Galactic's 'Carnivale Electricos' makes one big party
Galactic’s 'Carnivale Electricos' combines New Orleans’ Mardi Gras tradition and Brazil’s Carnaval celebration.
It’s Mardi Gras in New Orleans. It’s Carnaval in Rio. Beads are being thrown, tails are being shaken. Parades are rolling through the streets in blowouts bidding “farewell to the flesh” before Ash Wednesday brings on Lenten austerity. And there’s much flesh being celebrated.
Sure, the respective revelries and all their fleshly displays are well known around the world. But it would seem that not everyone realizes that Mardi Gras and Carnaval are the same thing, just from different branches of the Catholic tree — New Orleans with its French origins and Brazil being Portuguese. Even the fact that Mardi Gras in New Orleans is often referred to as carnival.
“I didn’t really put it together,” says Robert Mercurio. “I’ve lived in New Orleans since 1990. But it took me a while to connect the dots.”
Those dots are connected, colorfully, by the veteran New Orleans band Galactic on the album “Carnivale Electricos,” released Tuesday. Mercurio is the quintet’s bassist and, with sax player Ben Ellman, co-producer of the album. Arguably it’s the culmination of the group’s 18-year evolution from purveyors of party funk in the tradition of the Meters to an imaginative unit using studio savvy, a wide variety of guest stars and, of course, its own estimable skills to create lively, impressionistic portraits of New Orleans’ spirit.
After having explored sounds of various New Orleans neighborhoods on its last two studio albums, 2007’s “From the Corner to the Block” (heavy on hip-hop and its local, often transgender variant called bounce) and 2010’s “Ya-Ka-May” (the title referring to a New Orleans ramen noodle concoction used to cure hangovers), the band decided it was finally time to do a Mardi Gras album. But the musicians wanted to do something that really stood out from the dozens, if not hundreds, of Fat Tuesday collections already out there.
“When we came up with the concept, Brazil was an obvious choice to include,” Mercurio says. “New Orleans seemed too specific and adding Brazil made for more possibilities. So the band started listening to tons of Brazilian music and we all fell in love with it.”
Not that they turned their back on their home city. The album kicks off as does Fat Tuesday itself, with a variation on the chants of the Mardi Gras Indians — the distinct subculture of African American “tribes” that compete with costumes and songs. And there are guest appearances by several top local figures, including rap stars Mystikal (his first recording after a prison stint) and Manny Fresh, two generations of the Neville family (Cyril and Ivan, on a new Galactic Mardi Gras anthem, “Out in the Streets”) and Al “Carnival Time” Johnson (a dynamic reimagining of the anthem he wrote and first recorded 50 years ago). And, crucially, the youth marching bands — the heart and soul of all the parades that roll for weeks before Mardi Gras — are represented by the KIPP Renaissance High School marching band on the song “Karate.”
But Galactic drummer Stanton Moore, it turned out, was already deep into Brazilian rhythms and embraced that part of the concept from the start. The others — Mercurio, Ellman, keyboardist Rich Vogel and guitarist Jeff Raines — caught up quickly.
The two cultures meet explicitly on two songs: First is a version of “Magalenha,” originally an international hit by Sergio Mendes with vocalist Carlinhos Brown, here featuring the New Orleans percussion ensemble Casa Samba. And then there’s “O Côco da Galinha,” a collaboration with Moyséis Márques, a young star of the São Paolo underground samba scene. The album also sports three instrumental tracks that place Brazilian sounds in New Orleans settings. And, in truth, the new influences infiltrated all the songs on the album.
To pull it off live, Galactic will have former Living Colour singer Corey Glover on-board for its upcoming tour, including a March 29 stop at the El Rey Theatre in Los Angeles, with members of the co-billed Soul Rebels Brass Band — another New Orleans favorite — joining in on some numbers. They’re also hoping to find Brazilian singers in cities along the tour to step up for “Magalenha.”
Music and culture historian Ned Sublette, who traced the city’s many strands of African, Caribbean and European roots in his insightful book “The World That Made New Orleans,” sees the Crescent City and Rio celebrations as the “alpha and omega” of the Western Hemisphere’s pre-Lent carnival traditions. The ties aren’t direct, as they are between New Orleans and Haiti, for example. But they are there.
“They outline the historically Catholic part of the Americas,” says Sublette, who also wrote the album’s liner notes. “The part where the heavy drum tradition comes from, the part where a more explicitly African culture comes from, the part where whole towns shut down entirely on the day before Ash Wednesday because the partying is so intense. On this day, all down the hemisphere from New Orleans to Brazil — with stops in Haiti, Trinidad, Colombia, etc. — people are all partying at the same moment, and nothing can stop it. Space collapses into time. It’s a hemispheric bacchanal, but it also has an important spiritual aspect, signified in New Orleans by the Mardi Gras Indians.”
Taken as a whole, “Carnivale Electricos” is the grand sweep of the experience, as if you’re standing on a corner witnessing all the parades of Mardi Gras season passing before you.
“It kind of turns into Mardi Gras day,” says Mercurio. “You go through all the little parts of town within New Orleans on the album. And if you could transport to Brazil. That’s the thing we came to realize, that there are so many different ways to celebrate carnival — and Carnaval. And we tried to capture all the different music types we felt made up the celebration, though through the hazy Galactic lens.”
Photo: Galactic Credit: Zach Smith