It’s incredible that GALACTIC has never made a carnival album yet, but now it’s here.
To make CARNIVALE ELECTRICOS, the members of GALACTIC (Ben Ellman, harps and
horns; Robert Mercurio, bass; Stanton Moore, drums and percussion; Jeff Raines,
guitar; Rich Vogel, keyboards) draw on the skills, stamina, and funk they deploy in the
all-night party of their annual Lundi Gras show that goes till sunrise and leads
sleeplessly into Mardi Gras day.
GALACTIC was formed eighteen years ago in New Orleans, and they cut their teeth
playing the biggest party in America: Mardi Gras, when the town shuts down entirely
to celebrate. CARNIVALE ELECTRICOS is beyond a party record. It’s a carnival record
that evokes the electric atmosphere of a whole city – make that, whole cities –
vibrating together all on the same day, from New Orleans all down the hemisphere to
the mighty megacarnivals of Brazil. Armed with a slew of carnival-ready guests—
including Cyril and Ivan Neville, Mystikal, Mannie Fresh, Moyseis Marques, Casa Samba,
the KIPP Renaissance High School Marching Band, and Al “Carnival Time” Johnson (who
remakes his all-time hit)—GALACTIC whisks the listener around the neighborhoods to
feel the Mardi Gras moment in all its variety of flavors.
CARNIVALE ELECTRICOS begins on a spiritual note, the way Mardi Gras does in the
black community of New Orleans. On that morning, the most exciting experience you
can have is to be present when the small groups of black men called Mardi Gras
Indians perform their sacred street theater. Nobody embodies the spiritual side of
Mardi Gras better than the Indians, whose tambourines and chants provide the
fundament of New Orleans carnival music. These ―gangs,‖ as they call them, organize
around and protect the figure of their chief. The album’s keynote singer, BIG CHIEF
JUAN PARDO, is, says Robert Mercurio, ―one of the younger Chiefs out there, and he’s become one of the best voices of the new Chiefs. Pardo grew up listening to the
singing of the older generation of Big Chiefs, points out Ben Ellman, and ―he’s got a
little Monk [Boudreaux], a little Bo Dollis, he’s neither uptown nor downtown.‖
On ―Karate,‖ says Ellman, the band was aiming to ―capture the power‖ of one of the
fundamental musical experiences of Mardi Gras: ―a marching band passing by you.‖
The 40-piece KIPP Renaissance High School Marching Band’s director arranged up
GALACTIC’s demo, then the band rehearsed it until they had it all memorized. The
kids poured their hearts into a solid performance, and, says Mercurio, ―I think they
were surprised‖ to hear how good they sounded on the playback.
Musical energy is everywhere at carnival time. ―You hear the marching bands go by,‖
says Mercurio, moving us through a Mardi Gras day, ―and then you hear a lot of
hiphop.‖ There hasn’t been a Mardi Gras for twenty years that hasn’t had a banging
track by beatmaker / rapper MANNIE FRESH sounding wherever you go. ―You can’t talk
about New Orleans hiphop without talking about MANNIE FRESH,‖ says Ellman. His
beats have powered literally tens of millions of records, and he and GALACTIC have
been talking for years about doing something together. On ―Move Fast,‖ he’s together
with multiplatinum gravel-voiced rapper MYSTIKAL, who is, says Ellman, ―somebody
we’ve wanted to collaborate with forever. It was a coup for us.‖
Out in the streets of New Orleans, you might well hear a funky kind of samba, reaching
southward toward the other end of the hemispheric carnival zone. There has for the
last twenty-five years been a smoking Brazilian drum troupe in town: CASA SAMBA,
formed at Mardi Gras in 1986. They’re old friends of GALACTIC’s from their early days
at Frenchmen Street’s Café Brasil, and the two groups joined forces for a new version
of Carlinhos Brown’s ―Magalenha,‖ previously a hit for Sérgio Mendes.
But the Brazilian influence on CARNIVALE ELECTRICOS goes beyond one song. ―When
we started this album, we all immersed ourselves in Brazilian music and let it get into
our souls,‖ says Mercurio. The group contributed three Brazilian-flavored
instrumentals, including ―JuLou,‖ which riffs on an old Brazilian tune, though the
name refers to the brass-funk Krewe of Julu, the ―walking krewe‖ that Galactic
members participate in on Mardi Gras morning. After creating the hard-driving track
that became ―O Côco da Galinha,‖ they decided it would be right for MOYSÉIS
MÁRQUEZ, from the São Paulo underground samba scene, who collaborated with them
and composed the lyric.
If you were GALACTIC and you were making a carnival album, wouldn’t you want to
play ―Carnival Time,‖ the irrepressibly happy 1960 perennial from the legendary
Cosimo Matassa studio? Nobody in New Orleans doesn’t know this song. The remake
features a new performance in the unmistakable voice of the original singer, AL
―CARNIVAL TIME‖ JOHNSON, who’s still active around town more than fifty years after
he first gained Mardi Gras immortality.
The closing instrumental, ,―Ash Wednesday Sunrise,‖ evokes the edginess of the postparty feeling. The group writes, ―There is the tension you feel on that morning — one
of being worn out from all of the festivities and one of elation that you made it
through another year.
But, as New Orleanians know, there’s always another carnival to look forward to, and
GALACTIC will be there, playing till dawn and then going to breakfast before parading.
GALACTIC is a collaborative band with a unique format. It’s a stable quintet that plays
together with high musicianship. They’ve been together so long they’re telepathic.
But though the band hasn’t had a lead singer for years, neither is it purely an
instrumental group. GALACTIC is part of a diverse community of musicians, and in
their own studio, with Mercurio and Ellman producing, they have the luxury of
experimenting. So on their albums, they do something that’s unusual in rock but not so
controversial an idea in, say, hiphop: they create something that’s a little like a
revue, a virtual show featuring different vocalists (mostly from New Orleans) and
instrumental soloists each taking their turn on stage in the GALACTIC sound universe.
Mostly the band creates new material in collaboration with its many guests, though
they occasionally rework a classic. Despite the appearance of various platinum names
on GALACTIC albums, they especially like to work with artists who are still
underground. If you listen to CARNIVALE ELECTRICOS together with the two previous
studio albums (YA-KA-MAY and FROM THE CORNER TO THE BLOCK), you’ll hear the
most complete cross-section of what’s happening in contemporary New Orleans
anywhere – all of it tight and radio-ready.
Despite the electronics and studio technology, GALACTIC’s albums are very much band
records. Mercurio explained the GALACTIC process, which starts out with the beat:
―The way we write music,‖ he says, ―we come up with a demo, or a basic track, and
then we collectively decide how we’re gonna finish it.‖ The result is a hard-grooving
sequence of tight beats across a range of styles that glides from one surprise to the
What pulls all the diverse artists on CARNIVALE ELECTRICOS together into a coherent
album is that one way or another, it’s all funk. GALACTIC is, always was, and always
will be a funk band. Whatever genre of music anyone in New Orleans is doing, from
Mardi Gras Indians to rock bands to hardcore rappers, it’s all funk at the bottom,
because funk is the common musical language, the lingua franca of New Orleans
music. Even zydeco can be funky — and if you don’t believe it, check out ―Voyage Ton
Flag,‖ the album’s evocation of Cajun Mardi Gras, in which Mamou Playboy STEVE
RILEY meets up with a sampled Clifton Chenier inside the GALACTIC funk machine.