October 26, 2021

Finding the Notes of Empowerment

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Derrick Tabb is empowering at-risk youth through music education and mentorship. His nonprofit organization, The Roots of Music, is taking young people off the streets and changing lives around the Crescent City, all while celebrating the legacy of Louisiana culture.


Challenged by his musical hero, Tuba Fats, a young Derrick Tabb quickly realized he couldn’t tote a sousaphone back and forth between home and school. Instead, he found that the snare drum might suit him better. Drumsticks in hand, Derrick set out on a musical journey that would take him around the world and home again to transform children from troublemakers to tuba players.

As a founding member of the acclaimed Rebirth Brass Band, Derrick has performed across the globe and witnessed brass music and Louisiana culture take center stage. But long before his success, there was his childhood in New Orleans. Derrick admits that growing up in the Crescent City wasn’t always easy. The 11-block walk home from school, through one of the most dangerous neighborhoods, provided ample opportunity for bad influences to take control. But instead, he followed the disciplined guidance of his junior high band director who fueled his passion for music. 


“I thought, if this cat could save me, if there were more of him, they could save even more kids,” shares Derrick. “And that got me to start thinking at an early age about what my future looked like and what kind of program I could start.”


In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, as New Orleans began the lengthy rebuilding process, area school districts reduced funding for music programs, specifically middle schools. The storm’s destruction placed the city on pause, sparking crime and issues that didn’t exist before. Having returned home to help his family and beloved city, Derrick took this as a sign that something had to be done to empower and inspire the community, especially the youth. It was at that point that he knew if he wasn’t going to be a part of the solution, he would be part of the problem.  

 

Drawing from his own childhood experiences and using the platform he had been given as a professional musician, Derrick worked feverishly to bring to life his idea. Through funding from donations and sponsors, he started the nonprofit after-school program, The Roots of Music

 

“I knew kids from around my house and the local area that were headed down the wrong direction. That’s the kids I wanted to work with, not so they could just survive, but really succeed,” he says. “When we first started, we had enough money to provide these kids an outlet and a location to do it, but those original 19 or so quickly grew to many more.”

 

Derrick says that 42 kids, more than double what he had accounted for, showed up that first day. Two weeks later, he had over 100 kids arriving to be a part of the program. Without proper funding and space for that many students, Derrick began to worry. However, support kept coming and the program gained the momentum necessary to keep going. 

 

Now headed into its 15th year, The Roots of Music continues to serve kids ages nine to fourteen and provide students with hot meals and round-trip transportation to reduce common barriers to participation. The program also includes music history and theory, as well as instrumental instruction and ensemble performance preparation. For Derrick, the goal is two-fold as the program preserves the unique musical and cultural heritage of New Orleans while empowering the youth from low-income households to lead positive, productive, and self-reliant lives.

 

“Roots is a program for the city, for the kids of the city. Without a program like this, we will lose our sound. Every year there’s less funding for music programs in schools, and more kids who can’t afford to pay for music lessons,” says Derrick. “If we don’t provide them an outlet, we not only risk losing our music, but we risk losing our youth.”

 

The mentorship, education, and resources from Roots have transformed lives for students, bringing attention not only to the program, but also to the culture and city of New Orleans. In 2013, the band participated in the Tournament of Roses Parade in Pasadena, California and was acclaimed for having the youngest participant in the parade’s long history. In 2015, the band played for President Barack Obama as he visited the city to honor the 10-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. But the success of the program isn’t necessarily the only fulfilling element for Derrick. 

 

It’s important to him that one of the effects of The Roots of Music is that it educates people outside of the state about the music that comes from New Orleans, and Louisiana as a whole. It’s his belief that the culture that comes from Louisiana has so much to offer the world.

 

“We have to start educating other people about our music, so they understand why our culture is so important. The culture is way bigger than one band or what we see at Mardi Gras,” he says. “This is our livelihood, this is us. We don’t want to lose what we have here, what we’ve created.”

 

Derrick doesn’t shy away from his Louisiana pride. His loyalty takes on a whole new meaning where Louisiana’s musical heritage is concerned. He speaks about his role as a musician and being a sort of ambassador for the state fondly. Through his work with The Roots of Music, he feels that it’s a duty, an obligation, a responsibility to represent his neighborhood of New Orleans as well as the rest of the state—so much so that he stopped traveling, just so he could be here and see the music grow. 

 

Derrick emphasizes that passing music down in Louisiana and New Orleans is critical, mentioning that the music played here is the last grassroots music there is. That’s why he’s determined that Roots stays loyal to the environment it came from. Derrick continues to raise funds and awareness to grow their programming to provide even more opportunities to students who want to express themselves through music. As the organization grows, supports students, and celebrates Louisiana, Derrick insists that loyalty is often a matter of legacy.

 

“Being loyal to New Orleans and Louisiana culture is so important. We could be teaching kids all sorts of other things, but we stay loyal to marching band and brass band music,” he says. “It’s our culture. It’s what we grew up in. It’s where we come from. And it’s important that we teach our kids why it’s important to stay loyal to it.”

 

Today, Derrick Tabb isn’t so worried about carrying a sousaphone to and from school anymore. Rather, he’s busy carrying and sharing Louisiana’s musical traditions, empowering the youth to learn it and transform their lives with it.


“When I say I’m proud,” he starts, “I’m very proud to be from Louisiana. New Orleans. Treme. Sixth Ward. There’s no place like home, there’s no place like here. The natural charisma of the people, the food, the music… there’s nowhere else like it. And that’s why it’s so important that we maintain that culture and teach the kids to keep it going.”

 

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