Plenty of songs about “the wild” aren’t wild at all. (“Born To Be Wild”? “Wild World”? “Wild At Heart”? No.) But I did once experience a song that was shockingly like landing on some wild shore and hearing the calls of strange people in the woods. It was the early 1980s, I was living in North Carolina, and Scott Ainslie had just passed me a tape of unidentified origin, strictly as “you’ll want to hear this.”
Good Lord! Who are these guys, and by what occult synthesis do their sounds come together such that I don’t so much hear the music as have it continually dawn on me that it really is music?
Not long afterward, by a twist of fate, I took a job in Mississippi in 1985 and found myself living in the New Orleans cultural zone amongst people who eat po’ boys and listen to the Neville Brothers and go on pilgrimage to Mardi Gras every year where the Wild Tchoupitoulas, one of the “Mardi Gras Indian” gangs, are a beloved part of the show. They’re found not in some forest but on LaSalle Street.
The forest idea is relevant, though, because part of their legend is that in the old days slaves of African origin did run away into the woods and lived with Native Americans.
Back to the music: I now realize I was hearing in “Brother John” a pure, simple form of New Orleans funk, two triplets followed by a two (accents in bold) dropped over four regular beats, not jazzily bouncing (à la “Sing, Sing, Sing”) but stickily marching:
We’re familiar with this pattern. Compare the more elaborate New Orleans beat of Dr. John’s famous “Iko Iko”:
But the Wild Tchoupitoulas’ polyrhythm is a little more slow and zigzag so that it seems it’s always being invented all over again, the inventors running a big risk: will this sound like a rude assembly of people shouting in the woods, or will it rock?
It’s risky music, and yet no music is more down-home. They’re these guys:
I wrote the above because Mardi Gras is right around the corner. It occurs to me also that the topic could be set at a slightly different angle and we’d be contemplating the roots/reggae ideal of the Authentic Collective—whoever lives around here, whoever shows up—spontaneously calling out to each other and forming a music of our own on the spot.
Now my thoughts go straight to Ry Cooder, who devoted the best years of his life to implementing that ideal, and his masterpiece Paradise and Lunch. I listen again and I rediscover a terrible thing: apparently someone thought “The Tattler” could be a hit, and they slathered strings over the wonderfully loose, lunging guitar and vocal and percussion parts to try to make it “flow better”! Hear the opposite models of music at war:
In the next track, though, all’s right again in Cooderland.