Modern Mythologies: Galactic’s Ya-Ka-May

By Daniel Garrett

Galactic, Ya-Ka-May
Produced by Ben Ellman
Anti, Inc./Epitaph, 2010

I should have known better than to stick to the rules I learned.

Ben Ellman plays harps and horns, Robert Mercurio is the bassist and Stanton Moore the drummer, and Jeff Raines plays guitar and Rich Vogel keyboards in the musical group Galactic. Moore has New Orleans roots, and has admired the Meters for a long time (Ellman and Raines moved to the crescent city from Washington, and Ellman played in the New Orleans Klezmer All-Stars). The band Galactic, which began in the mid-1990s, is driven by rhythm and groove and known for its live performances, and has worked to develop its creativity in the studio; and its members, with the album Ya-Ka-May, had the ambition of presenting a panoply of New Orleans performers and sounds. Daily life as a celebration is the atmosphere the musicians wanted to capture; and they have done that in Ya-Ka-May—National Public Radio’s music critic Ken Tucker called Ya-Ka-May an extremely thoughtful party album. It is the spirit of New Orleans, the spirit that keeps its residents joyful despite difficulties, loyal in the face of other options, and full of memory as they walk the streets of faraway towns.

New Orleans, a city of achievement, promise, and trouble, was founded as part of the colony of French Louisiana, in the early eighteenth-century, about 1718, and named for France’s regent, the Duc d’ Orleans, Philippe II; and the town was French, then Spanish, then French, then American—and it was a difficult place to be during and after the American civil war, roiled by racial conflicts that remain to be exorcised. It is a city of history and legend, of images and sounds: Brightly costumed revelers parade the streets, laughing, singing, drinking, and wishing their neighbors a happy Mardi Gras. The levee breaks, the city is flooded, and people run up to roofs, begging for rescue—and others drown, their bodies floating through the streets. A struggling football team, dressed in black and gold, finally wins! Policemen are arrested and put on trial for murdering innocent African-American men and attempting to hide their crimes. It is rare that one encounters music that suggests such complexity—until now: without being a statement of political philosophy, the music group Galactic has produced a song collection, Ya-Ka-May, that indicates something of the social complexity of New Orleans, and it has done that in the most natural way, by presenting musical complexity. Its participants do not belong to a single genre or generation or ethnicity. The album Ya-Ka-May, named after a noodle dish known to settle the stomach and head after indulgent drinking, is full of collaborations—with the Rebirth Brass Band, Irma Thomas, Allen Toussaint, Trombone Shorty, John Boutte, Walter Washington, and other performers.

The authoritative, weird voice of Morgus the Magnificent, speaking about a recorder of pulses from brain waves and the possibility of transmitting talent from one person to another, is sampled in “Friends of Science,” the first piece on Ya-Ka-May. It is succeeded by “Boe Money,” featuring the jazzy horns of the Rebirth Brass Band, and a dance beat, and shouts of “go, go.” The fast-paced rapping of a male voice—the voice of one of the album’s sissy rappers, Big Freedia—rides a great groove and rattling percussion, calling out “no more dreams, it’s reality” and “work, baby doll, work.”

The reportedly self-described sissy rappers are, apparently, very popular in New Orleans, and part of the local hip-hop movement known as bounce, based on drum machines and basic music samples (a young woman told me: when you hear the groove, you want to move—and bounce, bounce); and it is the contemporary musical score for casual social ritual. Why sissy rappers? Some boys admire the beauty, resilience, and wit of their mothers more than the muscles and toughness of their fathers—and that is often because their fathers are not around enough to know deeply or well. Contempt, derision, and neglect are not encouragements, and roles and rules that have not served can be bent or broken by lonely boys who must find a strategy for survival. The boys have no available masculine ideal; and try to take on aspects of a feminine ideal, such as the appearance and the sass. Masculinity becomes a foreign object—to be desired or disdained. Rap is the lexicon of now; crude, funny, vain, and obsessed with raw power in the forms of violence, sex, and money, a raucous iteration (appropriation, fulfillment, or satire) of the stereotypes compelled by the conventions of the routines of a bourgeois—but greedy and hypocritical—world. Here, the artificiality of a drum machine is replaced by real instruments; and the real drive in the voices of the performers can keep up, can dominate; and femininity and masculinity may be united in one figure. I have no special fondness for rap or drag queens, but I appreciate the social integration their inclusion represents. The rappers, like jazz musicians and blues singers before them, are saying, “I am here. New Orleans is mine too.”

New Orleans, the crescent city on the Mississippi River and south of Baton Rouge, is a port town, a trade center, a place of architecture and music and food, with a French Quarter peopled by some of the kinds of artists and bohemians known to New York’s Greenwich Village; a city known for its carnival atmosphere—and not only during Mardi Gras. New Orleans is identified with some great American musicians—Louis Armstrong, Fats Domino, Aaron Neville, and Wynton Marsalis, among them—but two names that continue to excite and move those near and far are Irma Thomas and Allen Toussaint, partly because they continued to live in the city after having some success. The hurricane Katrina destroyed homes and habits in year 2005, but drew attention to the great but beleaguered city—beleaguered not only by water and wind but by corruption, crime, and poverty in a world in which money is the final standard and the principal reward. Following the devastation of hurricane Katrina, many New Orleans artists went to different towns and cities and other artists remained. Some of them have been adrift; and some have been rejuvenated: among the refreshed have been Irma Thomas and Allen Toussaint, each of whom has completed well-regarded high profile creative projects.

On Ya-Ka-May, Irma Thomas sings “Heart of Steel,” a song with a groove both sensual and moody, and a beat that claps and rumbles, in which Thomas says, “Deep down inside I’ve got a heart of steel…Deep down inside I’ve got a heart of gold.” The changing metaphors suggest a mind considering possibilities—and regrets. It is a song of force and surprising urgency. “I should have known better than to stick to the rules I learned…I should have known better than to stare down the voodoo queen,” Thomas sings. The phrase “deep down inside” is repeated as a cascade of electronic echoes; and it is clear that the song is about sound as much as it is about character, story, or mythology. (Even Irma Thomas, who had worked with Galactic drummer Stanton Moore on her album After the Rain, was surprised by the song: “I didn’t know I could sound like that!” she is quoted by Keith Spera as saying in the Times-Picayune, around the time of the album’s release in February 2010. The album Ya-Ka-May was listed among Billboard magazine’s top two-hundred.)

A deep, heavy voice says, “I’m a wild man”—it is the voice of Big Chief Bo Dollis of the group the Wild Magnolias—in the exuberantly rocking song “Wild Man,” which has a mix of styles and textures, with a throbbing guitar and thick groove and something folksy too. “If you don’t want to be left behind, there’s room for you, just get in line,” sings singer-songwriter Allen Toussaint, one of many affirming, well-intentioned words of advice in “Bacchus”—such as counsel that the devil is never on the level—in a voice that sounds electronic (modern soul: significant sentiment amid technology); and the song “Bacchus,” which could be focused on joining a parade or living a better life or both, reminds me of Chic, Prince, and this morning.

The first words in “Katey vs. Nobby” are about booty, and the next are about food, in the beat-heavy track in which two sissy rappers, Katey Red and Sissy Nobby, face each other, using frank street language; and it sounds like a children’s chant gone mad: “so much drama y’all.” Writing in the Washington Post (the article entitled “Galactic, spicing up Nawlins’ sonic flavors”) when Ya-Ka-May was presented initially to the public, Jesse Serwer declared, “With its dual attack, heavy fuzz guitar and marching-band drumrolls, ‘Katey vs. Nobby’ lives up to its promise to chart unknown territory. ‘Double It,’ a percussive, cowbell-laden track featuring Big Freedia, evokes go-go, Washington’s own contribution to the regional subgenre sweepstakes (Raines and Mercurio cite go-go as an early influence from their Chevy Chase days).”

Trombone Shorty and Corey Henry, two trombonists, contribute to the jazzily tumultuous “Cineramascope”—and the trombone sound (long, loud, rubbing, throbbing) could suggest the erotic or the nervous, and the unique tension of city life. “Cineramascope” also recalls for me Berry Gordy’s Motown, music that knows pain but profoundly prefers pleasure. “Dark Water” has a bluesy twang, and John Boutte’s voice reminds me of early Terence Trent D’Arby (deep, soulful, sexual); and its beat adds to its mystique: “the drummer is a fisherman,” John Boutte says—and there is no telling what might be caught. “Do your thing,” advises Cheeky Blakk in “Do It Again,” a piece that Cheeky Blakk begins with a rowdy greeting that uses street slang for a male participant in mother-son incest. (It is not a word I like at all, but here it does make me laugh.) “Liquor Pang,” featuring Josh Cohen and Ryan Scully, like “Wild Man,” sounds like a funkified folk song. “I try to stay the same but I know I change,” admits its narrator; and “ain’t no thang but a liquor pang.” The piece “Krewe D’Etat”—its title evokes both the contests between Mardi Gras gangs and food—is a short instrumental.

Some of the compositions—such as those featuring Irma Thomas and Allen Toussaint—conjure a modern mythology, one that fits with one knows or hears about New Orleans. That is also true of “You Don’t Know,” with the return of the Rebirth Brass Band and the participation of Glen David Andrews. In a gravelly voice, the narrator in “You Don’t Know” says, “You don’t know what I know, and you ain’t been where I’m going.” The suggestion is that it takes someone honest and tough to experience what he has known. The narrator states that he is willing to die for what he believes. One of his conclusions is, “You need to mind your own damn business.” There is tenderness and wisdom, caring and regret, in “Speaks His Mind,” in which “the big man,” the much-revered divine one, enacted by Walter Washington, speaks his mind, saying, “I made the world to amuse me, then I set you loose to abuse me” and “I am everywhere and everything.” It has a melancholy wit. Of course, the song collection ends with a reprise of Cheeky Blakk’s profanity with “Do It Again (Again),” in which—as in much rap, though it has assertions and energy and reference to real objects, if not real relationships—I discern no complex perception, thought, or truth. Obviously, the strongest songs on Ya-Ka-May have the great voices and irreducible authority of Irma Thomas, Allen Toussaint, John Boutte, and Walter Washington, with concepts, lyrics, and music to match. I might have liked to hear more contemplative, intimate compositions, but this is a fun and imaginative album that embraces the world in which we live with generosity and humor. The men in Galactic—Ben Ellman, Robert Mercurio, Stanton Moore, Jeff Raines, and Rich Vogel—have reason to be proud as musicians, producers, and representatives of a local culture with international appeal and worth.

Cities are always very particular constructions; and yet they seem constantly changing: New York seems that way, and so does New Orleans, a town with art galleries and museums, film and opera societies, and alligator farms, breweries, casinos, and swamp tours. Its restaurants (such as Antoine’s and the Court of Two Sisters) draw admiring, hungry crowds, and its festivals (Jazz & Heritage, Essence, and Tennessee Williams literary festival) enthusiastic, grateful attendants. The human personality has space to express itself in New Orleans; and it also knows challenge and duress there. What will be done to address problems with education, housing, and violence? It is hard not to speculate about what will happen to New Orleans, though some have been inspired by the election of Mitch Landrieu as mayor. For instance, the Louisiana coastline has been damaged for decades, partly by dam and oil projects; and the levees were weak, poorly planned and maintained—even its designers now admit that: and protection of the city was sacrificed for other goals (thus, the devastation of Katrina). There have been complaints that the federal government has not done enough—but this is a city and state that have been driven by the special interests of big business; and the good of all has been neglected for the benefits of a favored few. (“Our delegation has always marched in lockstep on oil and gas issues,” said Chris John—once a congressman, now a petroleum lobbyist; a common career transition—in Time magazine, “Katrina: A Man-Made Disaster,” December 6, 2010.) The craziness of Louisiana business and politics can be suggested by the fact that following the recent and historic oil spill in the Mexican gulf, a spill that wrecked wildlife and threatened the Louisiana fishing industry, people involved in the fishing industry were requesting that oil drilling continue—as they have family members involved in that industry too. But hey, the music is great—and Mardi Gras is a terrific party.

Daniel Garrett, a graduate of the New School for Social Research, and the principal organizer of the Cultural Politics Discussion Group at ABC No Rio and Poets House, is a writer whose work has appeared in The African, All About Jazz, American Book Review, Art & Antiques, The Audubon Activist, Black Film Review, Changing Men, Cinetext, Contact II, Film International, The Humanist, Hyphen, Illuminations, Muse Apprentice Guild, Offscreen, Option, Pop Matters, Quarterly Black Review of Books, Rain Taxi, Red River Review, Review of Contemporary Fiction, Wax Poetics, and World Literature Today. Daniel admires classic and modern literature and philosophy, and likes painting and sculpture, French film, Afghan and Indian food, jazz, rock, and world music; and he has nurtured a secret love for Willie Nelson, Dolly Parton, Emmylou Harris, and Vince Gill. “There is desire, if not need, for new experiences, art, ideas, and meanings, but I have great regard for the curatorial impulse and for those who are able to bear and transmit a useful tradition of being and thought,” says Garrett, who originated two internet logs: one focused on culture and social issues, “City and Country, Boy and Man,” and one focused on books, “The Garrett Reader.” He has been writing a novel, A Stranger on Earth. ( Contact: dgarrett31@hotmail.com )

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