As if Truly Wild: The Wild Tchoupitoulas, “Brother John” (1976)

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.”

“Brother John”

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:

1..2..3..1..2..3..1..2..
1….….2….…3….…4….….

We’re familiar with this pattern.  Compare the more elaborate New Orleans beat of Dr. John’s famous “Iko Iko”:

“Iko Iko”

1..2..3..1..2..3..1..2..3..4..1..2..1..2..3..4..
1….….2….…3….…4…….1….….2….…3….…4….….

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:

“Indian Red”

*

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 wed be contemplating the roots/reggae ideal of the Authentic Collectivewhoever lives around here, whoever shows upspontaneously 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:

“The Tattler”

In the next track, though, all’s right again in Cooderland.

“Married Man’s A Fool”

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About Steve Smith

Professor of Philosophy & Religious Studies and Director of Film Studies at Millsaps College
This entry was posted in Identities, Rock Aesthetics, Time and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to As if Truly Wild: The Wild Tchoupitoulas, “Brother John” (1976)

  1. Richard says:

    Ry Cooder’s sound is very specific. He’s so firmly a part of that Beefheart/Zappa/Little Feet move – at least he was during the best years of his life – that he usually makes the act of embracing, yet transcending his influences look pretty easy. It’s all being run through the Cooder filter, whether it’s Mardi Gras Indian, Central American, Cuban, or what have you.

    Slightly off-topic (and I know I should probably post this on my own blog), but The Beefheart/Zappa/Little Feat/Cooder group seems very comfortable with polyrhythm. They have fun with it. Polyrhythm is “no big deal.” Compare that to bands like Yes, King Crimson, and Emerson, Lake & Palmer. These guys are very serious about their polyrhythm. They’re out to impress. They want you to see them sweat and to know how smart they are – music by guys for guys.

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