It's incredible that GALACTIC has never made a carnival album yet, but now it's here.
To make CARNIVALE ELECTRICOS, the members of GALACTIC (Ben Ellman, harps and horns; Robert Mercurio, bass; Stanton Moore, drums and percussion; Jeff Raines, guitar; Rich Vogel, keyboards) draw on the skills, stamina, and funk they deploy in the all-night party of their annual Lundi Gras show that goes till sunrise and leads sleeplessly into Mardi Gras day.
GALACTIC was formed eighteen years ago in New Orleans, and they cut their teeth playing the biggest party in America: Mardi Gras, when the town shuts down entirely to celebrate. CARNIVALE ELECTRICOS is beyond a party record. It's a carnival record that evokes the electric atmosphere of a whole city – make that, whole cities – vibrating together all on the same day, from New Orleans all down the hemisphere to the mighty megacarnivals of Brazil. Armed with a slew of carnival-ready guests from high-school students to 72-year-old AL "CARNIVAL TIME" JOHNSON (who remakes his all-time hit), GALACTIC whisks the listener around the neighborhoods to feel the Mardi Gras moment in all its variety of flavors.
CARNIVALE ELECTRICOS begins on a spiritual note, the way Mardi Gras does in the black community of New Orleans. On that morning, the most exciting experience you can have is to be present when the small groups of black men called Mardi Gras Indians perform their sacred street theater. Nobody embodies the spiritual side of Mardi Gras better than the Indians, whose tambourines and chants provide the fundament of New Orleans carnival music. These "gangs," as they call them, organize around and protect the figure of their chief. The album's keynote singer, WAR CHIEF JUAN PARDO, is, says Robert Mercurio, "one of the younger Chiefs out there, and he's become one of the best voices of the new Chiefs. Pardo grew up listening to the singing of the older generation of Big Chiefs, points out Ben Ellman, and "he's got a little Monk [Boudreaux], a little Bo Dollis, he's neither uptown nor downtown."
On "Karate," says Ellman, the band was aiming to "capture the power" of one of the fundamental musical experiences of Mardi Gras: "a marching band passing by you." The 40-piece KIPP RENAISSANCE HIGH SCHOOL MARCHING BAND's director arranged up GALACTIC's demo, then the band rehearsed it until they had it all memorized. The kids poured their hearts into a solid performance, and, says Mercurio, "I think they were surprised" to hear how good they sounded on the playback.
Musical energy is everywhere at carnival time. "You hear the marching bands go by," says Mercurio, moving us through a Mardi Gras day, "and then you hear a lot of hiphop." There hasn't been a Mardi Gras for twenty years that hasn't had a banging track by beatmaker / rapper MANNIE FRESH sounding wherever you go. "You can't talk about New Orleans hiphop without talking about MANNIE FRESH," says Ellman. His beats have powered literally tens of millions of records, and he and GALACTIC have been talking for years about doing something together. On "Move Fast," he's together with multiplatinum gravel-voiced rapper MYSTIKAL, who is, says Ellman, "somebody we've wanted to collaborate with forever. It was a coup for us."
Out in the streets of New Orleans, you might well hear a funky kind of samba, reaching southward toward the other end of the hemispheric carnival zone. There has for the last twenty-five years been a smoking Brazilian drum troupe in town: CASA SAMBA, formed at Mardi Gras in 1986. They're old friends of GALACTIC's from their early days at Frenchmen Street's Café Brasil, and the two groups joined forces for a new version of Carlinhos Brown's "Magalenha," previously a hit for Sérgio Mendes.
But the Brazilian influence on CARNIVALE ELECTRICOS goes beyond one song. "When we started this album, we all immersed ourselves in Brazilian music and let it get into our souls," says Mercurio. The group contributed three Brazilian-flavored instrumentals, including "JuLou," which riffs on an old Brazilian tune, though the name refers to the brass-funk Krewe of Julu, the "walking krewe" that Galactic members participate in on Mardi Gras morning. After creating the hard-driving track that became "O Côco da Galinha," they decided it would be right for MOYSÉS MÁRQUEZ, from the São Paulo underground samba scene, who collaborated with them and composed the lyric.
If you were GALACTIC and you were making a carnival album, wouldn't you want to play "Carnival Time," the irrepressibly happy 1960 perennial from the legendary Cosimo Matassa studio? Nobody in New Orleans doesn't know this song. The remake features a new performance in the unmistakable voice of the original singer, AL "CARNIVAL TIME" JOHNSON, who's still active around town more than fifty years after he first gained Mardi Gras immortality.
The closing instrumental, "Ash Wednesday Sunrise," evokes the edginess of the post-party feeling. The group writes, "There is the tension you feel on that morning -- one of being worn out from all of the festivities and one of elation that you made it through another year."
But, as New Orleanians know, there's always another carnival to look forward to, and GALACTIC will be there, playing till dawn and then going to breakfast before parading.
GALACTIC is a collaborative band with a unique format. It's a stable quintet that plays together with high musicianship. They've been together so long they're telepathic. But though the band hasn't had a lead singer for years, neither is it purely an instrumental group. GALACTIC is part of a diverse community of musicians, and in their own studio, with Mercurio and Ellman producing, they have the luxury of experimenting. So on their albums, they do something that's unusual in rock but not so controversial an idea in, say, hiphop: they create something that's a little like a revue, a virtual show featuring different vocalists (mostly from New Orleans) and instrumental soloists each taking their turn on stage in the GALACTIC sound universe.
Mostly the band creates new material in collaboration with its many guests, though they occasionally rework a classic. Despite the appearance of various platinum names on GALACTIC albums, they especially like to work with artists who are still underground. If you listen to CARNIVALE ELECTRICOS together with the two previous studio albums (YA-KA-MAY and FROM THE CORNER TO THE BLOCK), you'll hear the most complete cross-section of what's happening in contemporary New Orleans anywhere – all of it tight and radio-ready.
Despite the electronics and studio technology, GALACTIC's albums are very much band records. Mercurio explained the GALACTIC process, which starts out with the beat: "The way we write music," he says, "we come up with a demo, or a basic track, and then we collectively decide how we're gonna finish it." The result is a hard-grooving sequence of tight beats across a range of styles that glides from one surprise to the next.
What pulls all the diverse artists on CARNIVALE ELECTRICOS together into a coherent album is that one way or another, it's all funk. GALACTIC is, always was, and always will be a funk band. Whatever genre of music anyone in New Orleans is doing, from Mardi Gras Indians to rock bands to hardcore rappers, it's all funk at the bottom, because funk is the common musical language, the lingua franca of New Orleans music. Even zydeco can be funky -- and if you don't believe it, check out "Voyage Ton Flag," the album's evocation of Cajun Mardi Gras, in which Mamou Playboy STEVE RILEY meets up with a sampled Clifton Chenier inside the GALACTIC funk machine.
Dirty Dozen Brass Band
To describe how the Dirty Dozen Brass Band has arrived at its 35th Anniversary, trumpet player Gregory Davis employs a tried-and true New Orleans-centric analogy: "It ends up being like a pot of gumbo – you drop in a little okra, drop in a little shrimp, you drop in some crabs. Before you know it, you've mixed in all these different ingredients and you've got a beautiful soup. That was our approach to music early on and it still is today."
Baritone sax player Roger Lewis -- who, like Davis, has been with the combo since its inception in 1977 -- echoes that sentiment: "It's a big old musical gumbo, and that probably made the difference, separating us from other brass bands out of New Orleans. It put a different twist on the music. We were not trying to change anything, we were just playing the music we wanted to play and not stay in one particular bag."
An appetite for musicological adventure, a commitment to honor tradition while not being constrained by it, and a healthy sense of humor have brought the world-traveling Dirty Dozen Brass Band to this remarkable juncture in an already storied career. To celebrate its 35th, the band is releasing Twenty Dozen, the septet's first studio release in six years. The new album, cut at the Music Shed in New Orleans, reunites the band with producer Scott Billington, who helmed DDBB's first major-label release, Voodoo, in 1989. It's a resolutely upbeat effort that seamlessly blends R&B, jazz, funk, Afro-Latino grooves, some Caribbean flavor, and even a Rihanna cover. Twenty Dozen mirrors in flow and feel a vibrant DDBB live set. The disc reaches an exuberant peak with a medley of New Orleans staples, including a particularly high-spirited rendering of "When the Saints Go Marching In." The final track – or, as Lewis puts it, "the after-party" – is an audience encore favorite, the ribald "Dirty Old Man," with Lewis doing an outstanding job in the title role. Twenty Dozen, says Lewis, is "classic Dirty Dozen. It's got something for your mind, body, and soul. We're gonna get you one way or another."
Twenty Dozen is also very much a group effort, with each of the members – Davis, Lewis, tenor-sax man Kevin Harris, trumpeter Efrem Towns, sousaphonist Kirk Joseph, drummer Terence Higgins and guitarist Jake Eckert -- bringing original compositions or arrangement ideas to the sessions. It kicks off with the light-hearted funk of "Tomorrow," segues into the jazzier "Jook" then heads into the party-hearty island groove of "Best Of All." Billington suggested DDBB cover Rihanna's "Don't Stop the Music," and the group's reinterpretation is as ingenious as it is fun. The tough, seventies-style soul of "We Gon' Roll" supplies the most serious moment, as composer Higgins pays tribute to the indomitable nature of his fellow NOLA residents. As Davis – whose own "Git Up" is a smoking jazz workout -- explains, "Just about everybody had a song or something they wanted to contribute. As we started to record the songs and listen to them, each song seemed to fit not just with the character of the individuals who wrote them but the character of the band. We are the Dirty Dozen and it's the overall character of the band that makes the live show work --and that makes this record work. Had we planned to make a certain kind of record, it might not have come out like that. In letting the guys' voices speak and come out on their own, the album turned out this way."
The traditional numbers at the tail end of Twenty Dozen serve as a reminder of how the group, since the beginning, has tried to reinvigorate the standards and build a bridge between old and new. Says Davis, "Over the last few years we have been doing a medley that has included 'Paul Barbarin's Second Line,' 'E Flat Blues' and 'Saints.' It had been going over so well that we thought maybe we needed to capture the spirit of what we're doing with this medley and put it on a record. 'Saints' is one of the most requested songs we do and you have to face the challenge of playing that song so many times. But once you get that started and see the smiles on people's faces and they start dancing to it, it makes you want to do it a little bit more. In the studio, I was envisioning different scenes from our audiences. I'd remember the reaction I would get attempting to get people up to dance, to do certain steps and follow me. It made it so much fun to remember the faces, the smiles, the body movements of the people. To get them up, to get them sweating -- it's always a pleasure." Listening to this new "Saints" rendition on disc has the same effect: it's impossible to remain in your easy chair. Davis considers this and, laughing, imagines a new opportunity for the band: ""Maybe we need to sell this as a work-out CD."
While traditional numbers infused with a DDBB flavor have always been crowd-pleasing staples of the group's repertoire, it's the Dirty Dozen Brass Band's willingness to look beyond the New Orleans songbook and find connections amongst a wider range of music that has endeared them to critics, fellow musicians and a multi-generational, global audience. They've been embraced enthusiastically by the jam-band followers at Bonnaroo as well as by the devotees who flock to the yearly New Orleans Jazz Fest. Acts like the Black Crowes and Widespread Panic have taken them on tour and artists from Dizzy Gillespie to Elvis Costello to Norah Jones have joined them in the studio. In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, DDBB participated in the From the Big Apple to the Big Easy benefit at New York City's Madison Square Garden and offered its own response to the aftermath of the disaster with an acclaimed 2006 song-by-song remake of Marvin Gaye's What's Going On. Their music has been featured on the HBO series, Treme, named after the New Orleans mid-city neighborhood where the band had formed, and the group performed on screen with Galactic and rapper Juvenile in Season 2. New Orleans remains a wellspring of musical inspiration and DDBB is a living, breathing embodiment of the continued vitality and evolution of the sounds of the city.
But, Davis cautions, "We've never been the norm, even though we started out as a traditional New Orleans brass band. In the beginning we weren't getting work of any kind, so we thought it was okay to explore other music. That allowed us as individuals to bring ourselves into the rehearsals and that's where we started to experiment. At the time the band started, I was a student at Loyola University and we were all being introduced to other music – to jazz from the twentieth century and so on. It's impossible to think that you can be exposed to the harmonies that Duke Ellington was making, the rhythms coming from Dizzy Gillespie or the funk being done by James Brown, and then ignore it when you're playing New Orleans music. New Orleans music is all of that. If we had chosen to just put in the music presented to us then as traditional, it would have stunted our growth. Being more than what we heard is what the band was about. "
DDBB enjoyed the opportunity to look back with the 2011 reissue of it galvanizing 1984 debut, My Feet Can't Fail Me Now, but the hard-working band has little time for nostalgia. For mainstays like Davis and Lewis, 35 years have passed in the blink of an eye, as Lewis, who also sits in with several other NOLA combos, acknowledges: "Check it out – I'm 70 years old, I'm the oldest dude in the band – I'm the oldest dude in everybody's band, now that I think about it. I don't know where the time went. I guess it's just the music, man, you don't be thinking about all that. I've been in it 35 straight years. The reason why the band stayed together for so long, despite all we've gone through, it's the right chemistry. We're trying to make it do what it do. If we have this conversation when I'm 80, we'll still be trying to make it do what it do."
"As we continue to do live shows," Davis concludes, "the challenge is still going to be, how am I going to entertain these people that are in front of me tonight? You have to make that happen at the moment, and that's what we do best."
-- Michael Hill