Twelfth Night Carnival Kickoff: New Suit
Carnival season 2008 is now upon us. It officially starts on Twelfth Night, the Epiphany, January 6, and runs through Shrove Tuesday, or Fat Tuesay, Mardi Gras Day. The following day, Ash Wednesday, marks the start of Lent, the 47 day period of austere atonement (more or less) that ends with Easter. That's supposedly why everybody is blowing it all out to beat the band up until then. Got to get all the excess in you can. Got that? I thought not. Mardi Gras and Carnival are wrapped up in Catholic and pagan seasonal rituals going way back - hard to tell who stole from whom. But the bottom (and I do mean bottom) line is the partying starts NOW!
"New Suit" (Wilson Turbinton)
Wild Magnolias, Treehouse Records 801, 1975
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I originally posted this tune (actually, it was the album cut from They Call Us Wild) almost exactly three years ago and am re-doing it this year as a Carnival classic with special significance due to the passing in 2007 of both Willie Tee and his brother Earl Turbinton and the precarious health of Bo Dollis. Back in 2006, I posted the flip side, "Fire Water"; and you can catch the audio for a while at that page in the archives.
I rescued this 45, part of a large lot of records I bought a few years back, before Katrina/Rita, from a box of moldering singles which had moisture damage, a common occurence in these parts. Looks like its been through a few battles. The label on this side was stuck together with another label; and I lost a lot of the surface when separating the records. Thankfully, the vinyl is in great shape. What follows on this post is an edited, updated version of what I wrote back in 2005:
The Mardi Gras Indian tradition in New Orleans, with its roots in the African diaspora and interaction with Native American culture, has far too many twists and turns and for me to go into here. So, I’ve got links down below that will tell you more. But, all you probably need to know to understand these lyrics is that a “new suit” is the elaborate, American Indian inspired costume each member makes every year for their tribe’s Mardi Gras Day parading and showdowns with other tribes. The Indians also run on and around St. Joseph’s Day, which falls between Mardi Gras and Easter. Back in the day, tribes from different areas of town had actual, injury-causing territorial fights when they met; but, starting around the 1950’s, the battles became a ritualized competition to see who could produce the most elaborate and beautiful costumes, each of which can take almost a year to create.
The ever so funky “New Suit” features Bo Dollis, Big Chief of the Wild Magnolias, singing lead. The musicians consist of the song’s composer, Wilson Turbinton aka Willie Tee on keyboards along with members of his funk band, the Gaturs, his brother, Earl, on soprano sax, and others listed below*. In 1970, Tee and the Gaturs first jammed on stage with the Wild Magnolias at the Tulane University Jazz Festival in New Orleans. Thus began the fusion of funk music with the Indians’ traditional songs, which resulted in the recording of a 45 that year, "Handa Wanda", and in 1974 an album, The Wild Magnolias, with Willie Tee and band,
which was followed the next year by They Call Us Wild. Both albums, produced by Philippe Rault and released in Europe on Barclay/Polydor, became serious collectors’ items in the US. The only release over here from those sessions was this single, which Quint Davis put out locally. In 1976, members of the Meters, Neville Brothers, and Wild Tchoupatoulas tribe, headed by the Neville's uncle, Big Chief Jolly (George Landry), collaborated on their own album project, The Wild Tchoupitoulas. It too is a memorable album that I have posted tunes from in seasons past.
The Wild Magnolias albums were reissued on CD here in 1994; but went out of print after a few years. They are now availabe again as a two CD set, They Call Us Wild, containing both albums with a 68 page PDF file of information and photos. I plan to review the release soon. Bo Dollis and his tribe have continued making albums off and on. To me, the best of the bunch is Life Is A Carnival from 1999 with it’s high-powered funk and top of the line session players.
As they say in "New Suit", the Indians truly are the soul of the Mardi Gras: colorful, exotic, rhythmic manifestations of a once secret inner-city New Orleans culture. Incredibly, post-Katrina, though tenacious efforts to keep the traditions strong and pass them on despite the loss of entire neighborhood stongholds which may never be made whole, the Indians maintain their passion and soul, and will likely do so as long as any are left standing.
*Other players on "New Suit":
'Guitar June' Ray, guitar; Erving Charles, bass; Larry Panna, drums; Alfred "Uganda" Roberts, conga.
INDIAN LORE AND MORE
Mardi Gras Indian History
Mardi Gras Indian culture in brief
Interview with Big Chief Bo Dollis
Wild Magnolias Concert Video at Kennedy Center
Wild Magnolias documentary on YouTube with groovy Japanese voiceover