and certain strengths, and as a unit, the objective is to find out how to exploit everybody’s strengths and how to hide everybody’s weaknesses,” Allen revealed. “Time is what did that for us, but going to all these different places opens your ears to different sounds to add into the music.”
Shamarr Allen: From the Congo to ‘True Orleans’ |
Special guests were everywhere that night, starting with James Andrews, who played and sang some traditional New Orleans songs, on the trumpet and vocals. Big Freedia made a guest appearance and, of course, she got about eight women to shake it on stage with her. 5th Ward Weebie was also in attendance bumping booty jams and making waists wobble.
But today’s Shamarr Allen isn’t one to let the party atmosphere distract from his message. He proposed his new idea for the True Orleans Foundation to the crowd, Allen’s organization to help those children in need at the orphanage in the Congo. He explained his goal of raising $500 a month to feed the children at the orphanage, something that really resonated with him while in the Congo. If five hundred people donate one dollar each month to Allen’s movement, the goal will be complete.
“A dollar doesn’t hurt anybody,” he said. “I don’t want ten; I don’t want a hundred; I just want one dollar a month. That’s twelve dollars a year. You know, you can take twelve dollars and waste that on one drink at a bar. If I don’t make it, I’ll just put it up myself. It’s a small operation, so the switching of hands is from us to [our translator]. That’s why I want to do it, because there’s no middle person.”
“We can’t change the world, but we can change someone’s world. You understand what I’m saying?” he addressed the crowd and received roars of support.
Allen’s involvement with the youth doesn’t stop there. He has been teaching a musician’s clinic to underprivileged children for the past 8 years. “I want the kids to have opportunities that I didn’t have,” he said. “That’s really what it is for me. I will never stop teaching kids. Any investment that I make into a place, the building or the teachers, I’m doing that for the greater good of the future of New Orleans.”
Many of his previous students have been accepted to NOCCA, and some were even recipients of scholarships to prestigious schools of music, such as Berklee and NYU. “By them rolling through, and going and finishing, that’s enough ‘thank you’ for me,” Allen said. “That’s it. I don’t need nothing else.”
This year, Allen plans on tying all of his projects together, by incorporating the name True Orleans as part of the local New Orleans clinic, the donation program to the orphanage in the Congo, the title of his next album to be released this year, and the potential for a magazine throughout our city.
A true entrepreneur, Allen is active in the many facets of the music world at large. Always growing, he looks to the authenticity of New Orleans for continuous enrichment and influence. “It’s pretty awesome to still take lessons from people before me, and still get information from people after me. Like, that shit is awesome!” he laughed. “That’s what it’s all about, getting as much information as you can on everything. It makes you better.”
Be on the lookout for Shamarr Allen and the Underdawgs’ long-awaited album, True Orleans, and stay involved with the donation program set to feed the children in the Republic of Congo. If you need any more information, you can just refer to Allen’s last album, 504-799-8147, and send him a message — I’m sure he won’t mind.
Last modified on Thursday, 06 August 2015
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