From Central Africa to Central Asia, Shamarr Allen and the Underdawgs have found a warm reception for the sounds of New Orleans.
Sent abroad by the U.S. Department of State, singer-trumpeter Allen and the Underdawgs played five shows in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the neighboring Republic of the Congo in July. The group previously toured the Central Asian nations of Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan in 2011, and Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan in 2012.
A combination 35th birthday party for Allen and welcome home event for the State Department cultural ambassadors is set for Saturday at Tipitina’s. The night’s big roster of special guests includes Kermit Ruffins, James Andrews, Big Freedia, Hot 8 Brass Band, To Be Continued Brass Band and Da Truth Brass Band.
About his Saturday guests, Allen said last week via email from Central Africa, “I’ve learned from, taught and worked with all of them in some way, shape or form. Kermit helped me set up my solo career when he sang on ‘Meet Me on Frenchmen Street.’ Big Freedia was in my ‘Typical Rockstar’ video.
“I just played the Ascona Jazz Festival (in Switzerland) with James, and he was like, ‘Say, man. Put me down for that. I’ll be there!’ The brass bands are where it all started for me. I know that struggle. I’ve been there, so I help them as much as I can.”
Meanwhile, Allen reported, Congolese audiences responded enthusiastically to his band’s adventurously wide repertoire of pop, jazz, rhythm and blues, and rock.
“Every time we do the cultural ambassador tours,” Allen said, “the diplomats always say, ‘This is a tough crowd. The people of Congo are hard to please, so if you can’t get them going, don’t feel bad.’ ”
The latest diplomat, Allen added, predicted the audience on the beach in Point Noire would boo.
“They were there to see us but didn’t know what to expect,” Allen said. “By song No. 3, it was a party! They don’t even speak English, but they were singing call-and-response songs and dancing their hearts out. After we finished, we took so many pictures, it took almost an hour.”
In Brazzaville, Allen and the Underdawgs played club shows and at the Pan-African Festival of Music (FESPAM), the Republic of Congo’s most popular cultural event.
“We’re the only American band (at FESPAM), so we have to set the standard,” Allen said.
Allen described his African trip as the most memorable of his State Department tours.
“I have been feeling emotions I can’t even put into words,” he said.
The warmth and generosity of the Congolese people impressed him, Allen added.
“They don’t have much, but they will give you their last,” he said. “They don’t care about race. They don’t care how much money you have. They seem to love all people. I have that same spirit. It’s a beautiful thing to find that many people who are like that.”
The Congolese musicians Allen heard impressed him, too. The locals love rumba, a musical style based on Cuban rumba.
“I’ve also heard local rap and jazz, but everyone here loves rumba,” Allen said. “It’s like brass band music at home. Not the same instrumentation but the same party atmosphere. They dance to rumba for hours. The more I listen and learn, the more I realize it’s the same concept as New Orleans music. It’s too similar to not be from the same place.”
The African tour and Tipitina’s show precede the upcoming release of Allen’s new album, “True Orleans.” As for the new songs’ lyrics, Allen said he’ll be telling it like it is.
“The topics are about things people know go on but are afraid to talk about,” he said. “I hinted at that in other albums, but I’m going full in on this album.
“I’ve played with every band and musician who makes New Orleans what it is. I’ve laid my groundwork through years of playing and creating music, years of passing on tradition through teaching and actually being born in New Orleans. The album also has some cool guest appearances. It doesn’t get much more ‘True Orleans’ than that.”