More women are taking the music stage in New Orleans

The obvious struggle by Republican candidates in their most recent debate to think of an American woman deserving to be on the $10 bill once again illustrated the dearth of awareness of women’s role in our history.

This issue is brought home to me almost every time I map out music for my New Orleans show. Perhaps because my knowledge and music library is not as extensive as I would like, I struggle to bring gender balance to my shows, particularly when  I play early jazz, R&B, funk and brass bands. But I also sense that New Orleans is no different than the broader music world where female musicians have struggled to get into the spotlight.

Irma Thomas, the Soul Queen of New Orleans, was a pioneer in a male-dominated New Orleans R&B scene.
Irma Thomas, the Soul Queen of New Orleans, was a pioneer in a male-dominated New Orleans R&B scene.

Finding music I can play that feature early New Orleans jazz women is pretty much impossible.  I only have a little more luck when I move into the New Orleans R&B era. Lots of great music recorded out of J&M Recording Studio heyday, but with the huge exception of Irma Thomas, and also Shirley Goodman, its mostly guys.

With the help of Jeff Hannusch’s book “The Soul of New Orleans – A Legacy of Rhythm and Blues,” I have learned about Jean Knight (Mr. Big Stuff), Martha Carter,  Mathilda Jones, and Barbara George.  And, of course, the Dixie Cups.

If you don’t recognize some of those names, you’re not alone. Finding their music to play on the radio takes work.

Similarly you might recognize Marva Wright and Charmaine Neville but what about Leigh Harris (Little Queenie) or jazz singer Germaine Bazzle? Many excellent female musicians  worked in New Orleans during the 20th Century but their recordings are sparse and scarce.

Fortunately, change is happening.  While it still doesn’t feel balanced, there is an increasing number of New Orleans-based women musicians who are getting recognized in our new century.  Helen Gillet, Aurora Nealand, Kelcy Mae, and Ingrid Lucia are carving a living out of the NOLA music landscape. Perhaps the most well-known in recent years is Alynda Lee Segarra who is the driving force behind Hurray for the Riff Raff.

And there’s growing recognition.  New Orleans Women In Music, founded in 2007, promotes the careers of women musicians through information, network and other support.

Debbie Davis is a member of the New Orleans Nightingale collective which has help put a spotlight on New Orleans female musicians.
Debbie Davis is a member of the New Orleans Nightingale collective which has help put a spotlight on New Orleans female musicians.

The New Orleans Nightingales is a marketing collective with whom Ingrid Lucia has produced a compilation featuring 19 female musicians.  Here’s the website description: “Steeped in the musical traditions of early American music, the ladies of the New Orleans Nightingales bring new life to this hundred year art form through new compositions, vibrant live performances and a commitment to the idea that traditional jazz and folk music is still evolving.”

I’m going to tip the gender balance scale of my next radio show, leaning heavily on the double X chromosome for my tunes.   Here’s the edited version of the show on Mixcloud.

Mardi Gras Indians integral to New Orleans sound

You cannot truly understand New Orleans music without having some awareness of the Black Indians of Mardi Gras, or what is more commonly referred to as “Mardi Gras Indians.”

This more than century-old tradition of certain African Americans in New Orleans wearing elaborately designed, handmade suits in honor of Native Americans on Mardi Gras Day belies any easy explanation.

I like the Folklife in Louisiana tribute to Allison “Tootie” Montana as a good starting point on this unique folk tradition.  (I also highly recommend again the book “Nine Lives” which features Tootie’s story from the perspective of his wife, Joyce Montana).

Big Chief Allison "Tootie" Montana is remembered with this statue in Louis Armstrong Park on Rampart Street.
Big Chief Allison “Tootie” Montana is remembered with this statue in Louis Armstrong Park on Rampart Street.

Tootie Montana was known as the Chief of Chiefs for his role in elevating the practice of “masking” and “suiting” up to a high art. In an effort to diminish the violent history of Mardi Gras Indian gangs, Montana incorporated sequins, beads and large garish feathers into his suit, using egg cartons for an undercarriage that provided a three-dimensional look. His stunning suit changed the game by swapping the battlefield weapons of guns and knives with needle and thread.

While you should feel lucky and relatively safe if you ever have a chance to observe a Mardi Gras tribe in full display, the violent tradition still colors their music and rituals. Make no mistake about it, there is still rivalry. But instead of who is the toughest, the goal is who is the prettiest.

A percussion-driven music is an essential part of this tradition with the tambourine being the most common instrument. The songs speak to the traditions and history of the Mardi Gras Indians, using words with origins that reside deep in the linguistic stew of New Orleans and is more simply stated as “creole.”

Author Jay Mazza who was lucky as an outsider to observe a Mardi Gras Indian practice, describes the music this way in his book Up Front and Center:

“The lyrics of Mardi Gras Indian music are based on boasting and improvised vocal rhymes. Each Indian took a turn until he ran out of words, began repeating himself or was pushed out of the spotlight by another Indian.”

Not surprisingly, the words, rhythms and vibe of the Mardi Gras Indian have worked into New Orleans music in countless ways.

Songs like Jock-O-Mo by Sugar Boy Crawford and Iko Iko by The Dixie Cups  draw their origins from Mardi Gras Indian chants. Earl King’s historic “Big Chief” which was recorded with Professor Longhair has references to the Chief’s “Spy Boy and Flag Boy” both important roles in the tribe. These were musicians who borrowed from the tradition.

Big Chief Bo Dollis brought the music and rhythms of Mardi Gras Indians to music lovers everywhere. He died January 20 after a long illness.
Big Chief Bo Dollis brought the music and rhythms of Mardi Gras Indians to music lovers everywhere. He died January 20 after a long illness.

It wasn’t until the early 70s, that the world heard the real thing outside of New Orleans. Bo Dollis, Big Chief of the Wild Magnolias, and Monk Boudreaux of the Golden Eagles collaborated on recordings, starting with the single Handa Wanda and later two albums in 1974 and 1975 respectively. Both continued to record and perform with their own gang and other musicians over the years. Last Tuesday, January 20, Bo Dollis died and the city is mourning.   Monk continues to perform and will be at this year’s New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival.

The Wild Magnolias recordings were followed closely by an album release of Wild Tchoupitoulas. George Landry, otherwise known as Big Chief Jolly of the Wild Tchoupitoulas, fronted a powerful group of musicians, including his nephews Cyril, Art, Charles and Aaron Neville, in a seminal album of Mardi Gras Indian songs. On the back and inside cover of the Neville Brothers’ release Fiyo on the Bayou where they reprise some of the songs, you’ll find a tribute to Chief Jolly.

If you are a Treme fan, then you’ve witnessed the fictional story of Albert Lambreaux, the Big Chief of the Guardians of the Flame. The model for this character is the real chief of the Guardians of the Flame, Donald Harrison Sr. whose son, Donald Harrison Jr. has applied his highly regarded jazz musicianship to fusing jazz and Mardi Gras Indian rhythms in some of his recordings, including Spirits of Congo Square.

To get more detail on the music of Mardi Gras Indians, I recommend this article by former WWOZ Show Host Thomas Morgan. To hear more of this music as well as other great New Orleans music, be sure to tune in on Monday for Sweeney’s Gumbo Ya Ya.