French, New Orleans musicians revive colonial-era language
With furrowed brows and fervent nods, the French and native American musicians were introducing a new form of jazz to New Orleans centered on a colonial trade language used by their ancestors.
There were no furs or beads on the table. Instead, the musicians were exchanging traditions to create a unique sound that hops from jazz standards to blues, to reggae to mellow, cymbal-heavy lounge music.
Holding it all together were the soulful chants of ancient folk tales and more modern stories told in Mobilian, a language once used by tribes across the Gulf of Mexico to communicate with each other and with the French traders.
The collaboration began a year ago after the Montpellier-based Mezcal Jazz Unit got a gig in the Big Easy.
“It’s like for a Muslim to go to Mecca,” Emmanuel de Gouvello, the band’s bass player and arranger said of his first — and too brief — visit to the birthplace of jazz.
An attache at the French consulate knew of the band’s interest in working with indigenous musicians and introduced them to Grayhawk Perkins, a staple of the Louisiana music scene and a member and historian of the Muskogeean nation.
Mezcal has collaborated with indigenous musicians all over the world, from Nigeria to Vietnam.
They aim to first understand the culture of their collaborators and then add their own “color” to it in a way that complements and preserves the traditional form, de Gouvello said.
“We have to do something that is not usual world music, you know, just putting some drums or electronics on it,” he told AFP. “We have to respect the tradition, but do something new.”
Perkins already blends modern music — mostly blues and funk — with indigenous chants in his Grayhawk Band and was eager to add a French influence to his repertoire.
“It was really intriguing for me to have him come in and say ‘Hey, I’d like to take that traditional [sound] and see what I can do,'” Perkins said.
“I can feel that French jazz style to it, which I don’t get here. I get more of that New Orleans jazz-funk style when I do my music.”
The cross-Atlantic collaboration blossomed with the help of online video chats and e-mail. Perkins would send a capella tunes as audio files, and de Gouvello would work on the instrumentation.
The ensemble settled on the name 13 Moons in a nod to the Muskogee calendar and created 13 songs which tell the tales of the different moons.
“Turkey Moon” tells how the spirits of elders are celebrated through a process similar to the Mexican Day of the Dead.
“Chestnut Moon” is about Native American and black musicians collaborating at Congo Square, a site where slaves and freedmen gathered in pre-Civil War New Orleans to create the sound that has evolved into contemporary regional music.
A few days before their first performance, they finally met in person and rehearsed intensely at a house Mezcal had rented on a grassy canal in New Orleans.
The current tour takes them across southeast Louisiana — 160 miles (250 kilometers) west to Lafayette, then across Lake Pontchartrain to a rural area known as the North Shore.
“My not-so-secret goal is to bring Grayhawk to France,” said Elizabeth Riley, who manages Mezcal Jazz Unit.
An album is also under discussion, but the future of 13 Moons is uncertain, depending largely on funding.
The three French band members play fretless bass, saxophone and a traditional drum kit. Perkins plays a handmade trio of canvas drums, brightly decorated with a water spider and other traditional symbols. Mark St. James of the Grayhawk Band lends them a psychedelic rock vibe with his guitar.
Most audience members will only recognize 13 Moons as jazz during the occasional drum or saxophone solo by Vivian Peres and Christophe Azema. But the band also employs jazz’s characteristic resistance to a traditional rock or blues structure.
Perkins appreciates that variety. He grew up in New Orleans, where the music of Africa, the Caribbean, America and Europe has always collided in an unusual way.
The biggest thrill of this collaboration, for him, was the opportunity to revive the Mobilian language as a vehicle to unify cultures.
“Here we are, doing almost exactly what our ancestors did 300 years ago. It’s pretty cool,” Perkins said.
“It’s definitely a historic moment.”