Zulu Lundi Gras Festival goes Soul
25th February 2014 · 0 Comments
By Geraldine Wyckoff
Years ago, the day before Mardi Gras felt a little bit like the quiet before the storm with many folks – particularly visitors – walking around somewhat aimlessly wondering what to do. Oh, there were always those last minute accessories to pick up, perhaps a new wig or some fishnet stockings, and the gumbo and red beans to finish cooking, but the Monday preceeding Carnival Day didn’t hold much excitement especially considering what was to come.
The Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club changed all that when it began presenting its music, food and fun-filled Lundi Gras Festival along the Mississippi River. Now celebrating its 21st anniversary, the all-day event, March 3, 2014 from 10 am until 6 pm, draws people from around the corner and around the world.
“This is more of a carnival atmosphere than most festivals – you really get the feeling that Mardi Gras is here,” says vocalist Michael “Soulman” Baptiste, who makes his first appearance as a headliner at this edition of the fest. Several years ago, the talented New Orleans soulman made a guest appearance with trumpeter/vocalist James Andrews and Andrews will return the favor at Baptiste’s set at 12:15 p.m. on Monday. (Next up on the King Zulu Stage are vocalist/violinist Amanda Shaw, Kermit Ruffins & the Barbeque Swingers and the Rebirth Brass Band).
Baptiste, who attends the festival regularly, particularly enjoys the Zulu characters that wander around and are introduced at the festival grounds. He dug it when the Governor and the Big Shot came on stage while he performed with Andrews.
Naturally, soul music is on the menu when Baptiste and his band are in the house. It’s a tight, sharply dressed unit that brings on some impeccable, old school choreography to work with the classics from the likes of Otis Redding, James Brown, Wilson Pickett and Bobby Womack. “It is going to be high-energy, non-stop,” Baptiste declares. “We believe in tying the music together in such a way that we can take an individual who is not interested to go from ignoring the music to being excited about music. That’s our gift.”
There’s a saying that everybody has a story and Baptiste is no exception. The powerful singer comes from a rich musical family that includes his uncle, pianist/xylophonist Howard Mandolph who performed with the Duke Ellington Orchestra. His uncle, Henry Grass Sr. and cousin Henry Glass Jr. played with one of this city’s oldest and most respected ensembles, the Eureka Brass Band. Harry Sr. played bass drum and his son played snare and trumpet until his father’s death when he took up the bass. Henry Jr. also went on to play with the Olympia Brass Band.
“The person who influenced me the most,” Baptiste says, “was my godmother, Shirley Goodman (of Shirley and Lee “Let the Good Times Roll” fame). She was always in the house singing to me.”
Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of Baptiste’s life and career is the dramatic change he was forced to adjust to following a medical procedure. “When I was younger, I was a falsetto singer,” he explains, adding that in high school he was with a group called the Mystics that still exists today. “We started out as a street corner a cappella group doing doo-wop. We were doing mostly high-pitched material from Smokey Robinson, the Stylistics and the Delfonics.
Baptiste was diagnosed with sleep apnea caused by a uvula that obstructed his breathing and required surgery.
“It was very scary,” he admits, saying that afterward his voice was altered and falsetto gone. “I didn’t sing for 15 years. I couldn’t make the connection between the sound that was coming out of my mouth and the sound I was hearing in my head. It was like playing the flute all of your life and then picking up a trumpet. They are two wind instruments that demand a different type of breathing, a different type of control.”
During this time, Baptiste, who spent his youth in the Tremé neighborhood before his family moved to the 7th Ward, was living in Philadelphia. He moved back to his hometown in 2000 and formed his band in 2006. He sees soul music’s ability to endure despite an ever-changing musical world because it can transcend beyond language, age, race or culture. “We are communicating through our soul to another soul – soul-to-soul. It moves all of the clutter that gets in the way when people want to communicate. Music gets it done.”
Another side of Baptiste that perhaps some fans of his music might not realize is that he comes from a family that was very tied to the Mardi Gras Indians and especially the Yellow Pocahontas. Baptiste’s uncle, Ray “Big Chief Hatchet” Blazio was the spyboy of the Yellow Pocahontas under noted chief Tootie Montana before he formed his own gang, the Wild Apache in 1990.
“I grew up sewing on the costumes and participating in the whole Indian tradition,” says Baptiste, who never masked Indian himself though he did wear a suit when he would present workshops on the culture during his travels. “I’ve always wanted to mask,” he offers. “The sun hasn’t gone done on that idea yet. It’s on my bucket list.”
On Carnival Day, Baptiste says his first stop is always the Indians and, because of his ties to the Yellow Pocahontas, he’ll head to Chief Daryl Montana’s home on North Villere before going to the Indian gathering spot at North Claiborne and Orleans avenues. “I will blend into the crowd and take in all that Mardi Gras has to offer,” he says enthusiastically. “I’ll check out the truck parade on Canal Street and do a walk through Bourbon Street – I start at one end and go all the way to the other end.”
“Bring your dancing shoes,” suggests Baptiste of what to expect at his premiere at the Zulu Lundi Gras Festival. Sounds like they could come in handy when the vocalist and his band get a line dance going with their original, “New Orleans Second Line, Yes Indeed,” which he describes as the first ever second line/line dance song. Sounds just right for the occasion. Happy Lundi Gras!
For more information and the complete musical schedule, go to www.lundigrasfestival.com.
This article originally published in the February 24, 2014 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.