For our January 2023 entry we are featuring the song “Do Whatcha Wanna” and the deep history it embodies. “Do Whatcha Wanna” is one of the most well-known songs in the New Orleans-style brass band repertoire. It was written by Kermit Ruffins, Keith Frazier and Philip Frazier III, of the Rebirth Brass Band, the group they founded in 1983 along with other students from the Joseph S. Clark Sr. High School in the Treme neighborhood of New Orleans. Rebirth is known for combining traditional New Orleans brass band music, including the New Orleans second line tradition, with funk, jazz, and soul influences.
Speaking of the song’s origins, Ruffins once told WWOZ in New Orleans that "All the neighborhood cats used to say, 'I'm gonna do what I wanna!’ … It feels like we had nothing to do with that tune and it's been here forever. … I just think of it as an old, old Mardi Gras standard." Indeed, the song’s history and formative influences go much deeper than might be apparent at first listen.
“Do Whatcha Wanna” features a call and response style among the horns and the drums, associated with the traditional 3+3+2 second line rhythm pattern that underpins so much of current New Orleans brass band style. Interestingly this pattern can be traced back to the bamboula* rhythm and its accompanying dance that came to New Orleans via the slave trade, dating back to the 18th century. Because New Orleans was far more cosmopolitan and multicultural than most cities at the time, enslaved Africans were allowed a “free day” on Sundays to congregate in the space that came to be known as Congo Square, where they engaged in African diasporic drumming and dancing rituals that would have been considered subversive and outlawed anywhere else in the antebellum South. In this way, songs like “Do Whatcha Wanna” stand as a testament to the creative adaptation and resilience of African cultural forms in the Americas.
* It should be noted that, in modern day France, the term bamboula has come to be used as a dehumanizing racial slur for Black people, which should be factored into how the term is used when discussing its musical and historical significance.