Detroit, March 21, 2004
Back in the Motor City after a month touring New Orleans and the mid-South, with Spring just about to spring and Opening Day at the home of the Detroit Tigers right around the corner. A bright day at the ballpark with Tigers manager Allen Trammell and his new batch of hopeful contenders led by 10-time All Star catcher Pudge Rodriguez, and then it'll be back on the road to San Francisco and the Bay Area, a week in Los Angeles with Wayne Kramer and my own all-star band of Blues Scholars, and back to the Crescent City for two weeks of JazzFest 2004.
There's absolutely nothing like Mardi Gras in New Orleans, and the real Mardi Gras doesn't even remotely resemble the idiotic Bourbon Street revelries endlessly depicted on the television newscasts. Bourbon Street is strictly a tourist trap, a seedy alcoholic theme park for suburban thrill-seekers from all over America that's never frequented by New Orleans residents except for those who have work there. Hip travelers are well advised to avoid Bourbon Street and its immediate environs at all times and concentrate instead on the myriad delights to be found in the culturally rich neighborhoods and entertainment districts that abound all over town.
I had the extreme pleasure of living and working in New Orleans from 1991 until May of last year and enjoy the blessing of friends there far too numerous to count. It was a thrill to catch up with them by the score at the street parades, Wild Indian processions, funky nightspots, favorite coffeehouses and fantastic eateries of the Crescent City during the Carnival season, and even more fun to introduce Eric Deaton, my ace blues guitarist from Oxford, Mississippi, to the incredible sights and sounds of his first Mardi Gras.
We had a ball playing with fellow Blues Scholars Wallace Lester and Marc Stone at Café Brasil, Dave Brinks' Gold Mine Saloon, the Louisiana Music Factory (the world's greatest record shop) and a live performance on Freddie Blue's Saturday night radio broadcast from the WWOZ studios in Louis Armstrong Park. In between we attended Indian practice with the Golden Arrows, Black Eagles, and members of the Creole Wild West and Wild Magnolias at Junior's Bar at 4th & Daneel in the old 3rd Ward, caught the Zulu Parade at the corner of Jackson & Dryades, and went around the corner to join the Wild Magnolias second line and chant back at Big Chief Bo Dollis as he led his colorful gang down the middle of the street on Mardi Gras Day.
The legendary Mardi Gras Indians of New Orleans are African American citizens who mask as Native Americans in elaborate hand-crafted outfits made of beadwork, feathers and plumes and emerge out of the doorways of their dilapidated inner-city houses and project apartments to strut and swagger up and down the beat-up streets of their neighborhoods on Fat Tuesday, the one day of the year they're allowed to run wild from dawn to dark. They persist today as the living manifestation of an age-old ritual, preserved and practiced by the descendants of the African slaves, which goes back to the perambulating societies of West Africa and their call-and-response chants, the secret societies of masked warriors which are common to both African and native American cultures, and the unsanctioned spiritual ceremonies conducted in the moonlight by African slaves on the plantations of the American South.
It's a ritual which continues to thrive in the mean streets of early 21st-century New Orleans and in the hearts of the people of the most run-down, destitute, stripped-bare-and-left-for-dead underclass neighborhoods of the city, where the Wild Indians of Mardi Gras perennially represent the triumph of spirit, creativity, and beauty of song and dance over every obstacle placed in their way by the dominant society. The music of the Mardi Gras Indians may be sampled on hard-to-find albums by the Wild Magnolias, Wild Tchoupitoulas, Golden Eagles, Flaming Arrows, Guardians of the Flame, Indians of the Nation and other tribes, but they must be beheld in their natural habitat on the streets of New Orleans to be fully appreciated.
I've been following the Wild Magnolias on Mardi Gras since 1976 and haven't missed a Carnival since 1981, so it was a special treat to return to the States after three months in the Old World to line up behind my pretty Big Chief and sashay through the streets of the 3rd Ward with the mighty mighty Wild Magnolias in the excellent company of Eric Deaton, Wallace Lester and my daughter Celia. Mighty Coup de Fiyo on a Mardi Gras Day!
After Mardi Gras I rode back to Oxford with Eric Deaton, sat in on Poetry Night at the splendid Two Stick sushi restaurant and blues bar-my headquarters in the Literary Capitol of the South-copped a ride to Memphis with Chad Henson and caught the Greyhound over to Little Rock, where I spent a delirious week as a guest of Dotty Oliver and the Little Rock Free Press. Comfortably ensconced in the spacious back room at the Free Press offices above Juanita's Bar & Restaurant on Main Street, I met a constant stream of Free Press staffers and visitors there and ventured out nightly to perform sets at Vino's, Sticky Fingers and Pizza D'Action, plus a brief but exhilarating turn onstage at Juanita's during the frenzied First Friday festivities.
My favorite thing about following the bardic path-along with seeing all my friends old and new and getting to explore familiar and previously unencountered urban vistas-is the opportunity to perform with a vast array of excellent musicians everywhere I go. I take considerable pride in creating musical settings for my praise songs and odes in honor of our great musicians, poets and cultural warriors, with particular attention to the impact of the music and the way it fits and surrounds my verses. But the pecuniary rewards I am able to garner for my bardic work remain so insubstantial that I generally have to hit the road by myself and hope for the best when it comes time to perform my works on stage.
In Little Rock I lucked out big time when a terrific young blues guitarist called Thomas Jones turned up to accompany me at Vino's. We waited for Cliff Aaron to join us on drums, and when he didn't appear (having suffered, as we learned the next day, a terrible auto accident on the way to the gig) Thomas and I went ahead and performed 90 minutes of material from my elongated blues work in verse, Fattening Frogs For Snakes, as a duet. Without the benefit of rehearsal and only the briefest conversation regarding repertoire before we hit, Thomas played precisely the music I needed, spiking his steady deep-blues rhythm parts with brilliant flashes of slashing slide guitar and intelligent, emotive, perfectly idiomatic solos and obligatti.
The next night Thomas and I enjoyed the benefit of Cliff Aaron, who dragged his drumset and battered body over to Sticky Fingers to join us. The bassist from the other band on the bill volunteered to fill out our rhythm section, and the splendid saxophonist Gerald Johnson stepped up to add his smoking soprano sax to the ensemble. Duly inspired, and once again without benefit of rehearsal, this impromptu band of Little Rock Blues Scholars under the direction of Thomas Jones smoothly powered its way through a program of previously unencountered music & verse entirely different from the offerings of the night before.
For our final outing at Pizza D'Action, Cliff and Thomas appeared with guitarist Mark Simpson in tow and slashed and burned their way through two exhilarating sets of blues madness. Thomas introduced Mark as his mentor, and it was easily apparent that the younger guitarist had been paying close attention to his teacher as the two meshed together to create a seamless wall of snarling, blues-drenched sound under and around my verses. We were rewarded with a seriously attentive audience that included my old and dear friend JoBeth Briton and a sizable contingent of Free Press staffers.
I left Little Rock somewhat reluctantly, caught the bus back to Memphis and spent a couple of relaxing days in the supremely hospitable company of Laurence Hall, the Skinny Dipping in America entrepreneur I'd met at the 420 CafÎ˜ in Amsterdam last December. Laurence drove me down to Oxford and delivered me into the hands of Chad Henson to begin a three-night tour with the intriguing ensemble called Afrissippi.
Centered on the Senegalese guitarist and singer Guelel Kuumba, an Oxford resident for the past two years, Afrissippi fuses Guelel's ancestral and contemporary West African songs with the traditional blues trance music of the North Mississippi hill country to produce an electrifying blend of past, present and future idioms rooted in the centuries-old culture of Guelel's homeland. Eric Deaton fills the blues guitar role with exemplary soul and sensitivity, backed by Justin Showah on bass and drummer Kenny Kimbrough, son of the late, great North Mississippi bluesman Junior Kimbrough. I get to serve as sort of an interlocutor, providing introductions and improvised commentary on the musical proceedings and inserting several of my blues verses into the mix.
An Afrissippi performance opens with several unaccompanied selections by Guelel, who alternates between traditional African songs-some of them hundreds of years old-and contemporary works of his own composition. He's joined by the rhythm section for a short set of bouyant African tunes sung by Guelel in his native Fulani language before the ensemble begins to explore the musical elements common to West African culture and the Mississippi blues. Set against a single melodic motif introduced by Guelel and underlined by the hill country blues drone hammered out by the rhythm section, Guelel's Fulani lyric is followed by Deaton's faithful reading of a Junior Kimbrough blues text and a story set in a small North Mississippi town and told in the words of bluesman Booker White that echoes and amplifies the message of the Kimbrough song.
I consider it a high honor and privilege to be invited to perform as a member of Afrissippi, and I thoroughly enjoyed every minute of our performances at Hal & Mal's in Jackson, the Hi-Tone in Memphis, and the Two Stick in Oxford, where the lineup was augmented by the guitar of Thomas Jones-who had driven all the way over from Little Rock to play with us. The money was very short at the end of the week, however, and I moved with a dangerously shrunken bankroll on to Atlanta GA by means of a timely ride arranged by Chad Henson. The gig at Perimeter College in suburban Atlanta turned into a disaster, and I took the AirTran jet back to the Motor City with my tail tucked firmly between my legs.
By this time next month I'll be back in New Orleans for JazzFest after a series of engagements in Detroit, Ann Arbor, Flint, Saginaw, Lansing, Grand Rapids, Chicago, San Francisco and the Bay Area, and a week in Los Angeles playing with Wayne Kramer. Gotta keep movin'.
(c) 2004 John Sinclair. All Rights Reserved.