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Bruce "Sunpie" Barnes

Musicians / Band

Music Note
  • Blues
  • R&B
  • Accordion
  • Vocal

Bruce “Sunpie” Barnes is truly a Renaissance man. Known primarily for his work as a musician, Barnes is also a former National Park Service ranger (retiring after 30 years), ethnographic photographer, actor, author, former high school biology teacher, former pro football player (Kansas City Chiefs), and current Big Chief of the Northside Skull and Bones Gang Mardi Gras group. His engaging personality and deep knowledge, combined with his consummate musical talent and creativity, place him among New Orleans’ best-loved personalities. Born in 1963, Bruce Barnes was raised in Benton, Arkansas, the tenth of eleven children born to sharecropper parents. His father was an accomplished blues harmonica player who grew up alongside legends like Sonny Boy Williamson, Big Bill Broonzy, and Roosevelt Sykes, and who passed his knowledge on to his son. Nicknamed Sunpie after an uncle, young Barnes learned first the piano, then trombone, which he played in his high school band. He won a football scholarship to Henderson State University, where he was an All-American defensive end and a biology major working part-time for the National Park Service. He was recruited by the Chiefs in 1985, but after playing a season, decided on a career with the NPS – and in music. Barnes’ work as a park ranger and naturalist brought him to Jean Lafitte National Historic Park and Preserve and then to the Jazz National Historic Park in New Orleans. He began gigging at night – old school musicians like Fats Domino and Boogie Bill Webb appreciated his straight-up blues chops – and inhaling the music in the clubs and around the region, especially zydeco. He learned accordion from the legendary Clayton Sampy, picked up the rub board, and mined the Lafayette area for members of his early band, Sunpie and the Creole Zydeco Fanners. In 1991, he broke out Sunpie and the Louisiana Sunspots, initially with former War drummer Harold Brown. With the Sunspots, Barnes developed his unique blend of zydeco, blues, and Afro-Cuban music he calls “Afro Louisiana.” He headlines at festivals and concerts around the globe with the band, and has released six CDs. His compositions are heard in Hollywood films, and he has had roles in commercials and in feature programs such as HBO’s “Treme.” Barnes has also toured as a member of Paul Simon’s band, including a 34-country tour with Simon and Sting in 2014-15. Over the years Barnes has become dedicated to New Orleans’ parade culture. He belongs to the second line parading group, Black Men of Labor and is the Big Chief of the North Side Skull and Bone Gang, one of the oldest Black Carnival groups in the city. In 2015 he co-authored the book, “Talk That Music Talk,” a celebration of brass band music, which included over 300 of his photos. Barnes most recently did a deep dive into the musical ethnography of Creole Louisiana, and, along with co-author and anthropologist Rachel Bruenlin, published the 2019 book/CD, Le Kèr Creole (The Creole Heart): Creole Compositions and Stories from Louisiana, with original music by Barnes and traditional Creole music featuring musicians from Preservation Hall and Panorama Brass Bands, among others.

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