Cajun Throwdown raises questions about music and food

Food and music go together rather nicely. Or as Satchmo would say: “red beans and ricely.”

I bring this up because on Friday, October 3, I’ll be a tasting judge at the Cajun Throwdown at Centro (formerly Alpine Experience – 408 Olympia Ave NE) starting at 7 p.m. during the Olympia Fall Arts Walk.

Upstart Joe Hyer (left) goes up against the pro, Rodney O'Neill in Friday's Cajun Throwdown.
Upstart Joe Hyer (left) goes up against the pro, Rodney O’Neill in Friday’s Cajun Throwdown.

Rodney O’Neal, barbecue and Southern cook extraordinaire and owner of Barb’s Soul Cuisine, will be challenged by the upstart, usurper Joe Hyer who claims that because he’s visited New Orleans a few times, he can cook like a cajun.  We’ll see.  (I guess I’ll be the judge of that.) It’s all for a good cause with proceeds from food sales benefiting the charitable organization, Barb O’Neill’s Family and Friends.

While this is mostly an assignment for my taste buds, I have been preparing my ear buds. After all, this is a blog about a show called “Gumbo YaYa.”

Food about music is fairly boundless.  Jimmy Buffet’s Cheeseburger in Paradise and the Presidents of the United States’ Peaches, come to mind. But, as usual, I’ll stick to New Orleans music.

Jelly Roll Morton’s name didn’t come from a pastry

The tricky part is what might sound like food isn’t always the case. Ferdinand Joseph LaMothe didn’t take up the name Jelly Roll Morton because of a fondness for sponge cake. The moniker of the piano player who began his career performing in Storyville whorehouses has more do with a woman’s private parts than a pastry. Given that context, I’m leaving his 1923 song, Big Fat Ham, alone.

Similarly, the New Orleans jazz standard “Struttin’ with Some Barbecue”  originally recorded by Louis Armstrong and his Hot Five likely has nothing to do with ribs. According to Cab Calloway’s Jive Dictionary, “barbecue” was jive for a girlfriend or beauty.  I imagine Lil Hardin, the piano playing composer of the song and Armstrong’s wife at the time, was thinking she was the “barbecue” that Pops was strutting with.

When Satchmo and his Hot 5 recorded “Struttin with Some Barbecue,” his barbecue was likely his wife, piano player and song composer Lil Hardin.

Dan Raye, who added lyrics to the music years later, took the song at face value. “And mister waiter if you please, Another rib or two. And I’ll go strut, strut, struttin’, Struttin’ with some barbecue.”

Zydeco King Clifton Chenier was more transparent when he recorded, Hot Tamale Baby. There’s absolutely no reason to believe his song is about a starchy food wrapped in a corn husk.

But a classic Cajun song , “Jambalaya.” is about food, right? Well, true, the singer has to say goodbye to Joe (me oh my oh) so he can go see his girl (ma cher amio). But he also waxes rather poetically about “Jambalaya, and a crawfish pie and file’ gumbo.”

While I doubt Hank Williams ever poled “a pirogue down the bayou,” he did manage to capture a slice of cajun life, albeit a caricature, in this often covered song.

I think Professor Longhair got it right when he sang “Got my red beans cookin” in the aptly named song “Red Beans.” Not much to the lyrics except him cooking red beans–which can take some time to do right. I have to say, though, I’m not sure how pure his intent was when he finished with “I’m gonna have all these women, jumping for joy.”

Mac Rebennac became Dr. John with the 1968 debut album featuring “Gris Gris Gumbo YaYa.”

Not surprisingly, songs about gumbo are my favorite. Gris Gris Gumbo YaYa, the first cut off of  Dr. John’s debut album, was partly the inspiration for the name of my radio show. This creole dish is a perfect example of the melange of cultures that come together to form New Orleans cuisine and music.  In a pot of gumbo, you’ll find hints of West Africa, France, Spain, the Caribbean, Germany and Choctaw.

My favorite gumbo song is the quirky “Shrimp and Gumbo” by Dave Bartholomew. At the height of his reputation as a talent scout and R&B music producer, Bartholomew cranked out this little mambo ditty, heavy on percussion (thank you Earl Palmer) and a three saxophone melody reminiscent of the theme song of “I Dream of Jeannie.” Recorded in 1955, Shrimp and Gumbo predates the 60’s TV sitcom. The lyrics are rather limited playing off the fun of singing “mambo” and “gumbo” in tandem.

Well, I’ve given you a “taste” of what to expect on my Monday show (Sept. 29), 10 a.m. to noon (PST) on KAOS, 89.3 FM. But for a real taste, stop by Centro next Friday during Arts Walk for the Cajun Throwdown where you just might find jambalaya, a crawfish pie and file’ gumbo.

There’s more to NOLA than Bourbon Street

Even if you only know a little about New Orleans, you probably know about Bourbon Street.  And if that street is your only knowledge of the city, please keep reading.

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Bourbon Street on Mardi Gras Day – NOLA.Com

Nowadays, Bourbon Street is almost a caricature of people’s perceptions of the city.  A noisy, flashy street loaded with T-shirt and souvenir shops, bars that sell drinks called “Hand Grenades” and strip clubs. The street seems designed to allow visitors to sin without fear of discovery or retribution by their neighbors back home.

My own experience with the street dates back to the early 60’s when my parents’ idea of a fun family night was to pack us all up in our Rambler station wagon and drive slowly down the street (now restricted to pedestrians at night). My dad would stop the car when the doormen to the “dance clubs” would open the doors providing us a scandalous peak at the activities inside.  Yes, we all have undergone therapy since.

When not driving a Rambler full of kids down Bourbon Street, parents were often inside night clubs like this one with Al Hirt.
My parents with Al Hirt at his club on Bourbon Street.

Back then, locals still went down to Bourbon Street for live music at clubs such as those owned by famous home boys, Al Hirt and Pete Fountain.

The street still offers live music, mostly versatile cover bands capable of playing Rock favorites and cabaret music. The street is an important employment base for local musicians and other performers, according to Brad Rhines’s article, Pride on Bourbon Street.  Also, the restaurant Galatoire’s and Irvin Mayfield’s Jazz Playhouse are two well-regarded establishments on Bourbon that attract a local clientele.  But generally speaking, the locals leave Bourbon Street for the tourists.

Fortunately, New Orleans has another locus of live music that both locals and tourists frequent.  Downriver from the French Quarter is the end of Frenchmen Street located in the Faubourg Marigny neighborhood. Any cabby can get you there. If you’re in the French Quarter, it’s a reasonable walk– head away from downtown on either Decatur or Chartres (pronounced Charter) Streets. After you cross Esplanade, you’ll run into Frenchmen. There are roughly a dozen places offering live music in this three-block area.

If you have watched the wonderful HBO series  “Treme,” then you’ve seen a number of Frenchmen Street clubs featured as settings for the show, including the Spotted Cat, The Blue Nile, and the venerable Snug Harbor. There are music clubs literally next door to each other. In one scene in Treme, band leaders in adjacent clubs go back and forth stealing the other’s audience, illustrating just how easy it is for you to bounce from one music venue to another.

One of my most recent experiences on Frenchmen was almost magical. Kim and I landed on the street one afternoon after a long day of slogging through torrential rains. We walked into The Three Muses tired, wet and hungry. We were just looking for a place to sit and maybe eat.  We ordered a couple of small food plates and there on the tiny stage next to us was a cellist using a digital delay, a loop pedal and other electronic wizardry to create a roomful of haunting music.

In the dozen years that Helen Gillet has lived in New Orleans, she has established herself as an original artist, capable of integrating New Orleans sounds and heritage into her music.  And here she was doing an intimate performance for us as we refreshed ourselves with excellent food and drink.

Cellist Helen Gillet

On your next trip to New Orleans, visit Frenchmen Street. Meanwhile, you can hear Helen Gillet, Al Hirt and Pete Fountain on my next show, Sweeney’s Gumbo YaYa, starting at 10 a.m., Monday, on KAOS, www.kaosradio.org, 89.3 FM.

Larger than Life K-Doe is patron saint of this blog

Meet Ernie K-Doe, a New Orleans performer and a character in a city of characters. He is now officially designated: Patron Saint of this Blog.

I have no idea what the criterion is to be a blog’s patron saint or even if this is a good idea. I suspect for someone who called himself Emperor of the World, Ernie might consider this gig slumming.  Then again, from what I’ve read, he was a generous and warm fellow despite his boastful swagger.

Ernie K-Doe’s claim to fame is the song Mother-in-Law (written by Allen Toussaint) which became the best-selling record in America in May 1961, topping the pop chart for one week and the R&B chart for five weeks.  No other New Orleans artist has ever reached the top with a song recorded in New Orleans. Fats Domino sold a mountain of records but never had a number one hit.

And Ernie K-Doe never let you forget his claim to fame. Not in his performances nor in his outrageous stints as a volunteer deejay for community radio stations WWOZ and WTUL–where his code phrase was “Burn K-Doe Burn.” He would say there are only two songs that will stand the test of time: Star Spangled Banner and Mother-in-Law.

But its not his R&B career that qualifies him as patron saint though it is an essential part of his resume. It has more to do with his stint as a community radio deejay given that this blog supports my radio show Sweeney’s Gumbo YaYa.  But what puts him over the top for patron canonization is what the Times-Picayune describes as “a robust and unexpected second act as an eccentric, only-in-New Orleans icon.”

Ernie’s turning point was meeting Antoinette Dorsey Fox–a woman with many talents including her ability to sew outlandish outfits to match his personality and to provide love and focus to a man who had taken the textbook life crash of a one-hit wonder.

Ernie in full Emperor regalia outside Mother-in-Law Lounge

Antoinette opened the Mother-in-Law Lounge at 1500 N. Claiborne Street in the shadow of Interstate 10 where K-Doe could perform as well as tend bar.  The lounge became a kitschy memorial to his career, including outsized murals of K-Doe and a jukebox that played his hit every 20 minutes — sometimes accompanied by the real-time K-Doe who kept a wired microphone nearby.

Despite being renovated after Katrina, the lounge closed after Antoinette died in 2009. Kermit Ruffins later bought it and reopened it this year with many of the murals restored.

I recommend reading Ernie K-Doe: The R&B Emperor of New Orleans by Ben Sandmel. The New Orleans writer/folklorist makes it easy to feel a connection to Ernie even though we’ve missed our chance to meet or see him perform. He died in 2001.

Not that death stopped him. A local sculptor was able to adapt a mannequin into a life-size and lifelike rendition of Ernie. For a few years after his death, Antoinette dressed and brought the statute to gatherings around town, including a fundraiser for the benefit of New Orleans cemeteries.  In 2002, the benefit was held at Saint Alphonsus Catholic Church where I once subbed as an altar boy in the 60’s. Apparently the church was also used by Anne Rice as a setting in her novel The Witching Hour.

Antoinette with the Ernie K-Doe statue

Sandmel takes the story from here:   

“Although decommissioned as a place of worship and then reinvented as an arts center, Saint Alphonsus kept its full array of Catholic statuary in place. This holy horde looked on as the Madame Tussaud-esque K-Doe was plunked down in its sacred midst. A bodyguard named Cisco accompanied Ernie’s effigy. He stood stock-still by his charge’s side lest anyone should feel prone to K-Doe kleptomania. But almost everyone else at the church was in frenetic motion.  A zydeco band set up in front of the altar and cranked out upbeat two-steps and slow, low-down blues. This irresistibly danceable blend inspired the cemeteries’ more extroverted friends to twirl, bump and grind by the baptismal font, with their Lestat costumes and Goth garb all a-flutter.  At evening’s end Antoinette disassembled and packed up the statue like all mannequins, it is sectional–with the disarming comment, ‘I’m working poor Ernie to death!’”

Ernie and Antoinette

Poor Ernie. Now you gotta be my patron saint as well. I’ll be playing Ernie’s Certain Girl — a New Orleans favorite on the September 15th show on KAOS starting at 10 a.m.

POST SCRIPT: And I’ll honor his birthday on the February 23rd show.

You needn’t be from New Orleans to say it right

I like to think that I come from the Gershwin school of pronunciations, as in “You like ‘to-may-toes’ and I like ‘to-mah-toes’.” But I have to admit I did ask my daughter-in-law to stop saying New Or-leens. For me, it’s the equivalent of fingernails on the chalkboard.

I couldn’t really blame her. “New Or-leens” is what most people say because its most often sung that way. Probably because it has better rhyming capability as in “Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans.”

Pronunciations in New Orleans can be tricky. Take street names, for instance.

It's easier to pronounce if you do the first syllable as
It’s easier to pronounce if you do the first syllable as “Chop”

Tchoupitoulas Street, home of the legendary Tipitina’s club, looks daunting until you know to start it by saying “chop.” Other streets are harder than they look. Carondelet is pronounced with an “et” at the end. Chartres is “Charters.” Even the seemingly easy Burgundy Street ain’t said right unless you accent the “gun.” Here’s a short video on street pronunciations, featuring Soul Rebel drummers Derrick Moss and Lumar Leblanc.

But back to saying “New Orleans”, even natives will say it differently because of the variety of accents that reside in the city. In the 60’s when I was an altar boy for an itinerant priest, we had a gig at St. Alphonsus Church on Constance Street in the Irish Channel. Having never been in the neighborhood before, I remember how shocked I was to hear the other altar boys sound like Bobby Kennedy. And I lived only three miles away.

The expression
The expression “Where Y’at” also is the title of New Orleans entertainment guide magazine.

Then there is “Yat” — considered a unique New Orleans dialect and accent, popularized in the novel, Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole. The accent “is hard to distinguish from the accent of Hoboken, Jersey City, and Astoria, Long Island” according to A.J. Liebling author of “The Earl of Louisiana” and quoted in Confederacy of Dunces.

Ray Blount, Jr. in his ode to New Orleans (Feet on the Street) notes that the typical New Orleans accent is particularly noticeable with the word “quarter” as in “French Quarter” (or two bits). “It comes closer to rhyming with ‘porter’ than with ‘garter,’ but it’s more ‘Quo-tah,’ with an ‘o’ sound that’s semi-extended, as if you’re saying ‘oar’ or ‘o’er’ more like it, but not finishing off the ‘r’ sound.”

What were we talking about, oh yea, how to pronounce New Orleans. Oh hell say it, or sing it, the way you want. For me, I prefer extending the “w” into the second syllable as in “Nu-Wah-Lens the way Lil Queenie does it when she sings “My Darlin’ New Orleans.”

Just don’t say “Nawlins” unless you and your companions have downed too many Abitas.

HEAR ME MISPRONOUNCE ALL SORTS OF NEW ORLEANS WORDS ON SWEENEY’S GUMBO YAYA, MONDAY, 10 A.M. TO NOON (PST) ON KAOS, 89.3 FM

What makes New Orleans drummers and drumming unique?

There’s something special about New Orleans drummers.  A statement I read and hear regularly and while my untrained ear suggests that is true, I cannot in my own words explain why.

Drum Magazine has made it easy for me though by interviewing four of New Orleans top drummers. The magazine pulled together musicians who have handled the beat for The Meters, Professor Longhair, Wynton Marsalis, Papa Grows Funk, Galactic and countless other projects.  Some of the conversation gets a little beyond my understanding but if you’re a drummer, I recommend you read the interview.  Here’s a lay summary of it:

While New Orleans wasn’t much different as other Southern locales for discouraging the continuation of African culture, the city was unique in that it did allow for New Orleans slaves and people of color to congregate at a central location, known as Congo Square, on Sundays to share, among other things, music.  From this setting, Caribbean and African rhythms and syncopation met European harmonies and melodies.

The key distinction of New Orleans drumming is an emphasis on the bass drum which in the New Orleans parade tradition is the heart and soul of the show.  The bass “is the main voice; and the snare drum is the polish.” Interestingly, in the marching band, second line tradition, the bass drummer and snare drummer are two separate musicians.

“Bottom line is it has to be a pelvic thing. . . What makes me unconsciously decide whether it’s good or bad is when I’m having a conversation [at a gig] far away from the music with someone who’s totally distracting me, and in the meantime I’m moving my butt. Then I know it’s the science of true, organic swing.”

Drumming that gets your butt moving.  Yea, that’s what I’m talking about.