In New Orleans, Mardis Gras is more than just a series of festive parades early in the year. The culture of the Mardis Gras Indians is part of the social fabric of the city - a way of connecting the neighborhoods and passing folklore down to the children.
"Every neighborhood has a Mardi Gras Indian tribe in it, and when the whole neighborhood gets together, you can have up to 20 and 30 members," said drummer and singer Cyril Neville, the youngest of the legendary Neville brothers. "This is a year-round thing. It's a family tradition, and something that's passed down from generation to generation."
Cyril Neville and his brothers have been recording and documenting the call-and-response musical traditions of the Mardi Gras Indians since 1955, when their uncle, Big Chief Jolly, began introducing them to the customs. Since then, of course, the Neville Brothers have achieved international acclaim as one of the standard-bearers of the New Orleans sound.
Neville has played percussion for The Neville Brothers and The Meters, and has also led his own creation, The Uptown Allstars, since 1983. That's when he created "second-line reggae," after famously listening to Bob Marley's "Natty Dread" album for 15 straight days in his room.
Neville and the Uptown Allstars, with Big Chief Monk Boudreaux and Joseph Hill of the Golden Eagles tribe of the Mardi Gras Indians, will close the 19th annual Jazz and Classics festival at 8 p.m. Saturday, May 28, at Centennial Hall. Tickets are $25 for general admission, $20 for students and seniors and available at Hearthside Books or jazzandclassics.org.
19th annual jazz & classics schedule
noon, state office building. brown bag concert with evan drachman, cello; steven heyman, piano. free.
7 p.m., tenakee springs. resident ensemble with evan drachman, cello; gwen thompson, violin and steven heyman, piano.
7 p.m., anb hall. family concert with trout fishing in america. $15 general admission, $5 kids 12 and under.
noon, nugget mall. brown bag concert with christopher kenniff, guitar. free.
8 p.m., anb hall. larry coryell trio. $20 adults, $16 students, seniors.
10 a.m., uas egan library, drum clinic with paul wertico; guitar clinic with larry coryell.
11 a.m.-5 p.m., uas. community day on campus. free.
8 p.m., centennial hall. cyril neville & the uptown allstars with big chief monk and joeseph hill of the golden eagles. $25 general admission, $20 students and seniors.
"We're always culturally centered with the Mardi Gras Indians theme, and we are the keepers of the uptown funk," Neville said. "That's an honor to be able to ask people to dance, but have lyrics that make people think at the same time. And the whole emphasis is on getting funky. We're talking about when you hug somebody else, the funk stays in them. That's what it's all about, making a joyful noise."
Juneau got more than a taste of the New Orleans sound last year, when The Dirty Dozen Brass Band played the Jazz and Classics finale at Juneau-Douglas High School auditorium. Coincidentally, The Neville Brothers and the Dirty Dozen Brass Band played together Monday in a festival in Dallas.
"It's all based around the culture of the city," Neville said. "What you're talking about is stuff that's happening among poor, black people. This is not something that only happens at Mardi Gras, Carnival time. This is a year-round means of a community staying together and raising their children with proper morals to bring them into adulthood as worthy citizens."
Neville is the youngest of six siblings. He was born Oct. 10, 1948, to Amelia and Arthur Neville. As the story goes, Fats Domino's drummer, Clarence "Juny Boy" Brown, introduced him to drumming. Aaron Neville's wife, Joel, encouraged him to sing. Cyril Neville's first professional band, Art Neville and the Neville Sounds, formed in 1967 and included Cyril, Aaron and Art Neville, George Porter Jr. (bass), Zigaboo Modeliste (drums), Leo Nocentelli (guitar) and Gary Brown (saxophone). Art, Zigaboo, Leo and George soon split off to form The Meters, while Cyril and Aaron assembled the Soul Machine. Cyril Neville later joined The Meters.
In 1976, Neville and three of his brothers, Aaron, Art and Charles, joined their uncle, Big Chief Jolly of the Wild Tchoupitoulas, at Sea-Saint Studios with legendary New Orleans producers Marshall Sehorn and Alan Toussaint. They recorded the 35-minute, self-titled "The Wild Tchoupitoulas" album, which is considered today one of the foremost documentations of Mardi Gras Indian music.
It was also the first time all four of the Neville brothers had been in the studio together, an experience that led to the formation of The Neville Brothers as a band.
"The record itself has always been critically acclaimed as a musically groundbreaking record and just culturally iconoclastic," Neville said. "But you can go back further to Sugar Boy Crawford's version of 'Jockamo,' which is considered one of the earliest recorded versions of Mardi Gras Indian music, and you can go even further back to 1947 to Danny Barker's version of 'Indian Red.'
"There is a tried and true tradition of playing the music as a way of passing on folklore," he said. "A lot of the songs are about people who danced as Mardi Gras Indians and aren't with us anymore. It's not just a bunch of people putting feathers on during Mardi Gras."
Big Chief Monk Boudreaux is the chief of the Golden Eagles tribe of the Mardi Gras Indians, and Hill is a Lakota Sioux. The current incarnation of the Uptown Allstars includes: Mean Willie Green (drums), a member of The Neville Brothers and the Uptown Allstars for more than 20 years; Nick Daniels (bass and vocals), a member of The Neville Brothers and Ivan Neville's band; Cyril Neville's wife, Gayneille Neville (percussion and vocals); Norman Caesar (keyboards), Neville's nephew; and guitar player Makuni Fukuda.
"This is something that stems from the days when black people in America were slaves, and the Native Americans embraced us in the sense that we were welcomed into their midst when our European foes were against us," Neville said. "The whole idea of it is to pay homage to the redman for reaching out to us."
Saturday's show will include songs from the Uptown Allstars, a few Meters songs, probably some old Wild Tchoupitoulas selections and a song or two from Neville's recent solo record, "Just for the Funk of It."
"The funk is definitely alive, and I'm talking about the New Orleans funk," he said. "We're going to bring some of that all the way to Juneau. The funk is going to stay there. It's going to linger in the air for a while, and I hope that we leave a real good impression."