Here Come Da Indians!
RULERS ON THE HOLIDAY
"Meet De Boys On The Battlefront" (George Landry)
The Wild Tchoupitoulas, from Wild Tchoupitoulas, Antilles, 1976
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The Wild Magnolias blazed the trail as the first Mardi Gras Indians to popularize their once secretive culture by merging its primal vocal and percussion based music with the hip, contemporary funk music of New Orleans. Between 1970 and 1975, Big Chief Bo Dollis and his gang recorded two singles and two LPs worth of groundbreaking material in collaboration with Willie Tee and an aggregation of great local players. So, around 1976, when George Landry, a/k/a Big Chief Jolly of the Wild Tchoupitoulas Indian gang from Uptown New Orleans, approached his nephews, the Neville bothers, Art, Charles, Aaron and Cyril, about doing something similar, there was surely a feeling that the project would have to better what had gone before and bring something new to the party.
According to Art in the Nevilles' autobiography, after Chief Jolly asked them to help him make a record, the project rather spontaneously unfolded. Art's own band, the Meters became the defacto rhythm section. Sansu Enterprises (Allen Toussaint and Marshall Sehorn) which oversaw the Meters recordings, held the sessions at their own Sea-Saint Studio and secured a deal with Island Records for the release of the resulting album on the Antilles label. On the credits, Art and Charles Neville are shown as co-producers and the arrangers, as they brought everyone together for the sessions, which, as Art relates, were basically unplanned. The album emerged organically in the studio and was a collaboration of all involved.
Wild Tchoupitoulas definitely had a fresh approach and a distinct sound, more wide-ranging and melodic that what the Wild Magnolias had done, and mixing elements of doowop, R&B, soul, gospel, and Caribbean music into mostly newly written Indian tunes, all rooted in the syncopated rhythms entwined in the cultural DNA of New Orleans. With some of the best players and singers in the city lending their unique talents and sensibilities to the project, the result was classic music that has stood the test of time. Even after three decades, it doesn't sound dated, and has never been duplicated.
Landry's "Meet De Boys On The Battlefront" (which also came out on an Island single as "Meet Me Boys On The Battlefront" b/w "Big Chief Got A Golden Crown"), was featured here two years ago; and I figured it was time for a replay. It stands as a Mardi Gras Indian mission statement, asserting the dominance they want to achieve on Mardi Gras day over their rivals from other neighborhoods. Although the lyrics speak of violence, the Indians no longer do physical battle with weapons, as happened in earlier years. Their confrontations have metamorphosed into displays of the colorful, dazzling suits each member creates, along with their movements, signs, secretive language, and music. The winners are deemed the prettiest, and seen as the best craftsmen and conveyors of the Indian spirit and traditions. Where once people viewed them only from a safe distance, the modern Indians draw admiring crowds along their runs, which are still not officially sanctioned by the police.
The song has an island lilt and calypso/reggae feel, linking the New Orleans Carnival tradition to similar celebrations throughout the Caribbean. George Porter's simple, essential bass work, laying down a hesitating, start/stop pattern that draws you in and won't let go, can't be touched. What he doesn't play is just as important as what he does. That Zen-like funk/sway strikes again.
On another historic note, Wild Tchoupitoulas marked the first time that all the Neville brothers had recorded together - a harbinger of things to come, as, two years later, Art and the Meters went their separate ways; and the Neville Brothers band arose for a run that has lasted three decades so far. So much in New Orleans revolves around family. Jolly and the Wild Tchoupitoulas toured with the Neville Brothers during the early years of the band; but, when the chief passed away in 1980, his gang did not continue.
As revelatory and pleasurable as the records are, none of this music can really convey the appearance of the magnificent Indians ruling their home turf on Carnival day, and again around St. Joseph's Day during Lent. Steeped in ritual and high off firewater and peace pipes, they are a tricked-out Kabuki theatre of funk that could happen only in New Orleans, obsessively compelled to keep the spirit alive and the resplendent new suits sewn year after year, as if the fate of the universe depended on it; and, you know, I'm convinced it actually does.
SENDING IN THE INDIANS WITH THE CLOWNS
"Don't You Know Yockomo" (Vincent-Smith)
Huey 'Piano' Smith with his Clowns, Ace 553, 1958
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The Mardi Gras Indian tradition in the African-American neighborhoods of New Orleans goes way back, at least into the 19th Century. So it should not be surprising that influences of the culture have seeped into in the popular music of the city over the years. Some obvious examples can be found in 1950s and 1960s R&B: Dave Barthlomew's "Carnival Day". James 'Sugar Boy’ Crawford's classic "Jock-A-Mo", which was reworked by the Dixie Cups into "Iko, Iko" (and they also did a version of another Indian tune, "Two Way PocKy Way"), and Earl King's "Big Chief", as done with Professor Longhair. Of course, the Meters' own "Hey Pocky a-Way" is another shining later example. For a more complete look at the Mardi Gras Indians' influence on and contributions to the city's popular music, I highly recommend a fine article on the subject by New Orleans music fan and expert John Sinclair.
Along with the previously mentioned songs, we can't leave out "Don't You Know Yockomo" from 1958 by Huey 'Piano' Smith with his Clowns on Ace. With various Indian phrases mixed in with some of the trademark nonsense lyrics of the group, this sing-a-long is about letting go, a call to "do a boogie woogie in the middle of the street" and dance all over the place - celebratory stuff that doesn't overtly mention Mardi Gras, but is full of its spirit. The casual listener (about all there would be, as it is impossible to be serious when hearing the Clowns), not familiar with the Indians, their lingo or Carnival, would just treat it all as blissful gibberish. But, it's even more fun, when you know a little of the secret code.
THE FIRST INDIAN/BRASS SHOWDOWN/THROWDOWN?
"Shot Gun Joe" (Ernest Skipper)
Ernest Skipper with Flag & The Boys, Rosemont 8201, 1980s?
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I ran across this mystery 45 on auction and had a hunch that it would be good, since the title was the same as a Mardi Gras Indian song I’d heard, plus the Yellow Pocahontas were on background vocals, and the Dirty Dozen on horns, according to the label. Ended up that I was the only bidder; so I got to find out. Though it is not listed on the Rosemont label discography in the R&B Indies, from the number, I am assuming it's early 1980s vintage. John Sinclair, in the article I linked to above, dates it as 1983 -1984. If so, it would be the first appearance I know of on record of a brass band blowing with Mardi Gras Indians. Before I found the single, the earliest Indians and brass jamming I'd heard was on the 1992 Rounder CD, The Mardi Gras Indians Super Sunday Showdown, a kind of all-star aggregation of funk players including Dr. John and Willie Tee, Indian percussionists along with chiefs Bo Dollis and Monk Boudreaux, plus the Rebirth Brass Band on some cuts.
Ernest Skipper's "Shot Gun Joe" with Flag & The Boys is a rave-up of a record. There are some whistling synth drum flourishes; and the snare and kick drum may even be electronic, too, as their simple pattern doesn't change much; but there is plenty of percussion in the mix to funkify things nicely. Everybody's rippin' and runnin', especially the Dirty Dozen. That would be Kirk Joseph pushing the bottom on sousaphone; and the tenor sax solo is wicked. If this record came out in 1982 or 1983, it may also be the Dirty Dozen's earliest appearance on record, as their first LP (on Concord Jazz) came out in 1984. Despite it's title, the song bears no resemblance to the Golden Eagles "Shotgun Joe" that appeared on the Lightning and Thunder CD in 1988. Instead the song seems to be a precursor to "Let's Go Get 'Em" as done by Dollis, Boudreaux and the Rebirth on that Super Sunday CD. Papa Mali also used the same groove and riff from the verses on "Early In The Morning", an Indian-inspired track on his CD, Do Your Thing, that came out last year and was featured here.
I still don't know anything about Ernest Skipper* * *. Was he a part of the Yellow Pocahontas? They are an old line Indian gang that operated out of the Treme neighborhood, just West of the French Quarter (and still may - though neighborhoods have changed post-Katrina). If you have any more details, please let me know. Anyway, whoever the heck he is, props to him for making an undeservedly obscure Mardi Gras record that demands spontaneous trance dancing as long as it is possible to remain vertical. Hoombah! Fire by the bayou!
* * *[UPDATE: NolaFunk NYC has infomred me that one Ernie 'Shotgun Joe' Skipper will be DJing on Mardi Gras Day at the Backstreet Cultural Museum in the Historic Treme District. See the Comments to this post for all the details - sounds like a fantabulous holiday with mucho Mardi Gras Indians and other assorted revelers, plus the New Birth Brass Band funkin' it up. Thanks for this huge heads up. I'm on the trail of Mr.Skipper now!]
[12/18/2009 - R.I.P Ernest Skipper, Jr. I was saddened to learn last week in the comments to this post of the passing of Mr. Skipper. According to a notice by Ben Berman at Offbeat, he served as Grand Marshall of the the Young Tuxedo Brass Band and also fronted the Thunder Blues Band. Services are today with a second line to follow. Hope they play "Shotgun Joe". You can still hear that great contribution to Mardi Gras music in rotation at HOTG Radio.