Celebrating Four Years of Gumbo YaYa

I love birthdays and so it was no surprise that I thoroughly enjoyed myself on today’s Anniversary show. I hope you enjoy listening to it. (Go ahead and click the arrow right below and get it started)

birthday-cake-four-candles-mdMarcia Ball’s “The Party’s Still Going On,” which kicked off the show, totally fit my mood. In September of 2014 when the first Gumbo YaYa was recorded, I  was a little nervous about how long I’d be able to sustain a show, aired in the Pacific Northwest, of strictly New Orleans music. After all, the KAOS air studio is more than 2,720 miles from Frenchmen Street).

But with the help and kindness of New Orleans musicians, music distributors and labels ike Basin Street Records, I’ve been getting some current music.   I’m surprised how much variety the New Orleans format offers.  And what particularly amazes me is how much I’ve learned in the last four years.  (Several trips to New Orleans have helped — I like this hobby!).

On my bucket list for my next New Orleans visit is catching Lena Prima and her talented band in the Carousel Room of the Monteleone Hotel. Yes, its a total tourist thing but damn she does a great job, backed up by her band led by husband and bass player Tim Fahey.  Early in today’s show, she pulls off a bit of a medley that starts as you might expect, then gets you and your body moving (guaranteed) by the end.

Got a phone call from a listener when I played The Wild Magnolia’s “Coochie Molly” a rocking song (thank you June Yamagishi on guitar) that dovetailed nicely in to the next track, the New Orleans Nightcrawlers live version of “Tchfuncta/On that Day.”  That set finishes with Galactic’s “Wild Man” with chanting by Big Chief Bo Dollis. In fact, all three songs in that set feature chanting by Mardi Gras Indian Big Chiefs.

Another Big Chief performs later in the show but only on the saxophone — Donald Harrison Jr. backs up Davell Crawford in “River/White Socks & Drawers.” When he’s not playing jazz saxophone, Big Chief Donald Harrison Jr. is working on his next Mardi Gras suit. Oh, and before I forget, Dr. John and Big Freedia do some vocals on that Crawford song.

The show also features an in-studio performance (recorded earlier this summer) of “”Kibi” by Helen Gillet.  I have other surprises, including a 12-minute live version of the oft-covered “Big Chief.” Thanks so much for putting up with these posts and shows for four years. As long as you don’t complain to management, I’m committed to ensuring that “The Party’s Still Going On,”

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.”

Golden Blades Second Chief Leonard Brooks parades down LaSalle Street during the 2010 Super Sunday celebration – Photo by Matthew Hinton – The Times/Picayune

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.

HBO’s Treme is an excellent introduction to New Orleans music

Occasionally, when someone learns about my New Orleans music show, they’ll ask me: “Have you seen. . .

And I know where they are going.

Yes! I have watched all 36 episodes of HBO’s Treme — some of them more than once including the commentary and music notes. The program is that good at portraying New Orleans.

The show ran from 2010 to 2013 and chronicled the lives of New Orleans residents upon their return to the city after Hurricane Katrina. And the show’s creators, producers and writers nailed it. The show is well regarded in New Orleans as having captured the unique and diverse culture and character of the city–both the good and the not so good.

Treme focused on the lives of musicians. Wendell Pierce, with cap, plays a trombonist struggling to make ends meet. He's marching with Rebirth Brass Band in this show and his trombone was played by Rebirth's Stafford Agee.
Treme focused on the lives of musicians. Wendell Pierce, with cap, plays a trombonist struggling to make ends meet. He’s marching with Rebirth Brass Band in this scene from the show and his trombone was played by Rebirth’s Stafford Agee.

Unfortunately, the show wasn’t sufficiently well regarded beyond the city (at least at the time) so no new episodes are being made. But if you’re reading this blog, you probably already understand the disconnect between being good and being popular. A theme that Treme also explores.

There’s lots of reasons to love this show, the main one for me is the music. There’s lot of New Orleans music in it. Literally hundreds of New Orleans-based musicians participated in its filming. Some of them even acted.

Yesterday, I pulled up the full cast listing of the show on IMDB and did a search for “self” and “selves” as in people and bands portraying themselves. I found over 250 listings. While some of the people playing themselves were politicians, chefs, writers, community activists and Mardi Gras Indian Chiefs, most of them were musicians.

The show featured literally hundreds of musicians. Some well known such as Dr. John (Mac Rebennak)
The show featured literally hundreds of musicians. Some well known such as Dr. John.

Some are well known like Dr. John, Fats Domino, Trombone Shorty and Irma Thomas. Others are not but should be such as Aurora Nealand, John Boutte, Tom McDermott, and Kermit Ruffins.

Several of the fictional characters are musicians attempting to make a living. One is a journeyman trombonists, played by Wendell Pierce, struggling to find gigs so he can pay rent and child support. Two others busk on the street and are learning the New Orleans style of music.

Throughout the series, the viewer is treated to music venues such as Tipitina’s, House of Blues, Blue Nile, Spotted Cat, and Snug Harbor and the music you hear on the show is recorded in situ. What you see is truly what you hear

In many cases, the musicians simply perform, either in the background or as a part of the plot. In other cases though, they deliver lines from a script or, in the case of Dr. John, ad lib. It’s a wonderful blend of reality and fiction.

A bass player with Jon Cleary's group, The Absolute Monster Gentlemen, Williams did quite a bit of acting and bass playing on the show.
A bass player with Jon Cleary’s group, The Absolute Monster Gentlemen, Williams did quite a bit of acting and bass playing on the show.

Cornell Williams, a bass player who in real life performs with Jon Cleary, portrays a member of a band formed by Wendell Pierce’s character and helps another character recover from drug addiction.

A more bizarre blending of real life and fiction is the character Davis McAlary, who often supplies the show’s comic relief and social commentary. McAlary is a musician and an on again, off again deejay at WWOZ, which is a real  community radio station in New Orleans. His character was inspired by Davis Rogan who has released several albums of original songs and was a deejay for WWOZ. To really twist your brain, you will see in various Treme scenes the real Davis performing on piano backing up the fictional Davis. (Another character is patterned after Donald Harrison Jr. who is also seen regularly in the show.)

Clarence "Frogman" Henry in a scene with fictional character Davis McAlary, inspired by real musician Davis Rogan.
Clarence “Frogman” Henry in a scene with fictional character Davis McAlary, inspired by real musician Davis Rogan.

If you have a propensity to love New Orleans, its food, culture and music, watching Treme will deepen that love. If you know little about New Orleans but are interested, the show is a great place to start your education.  Well, subscribing to this blog (upper right hand corner) and listening to my show won’t hurt either.

Tipitina’s keeps the legacy alive while contributing to the future

Professor Longhair may have memorialized the corner of Rampart and Dumaine in “Mardi Gras in New Orleans” but his memory and spirit live on at a different street corner, Napoleon and Tchoupitoulas, in a music venue that bears the name of another of his classics, “Tipitina.”

A bust of Professor Longhair (Henry Roeland Byrd) sculpted by Coco Robicheaux stands guard at the entrance of the New Orleans music venue that bears the name of his song Tipitina. – Photo by Alex Brandon / Times-Picayune archive

Rampart and Dumaine is the original location of J&M Studios, run by Cosimo Matassa. The location is recognized by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as a landmark site and it’s a laundromat – with mixed but generally positive Internet reviews.

Tipitina’s, on the other hand, is a great example of how cool stuff can happen out of love for music and doing the right thing. Just as Preservation Hall is dedicated to keeping New Orleans jazz alive, Tipitina’s was conceived with the notion of honoring the city’s early R&B and Rock ‘n Roll legacy.

When the venue opened in 1977, it’s goal was to provide a public performance space for aging and almost forgotten R&B and Blues artists like Fess (Henry Roeland Byrd), Jessie Hill, Snooks Eaglin, Earl King and others. Tips was born from an act of love by a group of investors who collectively and affectionately became known as the “fabulous fo’teen.”

Neville Brothers in front of the Longhair mural at Tipitina’s. Photo by Leon Morris from the WWOZ website.  WWOZ’s early years were spent located above Tip’s in the beer storage room.

The venue also provided a platform for other local musicians, such as the Radiators, Little Queenie and the Percolators, the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, the Continental Drifters and the Neville Brothers.

Tipitina’s in those earlier years was quite a bit different than it is today.  Music author Jay Mazza described a summer show this way:  “Sometimes it was so humid in the place that the clouds of smoke seemed to be seeded with water.  The smoke hung low in the room. Both bands and patrons alike were soaked to the bone within minutes. A trick learned early on was to bring extra shirts for changing between sets. . . Still everyone loved the place . . there always has been an amazing vibe associated with Tipitina’s.”

While the venue provided many great musical moments in the late 70s and early 80s, it struggled financially and eventually shuttered for about a year and a half. When it reopened in 1986, a major renovation made it far more attractive for musicians and their patrons. The warehouse-like building was opened up, creating a balcony level with higher ceilings, better circulation, improved bathrooms, and air conditioning.

Tacoma band Girl Trouble performing at the Capitol Theater this month. Like Tipitina's the theater has a history of providing local groups a platform to perform.
Tacoma band Girl Trouble performing at the Capitol Theater this month. Like Tipitina’s the theater has a history of providing local groups a platform to perform.

This is a nice example of how some key changes could make an Olympia venue more attractive.

Tipitina’s also kicked up their bookings, continuing to stage local artists but adding national and international acts to the mix, building a worldwide reputation.

To get an idea of the artists who have performed at Tipitina’s, check out its index of musicians, some of whom are honored with additional recognition on the sidewalk outside: the New Orleans Walk of Fame.

Tipitina’s honors New Orleans musical legacy inside and outside with its Walk of Fame.

Another cool feature of Tipitina’s is its Foundation. It’s not every place where you can rock out to amazing music, with the understanding that profits go to support the very music scene you’re enjoying.  The Foundation purchases instruments for Louisiana schools, provides ongoing youth music workshops, offers an after school jazz and digital recording program under the artistic direction of Donald Harrison, Jr. and provides a a statewide network of workforce development and job skills training centers for musicians, filmmakers and other media professionals.

Jazz artist Donald Harrison, Jr. heads up the Tipitina’s internship program.

And you never know what you’ll find at Tips. An Olympia friend told me about how she and her partner on a NOLA visit wandered into the uptown bar on a late Sunday afternoon, ordered a beer and found themselves drawn into a Cajun Fais Do Do.

So next trip to NOLA, put Tips on your list. Until then, you can catch many of the musicians who perform there on Sweeney’s Gumbo YaYa, every Monday from 10 a.m. to noon on your community radio station, KAOS.