The Wild Magnolias: Smoke My Peace Pipe (Smoke It Right)

The tradition of African-Americans dressing up as Indians at Mardi Gras time is a venerable one, and supposedly reflects a gesture of gratitude to Native Americans due to their help in securing freedom for runaway slaves, a historical relationship that cemented ties between these two groups. Also blacks sometimes circumvented discrimination by passing themselves off as members of one or another tribe. The tradition continues today, and in grand ceremonial fashion—it is not uncommon for a Mardi Gras Indian costume to cost several thousand dollars. The visual effect is heightened by singing, chanting, drumming and a general spirit of revelry.

The Wild Magnolias

Enter the Wild Magnolias. My source documents are strangely silent about the so-called "peace pipe" mentioned in this song. Are the Wild Magnolias referring to some time-honored Native American tradition? A powerful medicine? A shamanistic ritual of cosmic proportions? They are sticklers for ritual purity—admonishing the listener to "smoke it right"; but how do they get around all those local anti-smoking restrictions? You can't even light up a cigar in a smoke shop these days without a squad car arriving to take you away in 'cuffs. Of course, the music presents its own puzzle. Could this really be a traditional Native American song? Did they have electric bass back then? The uninitiated might be tempted to describe this track as watered-down 1970s soul music, but that shows how little they know.

In short, your humble music critic has too many unanswered questions. But a few more puffs on this peace pipe, and perhaps things will clear up a bit. Still I wonder: am I smoking it right?

August 20, 2009 · 0 comments


The Hawketts (featuring Art Neville): Mardi Gras Mambo

This classic carnival tune was originally recorded by country artist Jodie Levens in 1953, but his incongruous steel-guitar backed version fell flat. Enter the Hawketts the following year with their light R&B version, enhanced with a bit of Caribbean flavor, and a Mardi Gras classic was born. It's hard to believe that Art Neville was only sixteen when he delivered this confident vocal—he sounds like a full-grown man with many Fat Tuesdays under his belt. But though he may not have been old enough to buy alcohol, his paean to Mardi Gras has inspired lots of drinkin', partyin' and fraternizin' with the opposite sex over the years. There is no bass on this track—drummer Boudreux chalks that up to the Hawketts' inexperience: "We didn't know that a band was supposed to have a bass player." But the horns, piano and drums lock together so perfectly that you may not even notice its absence. With a little more foresight, the Chess label (which originally released this recording) might have built the Hawketts into a big national act. As it turned out, they would lose interest, and Art Neville would move on to success with the Meters, the Wild Tchoupitoulas and the Neville Brothers. Even so, this hot New Orleans band lives on in spirit via this perennial carnival favorite.

August 19, 2009 · 0 comments


Al 'Carnival Time' Johnson: Carnival Time

Fifty years after it was recorded, this song still shows up on the airwaves at Mardi Gras time in New Orleans. It was such a defining hit for Al Johnson that the song became his nickname. "Everybody's having fun," the song proclaims—except for Mr. 'Carnival Time' himself. This classic New Orleans single was long a sore spot for Johnson, who was unable to secure rights to the royalty stream until 1999. Instead, he earned a living as a cab driver while others celebrated with his song playing in the background. Gaining control over his composition hardly signaled a turnaround in Johnson's life, and he lost his house in Hurricane Katrina, was forced to relocate to Houston, and only recently got a Habitat for Humanity home back in his home town (in Harry Connick Jr. and Branford Marsalis's "Musicians' Village"). What a contrast between the man and his music. This is a quintessential good time, partyin' tune with a big back beat and an extroverted vocal that is the closest thing to an invitation to a saturnalia allowed on the radio, circa 1960. The recording quality is abysmal, even by standards of the era. But it sounds a little bit better after each bottle of beer.

August 19, 2009 · 0 comments


The Wild Tchoupitoulas: Big Chief Got a Golden Crown

The tradition of Mardi Gras Indians - revelers, organized into tribes, who wear elaborate costumes inspired by Native American ceremonial attire - predates the arrival of jazz and blues on the local scene. But all traditions are susceptible to updating, and this one is no exception. Today women are allowed into these previously men-only groups, and the songs borrow from contemporary stylings. This track is that odd hybrid: a New Orleans reggae tune. Makes you wonder whether these Indians come from the West Indies. A catchy call-and-response is made all the tastier by the presence of a very hot back-up band. Of course, this Big Chief (George Landry) had a distinct advantage over his rivals: his nephews are the Neville Brothers. The positive critical response to this recording played an important role in spurring them to form their eponymous band.

August 16, 2009 · 0 comments


Dr. John: Iko Iko

Sugar Boy and the Cane Cutters recorded this song in the early 1950s, with Professor Longhair holding down the piano chair. But Dr. John staked his own claim to ownership of "Iko Iko" at the Van Nuys session for his 1972 release Dr. John's Gumbo, where he delivered a modern-day classic of New Orleans music. The good doctor brings out all of the contradictions submerged in this style of performance. "Iko Iko" is loose and tight at the same time, on the beat and off, hot and cool - and, most important of all, has "Party" written all over it with a capital P. But before you get out on the dance floor, check out the ingredients here - in particular the drum part, which demonstrates how an old-school march beat can morph into a tasty funk groove.

You don't really need to know what "Iko Iko" means to enjoy it, but a grad student could spend a month deciphering the Creole patois and the song's various significations. The tune was originally recorded under the name "Jock-A-Mo" - which means jester. A "spy dog" is a lookout. Marraine is a godmother, etc. But even the composer claims he was just imitating phrases he had picked up from Mardi Gras Indians, and didn't really know what they meant. He thought it was some sort of victory chant. Works for me. Next time you come up on the winning side - in the office football pool, with pocket aces in a hand of Texas hold 'em, with a lottery ticket from the convenience store - try it out: Jockomo feena nay.

August 11, 2009 · 0 comments


Professor Longhair: Go to the Mardi Gras

At the end of Lent, in the stretch up to Fat Tuesday, New Orleans busts loose – even now after Katrina's destruction of the Big Easy – and the one song that brings on the resurrection every year is "Go to the Mardi Gras," by the singular and only Professor Longhair, gran' papa of NOLA's rhumba-rhythm piano sound. Fifty years after it was recorded, 'Fess's hot-saucy soupcon of joy is still the perennial hit.

Granted, the good professor learned a few tricks from some earlier cats, but he's the man who perfected all, and influenced every Louisiana piano tickler that came after. His protégé Dr. John was there back in '59 to arrange the goodtiming go-to while 'Fess coached the crack local players into the right rhythm and mood. Then the tapes rolled … 'Fess's piano rippled out a clarion wake-up call trailed by fast, bustling drums … and history answered.

Now every late winter since, his rollicking vocal and magical staccato whistling and rolling-on-the-sea piano take you from the Bahamas to Brazil, from the Caribbean to Congo Square, from hard times to breakout bliss: "If you go to New Orleans, you oughta go see the Mardi Gras / If you see the Mardi Gras, somebody'll tell you what Carnival's for." No slavery memories lurking, just the second-line jump keyed to make your rump roll, your feet lift, and your hands raise up high. It's Mardi Gras time in what's left of New Orleans.

March 11, 2009 · 0 comments


Previous Page | Next Page