February 13, 2010

Mardi Gras Indian Variations

Well, it's way past time for more Carnival tunage up in here. The HOTG webcast is streaming music of the season 24/7 through Mardi Gras Day, too. So, hit that anytime for more fun. But, right here, right now, I'm posting a track each from the Wild Magnolias and the Wild Tchoupitoulas for our holiday festivities; and, in between, we'll have intense, live Mardi Gras Indian-influenced funkitude from Professor Longhair, plus a pretty obscure seasonal groove offering that owes an obvious debt to Fess. So, prepare to loose that Who Dat! booty. It's Mardi Gras comin', y'all.


In 1975, Willie Tee (Wilson Turbinton) and the Wild Magnolias collaborated on their second LP,
They Call Us Wild, the follow-up to their initial groundbreaking album, The Wild Magnolias, from the previous year. On that first album Tee's arranging and writing skills were almost completely devoted to laying down funky, poly-rhythmic music geared to enhance the Indians' traditional chants and percussion; but his work with Big Chief Bo Dollis and the gang on the second record sought to go farther and create nothing less than a new kind of groove, a more accessible fusion of funk, R&B and the Indians' sound, intended, it seems, to appeal to a broader audience and deliver them from backstreet obscurity.

Despite the great grooves and fascinating subject matter, the initial LP did not sell well in the US at the time, although a track, "Smoke My Peace Pipe", a Tee original, did appear in shortened form on a single and got enough airplay to take it briefly into the lower end of the R&B charts. But, a buzz was created; and the Wild Magnolias began to get national bookings and even took their unique, exotic blend of music to Carnegie Hall. Tee's fresh, effective songcraft provided a new perspective on the Indians as a performing unit at home and beyond. His hip jazz-influenced funk transformed their cryptic language, rituals and fundamental music linked to the African diaspora, creating a repertoire of tunes that even uninitiated outsiders could dance to and sing along with. Ultimately the concoction did work its magic on the public - but it has been a slow process. The LPs gained a cult devotion; and the Wild Magnolias played festivals, including Jazzfest, and appeared in documentaries, bringing them more fully into world outside of New Orleans.

Polydor re-issued both albums on CDs in the early 1990s; and, although they are now out of print, the material has been nicely re-packaged in the last few years by Sunnyside. Bo Dollis and his gang also continued to make new recordings and collaborate on new material over the years. Rounder did a CD on them in the 1980s, I'm Back At Carnival Time; and they also had two CD releases on AIM out of Australia, 1313 Hoodoo Street and 30 Years...And Still Wild (which also has some cool archival material from their first meeting with Willie Tee). Even another a major US label, Capitol/Metro Blue, took the plunge in 1999 with the great Life Is A Carnival, with well-known local and national musicians playing and writing new material for the project. There are many other Mardi Gras Indian gangs in New Orleans, keeping the tradition alive with their resplendent appearances on Mardi Gras day and around St. Jospeh's Day each year; but it's safe to say that the Wild Magnolias are the best known and have been responsible for helping all the Indians gain the attention, respect and appreciation they most certainly deserve right at home.

"New Kinda Groove" (Wilson Turbinton)
The Wild Magnolias, from They Call Us Wild, Barclay 1975
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Both the Wild Mag's eponymous debut LP and They Call Us Wild were produced by Philippe Rault for the French Barclay label. The first one was also issued in the US by Polydor; but sales for that were not enough to warrant a US deal for the second record. Copies, such as mine, filtered into the States as imports and slowly began getting exposure among musical connoisseurs; but it would be about two full decades before its release here on CD. "New Kinda Groove" certainly exemplifies what Willie Tee and Bo Dollis were trying to do with the Indians' sound, as found on a number of other cuts, as well, including "New Suit", "Fire Water", "We're Gonna Party", and the title track. Rather than the extended linear vamps accompanying the Indians songs in their own secret language, these songs were more conventionally structured, but still had strongly enticing grooves, with lyrics that talked up the Indians and addressed aspects of their culture - danceable mini-teach-ins, educational and entertaining.

That's Tee laying down all syncopated keyboard action, and his brother, Earl Turbinton, on soprano sax. Though both have passed on, bless their bones, their contributions continue to be influential. For more information on the Barlcay LPs, including the other players involved, and the early Wild Magnolias singles, check these links to my earlier posts:

Twelfth Night Carnival Kickoff: New Suit
Indians Comin', Get The Hell Out De Way
Hey La Hey
Three to Get Ready For Mardi Gras


"Big Chief" (Gaines - Quezergue)
Professor Longhair, from the Last Mardi Gras, Atlantic Deluxe SD-2 4001, 1982
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Say what you will about notorious "journalist" (or fiction writer masquerading as one, perhaps)) Albert Goldman, who, out of left field, produced the double LP set, The Last Mardi Gras, featuring Fess recorded in New Orleans at Tipitina's in 1978; but he had something gong for him in the positive column when he praised Professor Longhair in an article in Esquire, said that he was woefully under-recorded, and then did something about it, making in the process the best recordings ever done of Fess playing live with a band. Even after re-reading Goldman's liner notes for the album, it's not clear how he convinced Atlantic Records to give him a sizable budget to bring down a sophisticated mobile recording unit to capture Fess performing late in life, but still near the top of this game, on his home turf - especially since Goldman had never done any recording or production work before! But somehow they did. And the man had it together enough to rent Fess an excellent piano, assemble a very capable, supportive band of locals who knew Fess well and made him comfortable, and bring in the legendary Cosimo Matassa to mix down the resulting tracks. Then again, maybe the novice producer had a secret adviser calling the shots. Anything is possible in the music business.

I featured another track off this set in 2007, and you can find out more about the concert and recording there. "Big Chief", is a Mardi Gras-Indians-influenced Carnival music classic written by Earl King and originally recorded for Watch records in 1964. Wardell Quezergue did the arrangement on that session and brought a big horn section into the studio. Earl did the vocal; but, since he was still under contract with Motown at the time, Professor Longhair got the artist credit - deserved because he played piano on the track and came up with the essential hook of the song, the intricate, knuckle-busting (a Dr. John phrase) figures running throughout the highly syncopated, funky piece. The song became a Mardi Gras standard and has been covered by many artists over the years; but nobody plays it like Fess, who made it a staple of his gigs until the end of his days, shortly before Mardi Gras, 1980.

On this version, he started it off so fast you wonder how he could keep it on the rails; but Fess just steamed on ahead, tossing off an aerobic workout with a serious groove that makes his dexterous technique even more amazing to behold. Equally impressive was his unconventional vocalizing, a sort of bluesy yodel that was always unpredictable, but in control. Truly the mold was shattered to smithereens when Professor Longhair was minted. In a city of original, creative, quirky musical innovators, Fess was in a class all his own that will never be touched.

Fess and band in the day


"Mardi Gras Time (Pt II)" (M.Batiste/W. Victorian/N. Johnson)
Bayou Renegades, Syla, 198?
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Don't know much about the Bayou Renegades other than that they did some recording for producer Milton Batiste back in the late 1980s-early1990s period and were a jammin' funk outfit with music influenced by and/or affiliated with Mardi Gras Indians. Only a two cuts they did for Batiste saw the light of day that I am aware of, one of which, "Down On the Bayou" appeared on the various artists compilation CD, New Orleans: A Musical Gumbo, (out of print) that came out on the Mardi Gras lable in the 1990s. The other, on this single I found last fall, has the Bayou Renegades on one side and the Olympia Brass Band (which Batiste co-headed with Harold Dejan) doing "Old Lang Syne" on the other. It is unnumbered and likely late 1980s vintage. You may recall that Syla was the label that released Ernie K-Doe's last 45.

"Mardi Gras Time (Pt II)" is adaptation for Professor Longhair's "Mardi Gras In New Orleans", rhythm-heavy with percussion, guitar(s), bass and trumpet (surely Batiste himself) and some Mardi Gras Indian-style whoopin' and hollerin' mixed in and around Fess' lyrics. It's a loose get-down jam that breaks no new ground but is fine seasonal fun. I don't have a list of players, but do have some ideas. The songwriters credited are Batiste, W. Victorian, and N. Johnson - the last two of those we'll get to shortly. But leaving Fess out was certainly a glaring omission and a disservice to the originator; but on a record released only for a brief moment and seen no more, we can let it pass. Anybody in New Orleans who heard it knew the source, anyway.

In 1995, the Bayou Renegades appeared on an obscure CD, The Bayou Renegades Matsue House Party, taken from a live concert recorded in Japan. Half the tunes on it were done by the Renegades and half by Ernie Vincent and his band. The lead guitarist for the BR on the set was June Victory, who had made a name for himself in New Orleans playing in the Wild Magnolias' stage band. I saw him with them several times, chopping up his rhythm super funky and lighting into his searing solos with abandon. Then in 1998, Victory and the Bayou Rendgades released their own eponymous CD on the Monkey hill label. It had the same kind of heavy funk-rock style heard on the Syla single and the live CD; and some of the other players on both CDs were the same: Jasmin on drums, Norwood 'Geechie' Johnson on percussion (who also plays with the Wild Magnolias), and Earl Nunez on bass.

Now, going back to the writers' credits on the single at hand, I'm fairly certain that W. Victorian would be June Victory. "June" is a common nickname for guitarists in New Orleans. And N. Johnson is, of course, 'Geechie'. So, it appears that the Bayou Renegades were June Victory's group from the beginning.


"Brother John" (Cyril Neville)
The Wild Tchoupitoulas, Antilles 7052, 1976
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As I have mentioned in previous posts* about this album, the Wild Magnolias' two LPs in 1974 and 1975 were the direct inspiration for the Neville family uniting to record this LP at Sea-Saint Studio in 1976 with Allen Toussaint as nominal producer, and musical support from the Meters and Teddy Royal on second guitar. In actuality, Art and Charles Neville did the general production duties and arrangements on the project. The Wild Tchoupitoulas were Mardi Gras Indians led by Big Chief Jolly (George Landry), uncle of the Neville brothers. The assembled musicians and singers worked with Jolly to effectively accompany his versions of the traditional Mardi Gras Indian songs, and, as in the case of our featured track, created a few new ones, too. Generally speaking the material on this LP did not have the down in the groove funk of the Wild Magnolias/Willie Tee collaborations, but instead exhibited a lighter feel, New Orleans soul and funk meets the Caribbean, if you will, adding other fine, appropriate flavors to the Indians' sound.

Cyril Neville, who was an unofficial member of the Meters, as percussionist and vocalist, at this time, wrote and sang the song, which the Neville Brothers would reprise on their classic 1981 album, Fiyo On the Bayou. Brother Aaron sang the introductory Indian phrases and the backing vocals throughout. Toussaint's business partner Marshall Sehorn got a deal with Antilles, a division of Island Records, for release of the LP. Like the Wild Magnolias' records, The Wild Tchoupitoulas was not a big seller, but developed its own cult following over time. The CD version came out on Mango in the 1990s and still is in print it seems, testament to the timeless appeal of this music. As a result of all working together for the first time on this project, the four Neville brothers would go on to form their own band after Art and Cyril left the Meters in 1978. The Neville Brothers have been together now for over 30 years

Again, Happy Mardi Gras to all y'all Who Dat!'s.

* Here Come Da Indians!
Indians Comin'. Get The Hell Out De Way
A Golden Crown For Twelfth Night


Blogger Nigel Smith said...

Great stuff. I've posted some of my own Mardi Gras favourites on my blog Carnival Saloon:

Carnival Saloon: Music For Mardi Gras

1:58 AM, February 16, 2010  
Anonymous jipes said...

I've bought based on your past recommandations the double CD from the Wild Magnolias as well as the Wild Tchoupitoulas and I'm really happy with both records. I really love this special funk it's greasy and the vocals are allways great !

3:56 AM, February 24, 2010  
Blogger Turnt-Out Media said...

Great blog love all the funk! I'm interested in more of the traditional Indian chants. Do you know where I could find some of these recordings? Thanks for the radio, I'm listening now!

9:15 AM, August 19, 2011  
Blogger Dan Phillips said...

Thanks, T-O-M. To hear the raw Mardi Gras Indian chants with percussion in an authentic setting, I recommend Lightning and Thunder by the Golden Eagles on Rounder Records. It is a recording of an actual Indian practice - featuring Big Chief Monk Boudreaux and his gang back in the late 1980s. Great stuff, and as close to the street as your gonna get on vinyl or CD, I think.

Most, if not all of the other albums by the Indians are some kind of collaboration with musicians, mostly funk. Great as many of them are, with music based on the traditional chants and rhythms, Indians backed by bands are a modernized and commercialized by-product to some degree.

I don't know that there is a comprehensive discography of all the Mardi Gras Indian albums and singles that have come out over the years (you can find some of them discussed in the HOTG archives), but there needs to be one - annotated for good measure. A worthy project for some grad student somewhere - or an obsessed geezer like yours truly!

12:48 AM, August 20, 2011  

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