Making it right

By JON GARELICK  |  May 5, 2009

Here is indigenous music, slow-cooked over generations in the neighborhoods that Katrina all but wiped out. Last year, Big Chief Darryl Montana of the Yellow Pocahontas told us about the making of his Indian suits, a craft he learned from his father, the late, great "Chief of Chiefs," Allison "Tootie" Montana. This year, we nabbed Fred Starr after a terrific performance by his Louisiana Repertory Jazz Ensemble. With their white shirts, black pants, and black ties — not to mention their name — the LRJE are half a world away from the Mardi Gras Indians, but no less vital. Their take on Jelly Roll Morton's "Black Bottom Stomp" began "thunk-whap!" and didn't let up, tight but with a timbre at once mellow and raw.

SUITING UP The Mardi Gras Indians enact multi-generational knowledge at Jazz Fest.

Breathless after the show, Starr explained the band's beginnings 30 years ago, when he hunted up 78s and sheet music and, most important, the musicians from the '20s and earlier who were still alive and willing to talk about arrangements, repertoire, and instrumentation, often defying today's conventional wisdom about the past. ("Everybody had saxophones, but now it's considered anathema!") Among New Orleans's heterogeneous immigrant community, Starr maintained, it was the Sicilians, with their superb technique and legato melodies, who evoked awe and were vastly influential. And so the LRJE chose woodwind and brass instruments that were pretty much extinct, with their wide bores and exotic fingerings, the less loud versions of their built-for-amplification descendants. This was music for dancing, said Starr, not for walloping seated concertgoers with volume, and the different pieces were inspired by dancers and the dances they were named for — one-steps, hops, rags, drags, stomps, and struts. "The dancers make the music, not the other way around!"

At the Congo Square Stage (there are 12 stages at Jazz Fest, spread across the Fair Grounds racetrack), it was hip-hop — New Orleans's most profitable musical export these days — that brought the dance. One Friday, Freedia & Nobby flaunted their gayness ("sissy bounce"), something atypical of tough, housing-project-bred rap. Whatever the lyrical content, the beats were still old-school New Orleans bounce, with its thump and syncopated rat-a-tat-tat. Freedia & Nobby were accompanied by a mixed crew of attendants — two drag queens and two ladies. Of the latter, one was hefty-large in a mini-skirt, the other slinky-thin in a green halter-top dress. They bent over, backs to the crowd, the fat girl's little silver handbag dangling from her wrist, the skinny girl nearly grabbing her own ankles, and both doing the kind of dance moves that amazed my wife and our friend Lisa — each buttock rotating at laundry-machine speed in opposite directions. The sight recalled Nik Cohn's bounce lyric: "Bend it over, catch the wall/Wobble wobble for me."

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