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Strumming along with Carnival music

17th February 2014   ·   0 Comments

By Geraldine Wyckoff
Contributing Writer

Almost everyone has a favorite Mardi Gras song, the one they play first thing Carnival morning, the one they want to hear as they rub the previous night’s festivities out of their eyes and ready themselves for the big day. Naturally, musts include the Hawketts’ 1954 classic Mardi Gras Mambo with Art Neville on vocals and Professor Longhairs’s Go to the Mardi Gras. Another biggy is Al “Carnival Time” Johnson’s tune, “Carnival Time” from which he derived his nickname that has stuck with him since the single was released in 1960.

Yet there are many other tunes that in their joyful essence feel just right on the holiday. For instance, “I Got Loaded” composed by Louisiana’s own Camille Bob of Little Bob and the Lollipops and made even more famous by Los Lobos, enthusiastically expresses that despite drinking a bottle of gin, “I feel alright.” Most tunes by the kings of New Orleans rhythm and blues’ heydays also hit the mark. Jessie Hill’s “Ooh Poo Pah Doo” and Oliver Morgan’s “Who Shot the La La?” work as Carnival tunes too. Despite the lack of any Mardi Gras references, any hard-hitting brass band music can get one in the mood of the season and the chants and tambourines of the Mardi Gras Indians are core to the holiday.

More off-the-wall, non-New Orleans tunes and artists that have “it” include anything James Brown and quirky stuff like “Tequila” and the even more obscure “Bongo Rock.” Try it, you’ll like it.

Here are a few thoughts on what works for a few musicians and music enthusiasts during Mardi Gras season. First, we go to “the man,” Al “Carnival Time” Johnson whose release last year, Beyond Carnival, adds to the tradition with tunes like “Mardi Gras Strut.”

Al “Carnival Time” Johnson, rhythm and blues vocalist and pianist. “I like Shirley & Lee’s song, ‘Let the Good Times Roll.’ That’s good year round.” As far as classics go, Johnson says, “I like “Mardi Gras Mambo.” The rhythm and the groove – it’s just a good song.”

Keith Hill, WWOZ programmer, photographer, deejay. Im­mediately, Hill mentions Paul Barbarin’s Bourbon Street Par­ade, as a song that doesn’t really have any Carnival references but certainly shouts New Orleans. “Every time I play {trumpeter} Wynton Marsalis’ version at the clubs, everybody starts second lining. If the lyrics have anything to do with drinking and partying it can fit into Mardi Gras. I remember there was a rapper (Afroman) a few years ago that did a song Because I Got High and that was a hit during one particular Mardi Gras. Even Kermit {Ruffins} used to play it on his set. One of Hill’s favorite classics is New Suit by Big Chief Bo Dollis and the Wild Magnolias.

Jon Cleary, pianist, vocalist. “My main port of call at Mardi Gras was (the now defunct) Joe’s Cozy Corner and a song by D’Angelo called “Higher” was on the jukebox. By the time I got there I was usually in full Mardi Gras mode and I would stick that on. He had Johnny “Guitar” Watson on the jukebox too and I would play Real Mother for Ya. My MO (modus operandi) on Mardi Gras was to start walking and catch the Indians and retire to Joe’s. Those aren’t Mardi Gras tunes but for me I just associate them with Mardi Gras.” As far as the classics go, Cleary names Big Chief, the Earl King tune the pianist performs regularly, the Wild Magnolias’ “Handa Wanda” and Fess’ “Go To the Mardi Gras” as favs.

Guitar Extravaganzas Strum On for Barker Festival

The Guitar Extravaganza series, monthly events that are presented to raise funds in preparation for next October’s first annual Danny Barker’s Banjo and Guitar Festival, continues on Saturday, February 22 when it makes a return trip to Sweet Lorraine’s. The shows, which thus far have been highly impressive artistically and a lot of fun for both the players and audience, feature several outstanding guitarists and/or banjo players who perform individually backed by a hand-selected “house band” of some of New Orleans finest. Towards the end of the sets, the format has been that all the fretmen, who come from an array of genres, take the stage together.

Saturday night’s edition of the Extravaganza includes Detroit Brooks, who acts as the coordinator of both the event and the festival, June Yamagishi, Brian See­ger, and Les Getrex. Talk about musicians that rarely, if ever, play together. The back-up band is strong as well with keyboardists Thaddeus Richard and Kanko Fuwa, drummer Walter Harris and bassist Brian Quezergue.

Last month’s installment of the series was held at Snug Harbor featuring another eclectic line-up with Brooks, Walter “Wolfman” Wash­ington and Steve Masakowsi. It turned into a blues bash of sorts with Masakowski, who is almost always heard playing modern jazz, really digging mixing it up with Wolfman.

“Most everybody I’ve talked to is interested in doing an Extrava­ganza show and/or the festival,” says Brooks mentioning both local and national players. He’s even been in contact with Grammy-winning superstar George Benson about the possibility of performing at the festival which is planned as a multi-faceted event that includes an outdoor festival, a night concert, educational elements and a club strut.

The response by guitarists in their desire to help make the festival a success is not surprising considering the respect and love all had for Danny Barker, who died on March 13, 1994 at the age of 85. Barker was a brilliant guitarist and banjoist who was known nationally working with such bandleaders as Cab Calloway. When Barker returned to his hometown of New Orleans, he was instrumental in rekindling the brass band tradition when he created the youthful Fairview Baptist Church Brass Band.

It’s not necessarily important to be a guitar fanatic to enjoy these shows as they offer, as experienced at previous performances, such a wide range of music. It is also important that New Orleans remembers Danny Barker who gave so much of himself to this city.

Showtimes for the Guitar Extravaganza at Sweet Lorraine’s, 1931 St. Claude Avenue, are 8 pm and 10 pm.

This article originally published in the February 17, 2014 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

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