J A Z Z M O P O L I T A N M A G A Z I N E
SWAMP FUNKby Caspar Melville
(taken from the CD-ROM portion of the Coolin Off Enhanced CD)
Ya'll will all be familiar by now with the story of New Orleans as the birth place of jazz. Traditional African rhythms and melodies survived the slave ships and were transformed into work songs and wailing rural blues, hitched a ride down the Mississippi from the plantation-studded savannahs of the Carolinas, Georgia, Alabama, jumped ship in this thriving port town with gentile European aspirations and a vivid underbelly of New World debauchery, hooked up with Caribbean rhythms, consorted with the multifarious gods of Vudun, hooked up with a surplus of post-war military marching band instruments, paraded down the streets in pompadoured celebrations of death and rebirth, passed a few words with the painted ladies of Bourbon street, breathed a lung-full of that fecund swamp air and exploded in an orgasm of jis, Jass: Jazz. This we know.
Much less well-known is the influence New Orleans has had on the funk. When most people think funk it is James Brown (Georgia) and George Clinton (Detroit), Sly Stone (San Francisco) and War (L.A.), Ohio Players (you guessed it!) and ConFunkShun (Vallejo). New Orleans barely got a mention in the funk segment of Public Television's recent history of popular music ("The History of Rock") -- and they certainly didn't mention Earl Palmer as the inventor of the backbeat -- which is a pity and an historical oversight needing correction. For not only is New Orleans a funky place, in every sense of this flexible concept- smelly, sexual, groovy, dangerous - it is the funky place, and its music, its militaristic parade rhythms, its hip-swinging saunter, its swampiness is the aural embodiment of the concept of funk.
New Orleans is built on a swamp, and you can't forget this when you're there. Even in the February chill which usually accompanies Mardi Gras the air is sagging with moisture, cold and humid. Once the brief winter passes, and the torrential tropical rains subside the city settles into an almost unbearable dankness like an overweight bookie lowering his ample flanks into a steam bath. In New Orleans even the walls sweat; odors hang in the air like rotten steaks draped over washing lines. It's not just the portly cops whose armpits are ringed with sweat- everyone is melting. The air has the texture of a mildewed cellar. You cannot rush in New Orleans, hell if you're not a native you can barely breathe, so you take it s-l-o-w. You ride the night like the prince of darkness (it's no coincidence that New Orleans is home base for novelist Ann Rice's vampire stories). You drink heavily to escape the heat. And the soundtrack? Well that's straight up swamp funk. Smelly, greasy, fat (phat) and lowdown as a grave robber, New Orleans specializes in alligator funk thick as gumbo and nourishing as a barbecue shrimp po-boy.
The musical origins of New Orleans funk lie in the tradition of 'second-line'. This unique cultural tradition stems from the traditional distinct method of celebrating life when mourning death. Richard Williams, in his liner notes to 'The Best Of The Meters' (1975, Island Records) explains:" The 'second-line' is the group of mourners which follow the band in a traditional New Orleans funeral ceremony. On the way to the ceremony, the band plays sober dirges. On the way back, though, the tempo is tripled and the mourners dance through the streets, joyfully purging their sorrow in physical expression. "In a 1975 interview with Downbeat magazine the legendary Doctor John explains the fine distinction between 'second-line' and the Afro Cuban rhythms which predate it:"See, in the basic Afro Cuban music, one is established as the beat and everything after that is basically free. In Latin music one is the hit and is always established and everybody plays around it. But in second-line the beat is four/one, and there are two accents, as opposed to the one in Latin." (Downbeat, May 22 1975).
This 'second-line' rhythm forms the root for the basic funk backbeat, a beat which can be heard in any number of rock, R&B and pop recordings. The 'second-line' rhythmic tradition entered commercial music with Professor Longhair and 'Fats' Domino, passing on through Chris Kenner and Ernie K-Doe, until by the mid sixties, the 'second-line' beat was drifting up out of New Orleans like a deadly swamp fever. Motown copped whole chunks of New Orleans beat for many of it's sixties pop hits. New Orleans drummers Charles Williams and Leo Morris (who changed his name to Idris Muhammed upon his conversion to Islam) took the 'second-line' groove into the mainstream jazz world where Muhammed in particular anchored a whole decade of funky soul jazz recordings on Blue Note, Prestige and Fantasy. But the second-line groove still found its purest expression in swamp funk the music of the heavyweight native New Orleans "R&B" bands like The Meters, The Neville Brothers, Doctor John and Chocolate Milk.
The center of swamp funk production was musician/producer Allen Toussaint and his engineer/partner in crime Marshall Sehorn, and later their Sea-Saint recording studios. Toussaint had made his name writing and producing hits for the Minit label for artists like Ernie K-Doe, Bennie Spellman and Lee Dorsey. The session band on many of these recordings included drummer Joseph 'Zigaboo' Modeliste, bassist George Porter, guitarist Leo Nocentelli and pianist Art Neville. It wasn't until the late 1960's that these four formed into an actual band. They called themselves The Meters. Their stripped-down sound minimized solos and vocals in favor of establishing the heaviest groove. The Meters epitomize the insistent simplicity of New Orleans rhythm. Their first two singles 'Sophisticated Cissy' and 'Cissy Strut' were sizable hits. The Meters went on the record a series of brilliant albums. For two years running they were voted #1 instrumental R&B band by Billboard, but the true measure of their importance lies in the way their distinctive drum and bass combinations. Ziggy's rock hard snare percussions trading off with Porter's pounding bass figures have endured in the music of everyone from Parliament to The Brand New Heavies to Galactic. And of course The Meters' 'Just Kissed My Baby' is only the funkiest song ever recorded.
In the footsteps of The Meters, sporting a fuller sound which featured a horn section and group vocals, but which nonetheless pivoted on the same deep funk, came the eight- piece band Chocolate Milk. Another Sea-Saint production project, Chocolate Milk featured a pair of brothers (bassist Ernest and pianist Robert Dabon), drummer Dwight Richards and his vocalist brother Frank, together with Joseph Smith III (trumpet), Amadee Castenell Jr. (Sax), Mario Tio (guitar) and Kenneth Williams (percussion). In the mid to late seventies Chocolate Milk rattled off a stream of desperately funky LPs including &;We Are In This Together' (1977, which included the hit 'Grand Theft') but their pre-eminent masterwork remains the 1975 album 'Action Speaks Louder Than Words' which included not only the classic title track but psychedelic swamp funk like 'People', 'My Mind Is Hazy' and 'Time Machine'.
Throughout the sixties and seventies other artists like Mac Rebennack (a.k.a. Dr. John), The Neville brothers (a band composed of Meter man Art Neville and his brothers - saxophonist brother Charles, the sweet-voiced Aaron, and percussionist and ex-Meters vocalist Cyrille), and a parade of local funk legends like Eddie Bo / Chuck Carbo, Earl and Willie ("Willie Tee") Turbinton and their Gaturs recorded multiple bluesy, country and soul-tinged variations on the 'second-line' pattern. For a blues drenched hoodoo trip hop variation on the theme check out Dr. John 'I Walk On Gilded Splinters&;. For the embodiment of 'second-line' soul try Aaron Neville's gorgeous 'Hercules'. And for the straight-up gut bucket funk Eddie Bo's 'Check Your Bucket' is required listening.
As disco suffocated American rhythm and Blues in the late seventies, so bands like The Meters and Chocolate Milk signed their own death warrants by attempting to ride the glittering disco crest- to be dashed back on the beach once the craze subsided. Nevertheless the contribution to the development of funk made by the Sea-Saint axis is impossible to overestimate. New Orleans second line is the essence of funk, and without Allen Toussaint and Marshall Sehorn, without the New Orleans martial drumming of Idris Muhammed, without The Meters, Chocolate Milk and The Neville Brothers there would be no funk, or rare groove, no acid jazz, no Hip hop. Sea-Saint studios is still running, still presided over by mssrs Toussaint and Sehorn, and you can even catch a kind of Meters show if you live anywhere near San Francisco ('Zigaboo' Modeliste plays the old tunes with some new faces). But more important the sweat of New Orleans, that bizarre fonk of Afro-Caribbean good-time hoochie-coochie, still stinks up every tune with some trace of that solid four/one beat. And the legacy lives on most strongly in those latter day sons of the Crescent city, in the gritty authentic New Orleans swamp funk of Galactic.
Copyright © 1995 Fog City Productions. Design by Fog City Graphics.