Emily Estrella is a free spirit who leads the Faux Barrio Billionaires through vintage jazz tunes for audiences to enjoy on Fridays in February at the Maison. Singing standards comes naturally to Estrella because of her grandmother, who inspired her passion for music.
“People ask me all the time, ‘Where did you learn all this old music?’ My grandma used to sing it to me when I was a kid,” she said. “We didn’t have a TV, so she would have us listening to old records and have me entertaining her friends at dinner.”
The music was eagerly soaked up by Estrella along with classic dance moves taught by her grandmother.
“We spent a lot of time with Grandma,” she said. “A lot of times we went there after school. I grew up dancing with my grandma in her living room.”
Estella danced and sang her way from her grandma’s Ohio living room to high school and college in Massachusetts. She eventually settled in the childhood home of Jelly Roll Morton, a New Orleans music legend.
Her journey to New Orleans has a spiritual quality to it. A few years ago she was uncertain of her future, and as Estrella looked over the ocean on the Massachusetts’ coast, she asked St. Peter to guide her choice between Chelsea in New York City and New Orleans.
“I was told that the apartment in Jelly Roll Morton’s house was rented, so I had given up on the idea of New Orleans,” Estrella said.
But shortly after asking for saintly guidance, a space in Morton’s home opened up, so she credits St. Peter with steering her toward the Big Easy’s Seventh Ward.
As an extension of her love for the historic home, she nicknamed the Seventh Ward her “faux barrio” as a wink to the city’s Spanish roots that continues to influence today’s NOLA musical community.
It’s no coincidence that the Faux Barrio Billionaires shares her neighborhood’s nickname. The word “billionaires” was added due to the richness she feels in her bandmates’ happy-go-luck company.
The group’s roster consists of Adam Arredondo (trumpet), Russell Ramirez (trombone), Byron Asher (clarinet), Josh Marotta (drums), Jason King (guitar), Max Bien-Kahn (bass), Aaron Gunn (violin) and Estrella (vocals).
Besides the Faux Barrio Billionaires’ club gigs and street performances, they also bring their music and celebratory spirit to Jelly Roll Morton’s home at regular Jelly Roll Jam house parties.
It was at one of these impromptu Jelly Roll Jams that musician Aaron Gunn met Estrella, who had been performing on the street with her ukulele while waitressing in the French Quarter. When she was offered a live gig that required a band, Estella phoned Gunn, who put together a trio to back her up.
That original trio grew into a full band to provide the live music support for Estrella to perform a grown-up version of her childhood afternoons at her grandmother’s singing and dancing to old records.
Besides the music, Estrella’s grandmother also told her stories about her travels as a professional dancer that included visits to New Orleans in the 1940s.
“When I was a little girl my grandma told me about this New Orleans hotel with a cornstalk fence. I thought she was making it up until I walked by the Cornstalk Hotel on Royal street and saw it was true,” Estrella said. “Now, here I am -- living the dream. New Orleans is such a magical place.”
Emily Estrella and the Faux Barrio Billionaires play Fridays in February at the Maison, 508 Frenchman street. For more info go to: http://maisonfrenchmen.com.