Music brings authenticity to HBO’s ‘Treme’


“I’ve got five bands today,” Blake Leyh said while standing on bohemian Frenchmen Street in New Orleans, where cameras, crew and extras including a punk on a skateboard with an upright bass surround street musicians playing “The House of the Rising Sun.”

As the music supervisor for “Treme,” the new HBO series set in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, he’s a busy man. The first episode began with the Rebirth Brass Band leading a second line and ended with the Treme Brass Band playing a funeral. One episode late in the season has 19 shots that involve live music.

“Treme” tells the story of what happened in late 2005 after the people were rescued from rooftops, floodwaters receded and news cameras went home. It captures the city at a point when large parts of it remained without power and entire neighborhoods were empty.

Though the program is about New Orleans, its heart is Treme, a traditionally African American, working-class neighborhood just outside the French Quarter. Trombonist Glen David Andrews refers to it as “the real Musicians’ Village,” and it’s the hub for much of the city’s street culture — brass bands, social aid and pleasure clubs and Mardi Gras Indians. It’s populated with working musicians like “Treme” character Antoine Batiste (Wendell Pierce), who’s not trying to become internationally famous, but merely looking to make cab fare.

“It’s a story about how the city works,” Leyh said. “People who are closer to the ground and not already hugely successful are a better story to tell.”

Those musicians are more than just a good story. They’re the reason for “Treme.”

“It’s a way to address culture as an end in itself,” said creator-producer David Simon during a recent phone interview. “One thing that became very apparent was that culture itself played the greatest role in bringing the city back.” It didn’t come back because of government fiat, he said, or as a result of economic impulses. “The people who understood culture as a way of life in New Orleans couldn’t imagine life anywhere else. It’s Sunday, and the Money Wasters are supposed to have their parade. It’s Monday, and it’s red beans and rice. People did what they were supposed to do to reengage with their lives.”

For Pierce, playing a member of that community, a working trombonist in the brass band tradition, wasn’t a stretch. He grew up in New Orleans’ Pontchartrain Park neighborhood and went to school at New Orleans Center for Creative Arts alongside jazz musicians, including Wynton Marsalis.

Pierce plays his trombone in his shots, though he is musically doubled by the Rebirth Brass Band’s Stafford Agee. Show researchers used only musicians who had returned to the city after the hurricane. In the premiere, Elvis Costello made a guest appearance because he was in New Orleans that fall recording “The River in Reverse” with New Orleanian Allen Toussaint.

To help achieve the desired authenticity, the bands are playing when they’re shot, and the music they play is what audiences hear. This contrasts with the more common practice of pre-recording the music in a studio and lip-syncing the performance for the camera.

“I want them to be doing as close as possible to what they normally do,” Leyh said. “You might get better sound quality, but there’s no spontaneity there.” He dismisses the notion of having someone like the Rebirth Brass Band pantomime its performance for the camera. “It wouldn’t have the same feeling. When you see the scene, it feels like you’re there and it’s really happening.”

The emphasis on authenticity extends to the writing staff. Eric Overmyer has had a home in New Orleans for 20 years. New Orleanian Tom Piazza is on the writing team along with Lolis Eric Elie, who wrote and co-produced the documentary “Faubourg Tremé: The Untold Story of Black New Orleans.” Countless New Orleanians have been engaged officially or unofficially as consultants, including musician Davis Rogan, the real-life model for Steve Zahn’s character, Davis McAlary.

Still, “Treme” is a drama, not a documentary, as Simon and Overmyer insist. “Authenticity is only a tool in the toolbox like any other thing you have when you’re trying to get people to believe in the story,” Simon said. “If you don’t put enough of it in, you’re in trouble. If you put too much in and you don’t tell the story that ought to be told, then you’re defeating your narrative.”

Treme’s narrative captures what Simon considers an essential feature of New Orleans.

“New Orleans is still a factory town,” he said. “There are no factories; it creates moments. Tourists manage to find some of the weaker moments because they never leave the Quarter, but those that do, those that come to know New Orleans understand that they’re going to a place where organized, skilled labor — musicians, chefs, social aid and pleasure club guys, Mardi Gras Indians — they’re working every day. Their lives are basically skilled labor creating a product that is moments.”