Various Artists: The Rough Guide to the Music of New Orleans
Although they neglect women and rappers, the World Music Network succeeds in whetting the appetite for more of the NOLA sound.
It’s impossible to capture the spirit of a whole city’s music on a disc or two. But that is an uncharacteristically small-minded goal for the World Music Network, whose recent Rough Guide releases have attempted to encapsulate the music of entities much larger than cities, such as psychedelic Africa, Celtic women, and Morocco. The Rough Guide series has now set its sights on New Orleans, which is part of the 46th largest metropolitan area in the United States. While this seems like good news from the perspective of the World Music Network – giving it a chance to escape the Celts, and to explore a smaller place as New Orleans surely has one of the richest musical cultures of any metropolitan area in the world. In addition to being hailed as the birthplace of jazz, it has also spawned nationally successful and creative musicians in every imaginable musical genre: blues players like Guitar Slim, soul singers like Irma Thomas, Aaron Neville, and Lee Dorsey, funksters such as the Meters, hip-hop from Cash Money Records, numerous formidable brass bands, and genre-hopping figures like Allen Toussaint and Doctor John, to name just a few. Musicians who are not from New Orleans frequently try to add some NOLA flavor to their songs -- Modest Mouse featured the Dirty Dozen Brass Band on songs on Good News For People Who Love Bad News; Allen Toussaint wrote the horn parts for Elvis Costello’s Spike, and they later collaborated on an album after Hurricane Katrina. Those are just the national musical figures; there are also the local New Orleans musical institutions, the parades, Mardi Gras. So once again, World Music Network has assigned itself a formidable task.
Assuming that a single disc can only introduce the listener to the tiniest slice of New Orleans, The Rough Guide to the Music of New Orleans does a passable job. There are tracks from many well-known figures – Dr. John, Kermit Ruffins, Professor Longhair – as well as a sampling of brass bands, a cut of bluesy jazz made famous by Louis Armstrong, a wave in the direction of Latin music with a song from Los Hombres Calientes, Mardi Gras tunes and tunes for horn lines. A few songs were hits in their day, like the Meters' “Look-Ka Py Py,” a well-known New Orleans export. “Look-Ka Py Py” is largely wordless, starting with some chanting. The guitar and bass lock into a rhythm, working around it with the help of an organ, the beat is curling and shifty, leisurely but not lacking in momentum, funky but not flashy. Released in 1970, the Meters were developing a style of funk different from the other strands of funk popular at the time -- the decadence of Isaac Hayes and Curtis Mayfield or the edge of James Brown.
Professor Longhair’s “Big Chief” is nearly legendary, full of sparkling piano twinkle, high whistling almost like catcalls, and thick horns (It is worth hearing Dr. John’s version, not on this album, which is driven by organ and chicken scratch guitar). The New Orleans Nightcrawlers, Papa Grows Funk, and the Hot 8 Brass Band showcase the power of NOLA brass. The Hot 8 Brass Band cover of “Sexual Healing” is particularly noteworthy, turning Marvin Gaye’s slinky early '80s hit into a heavy juggernaut. At the beginning of the song, someone mimics Gaye’s whisper -- “Wake up!” -- but it would be impossible not to get up in a hurry once the horns get going. Rather than a single seduction, this is a jubilant group revel. Throughout all the music on this disc, there is a strong and inviting group feel – collective singing and chanting, call and response.
The second disc in the collection (a bonus disc) is filled entirely with songs by the contemporary New Orleans band Dumpstaphunk. They favor a heavier approach to funk, not as buoyant, often sacrificing elasticity and flexibility to emphasize power. It is odd that the bonus disc is limited to one band’s material since the purpose is to introduce the world to as many NOLA musical cultures as possible. And the first disc is hardly a complete guide; inevitably, there is much that is left out. Two omissions seem particularly egregious: First, there are hardly any women on the disc. Surely greats like Irma Thomas or Barbara George merit inclusion; In addition, there's no rap, despite the fact that New Orleans is well known for its own brand of hip-hop, bounce music, and successful rap labels.
The collection seems largely stuck on musical traditions pioneered in the past, failing to acknowledge the constantly changing, endlessly innovative nature of the New Orleans music scene; for example, a brass band like the Soul Rebels Brass Band frequently raps over its horn arrangements. But The Rough Guide to the Music of New Orleans succeeds in whetting the appetite for more of the NOLA sound. It is well worth pursuing the albums of any or all of the artists included in this compilation, as well as the work of their predecessors, contemporaries, comrades, and admirers.