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Hold On To Your Tuba: Brass Bandits Hit L.A. Schools

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The words "black market" usually summon images of drugs, guns or pirated DVDs — not tubas. Yet authorities in Los Angeles say the instrument is in such high demand that the black market may be what's driving a wave of local tuba thefts.

Ruben Gonzalez is teaching an after-lunch band class at the scene of one recent tuba crime — the music room at South Gate High School outside L.A. He starts with a request only a band teacher would make.

"Make sure we rinse out folks — we don't need any hamburgers or hot chilies coming through those instruments," he says.

While the kids rinse out and tune up, Gonzalez points to a row of gashes along the door jamb. He and his students noticed them one morning earlier this school year. "I'm walking in, I'm like, 'That was never there before,' and I'm like, 'You know what, guys? I think somebody tried to break in,' " he says.

Then Gonzalez noticed something else. Once the thieves got in, they bypassed a computer as well as a stash of valuable flutes, saxophones and clarinets. According to Gonzalez, "All they took were the tubas."

It sounds like the punch line to a bad joke, but security cameras confirmed it with grainy footage of three guys in hoods lugging away two concert tubas and a sousaphone on wheels under cover of night. A couple months later, thieves broke into Gonzalez's classroom again, stealing two more. Amazingly, that's just the tip of the tuba-theft iceberg.

A City Of Tuba Aficionados

At least 23 tubas have been stolen from eight different high schools in and around L.A. in less than a year — not something these campuses can afford, given public school budgets these days.

As for where all these stolen tubas are going, there are competing theories. Some say they're being sold for scrap metal. But police say more likely it has something to do with banda, a kind of tuba-heavy Mexican polka music that has become very popular around L.A. It's so popular, in fact, that Los Angeles school police officer Omar Sanchez says an underground economy has sprung up.

"If I just said, 'Hey, I got a friend who knows a friend who knows a friend who has a tuba,' you can easily sell it from word of mouth and the black market," Sanchez says. "It's big money. It's just very popular music around here — in any Latino culture area. Me being a fan, I can understand. [I'm] a big tuba aficionado."

At a Mexican restaurant in South Los Angeles, a group called La Banda Rebelde plays on a makeshift stage in the parking lot. People swarm around them just to hear the tuba. According to one audience member, "Once you put the tuba in there, it makes the whole song different — makes it better."

But the tuba effect doesn't come cheap. The band here charges $20 a song — almost twice as much as a group without a tuba. People have even been known to stuff $100 bills down the tuba's bell.

Putting Bertha Back In Retirement

Back at South Gate High School, that kind of cash could go a long way. At $7,000 a pop, band teacher Ruben Gonzalez says, the tubas stolen from his band will cost more than $35,000 to replace. In the meantime, the band is relying on a 40-year-old sousaphone called Bertha.

"We've retired her a couple times, but we've brought her back because obviously now we have no tubas," Gonzalez says.

The school hopes to raise enough money for new tubas in time for band camp this summer.

Copyright 2012 KQED Public Broadcasting. To see more, visit http://www.kqed.org.

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