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“WWOZ”: these were the mysterious letters that a waitress from the Hotel Le Meridien, on 614 Canal Street, left a note for me on the back of a card. “If you like to listen to jazz, the Neville Brothers and these kinds of sounds, this is the station you have to listen to”. It was August of 1992 in New Orleans, known as the “the Big Easy”, in what meant for me an initiation trip that changed my vision about music forever.
Thirteen years later, Katrina came: 80% was under water when the dikes of Lake Pontchartrain broke. More than 1,800 dead, 182,000 buildings destroyed and half a million homes damaged. But, in spite of everything, and as Barack Obama affirmed on his visit he made there in 2010 on the fifth anniversary, the city had become a “symbol of resistance and communitarian sense”. The key was in the creativity, in the struggle to go forward through music.
The drama converted into a source of inspiration of an unending number of documentaries, books, albums and television series. The best example: “Treme”, an illustrious production from HBO that portrayed a Post-Katrina New Orleans which, in spite of the political and police corruption and urban speculation, had survived thanks to the greatest of its assets: its culture. Why not, WWOZ had an important role with the character of Davis McClary, based on Davis Rogan, a DJ at the station and leader of the group All That.
For years you can listen to WWOZ all over the world through internet, apart from multiplying their presence in social networks. And that is where this surprising story begins. One day in February of 2014 I saw a picture on Facebook of the station that made my jaw drop: a photo of an interview with Fermin Muguruza in their studios. I never could have imagined that the man from Irun would be around there. In fact, in talking with him when he released “Euskal Herria Jamaika Clash” (Talka, 2006) I mentioned to him that his next step maybe should be collaborating with North American rappers. But in New Orleans... What?
The origin of the enigma was in Barcelona, in the In-Edit Festival of musical documentaries: in the 2011 and 2013 editions, respectively, Fermin had met the film-makers Aaron Walker – author of “Bury the Hatchet” dedicated to the Indians of Mardi Gras – and Lily Keber, responsible for “Bayou Maharajah. The Tragic Genius of James Booker” (2013), about the legendary pianist, and from both of them he travelled to Louisiana in 2014. He was interviewed on WWOZ by George Ingmire, met some musicians and even played at a bar on Frenchmen Street accompanied by local instrumentalists. “I felt like one more”, he commented.
From this experience came the project to make a record in The Big Easy, “Irun Meets New Orleans” - wink to his “Irun meets Bristol. Komunikazioa” (Metak – Kontrakalea, 2003) – where he adapted New Orleans sounds to eight songs from his career and also interpreted two classic versions connected to the city, and made a documentary, “NOLA?”, “how” in the Basque language, about the recording process and the situation ten years after Katrina. Fermin returned there last May to prepare the sessions and in September he recorded the album.
Jonathan Freilich, producer, arranger and guitarist on “Irun Meets New Orleans”, leader of the New Orleans Klezmer All-Stars and The Naked Orchestra and with a résumé that includes collaborations with Galactic, Robbie Robertson, Johnny Adams, Kermit Ruffins and The Wild Magnolias, organized two groups: a brass band capable of playing Fermin's songs, and a more flexible formation of Rhythm and Blues that could combine the Ska and Punk sentiments with the New Orleans sound.
The list of invited musicians is impresssive: the historic Preservation Hall Jazz Band led by Ben Jaffe, the Zydeco accordionist Sunpie Barnes (leader of The Louisiana Sunspots), the first queer bounce rapper Katey Red, the vocalist Erica Falls (Galactic, Dr. John), the percussionist Derrick “Oops” Moss (co-founder of The Soul Rebels), the sax player Dan Oestreicher (de Trombone Shorty & Orleans Avenue), the cellist Helen Gillet (Luke Winslow-King, Dr. John), the bass player James Singleton (a member of Astral Project and collaborator of de Johnny Adams, Coco Robicheaux, Stanton Moore, Jon Cleary and Irma Thomas), the trumpet player Antonio Gambrell (ex All That), the drummer Doug Belote (Anders Osborne, Sonny Landreth, Dr. John, Cyril Neville, Jon Cleary, Rickie Lee Jones), the pianist and organist Brian Coogan (The Iguanas, Bonerama, Stanton Moore), the trumpet player Scott Frock (Delfeayo Marsalis, Marcia Ball, Gladys Knight), the trombonist Rick Trolsen (ex-Bonerama and present on albums of Luke Winslow-King, Sonny Landreth, Theresa Andersson y Snooks Eaglin) and he saxophonist Rex Gregory (Irvin Mayfield, Dr. John), among others.
A special mention is for the sound engineer Mark Bingham. A part from being a founder of the Piety Street studios where “Irun Meets New Orleans” was recorded, he has produced John Scofield, Glenn Branca and Rebirth Brass Band, he has participated in various tribute albums coordinated by his lifelong friend Hal Wilner and collaborated on “The Lion for Real” (1989) by Allen Ginsberg.
If we think about it closely, Muguruza is an artist with an unpredictable career, of continuous changes, for which this new movement isn't unusual at all. Also, in his multiple projects he has always merged tradition – with the use of the accordion or “irrintziak” songs, for example – with modernity and he has frequented the most various musical styles. And which is the place where they better understand and live this mix of flavours, or what the natives call gumbo, in honour of this appetizing place of Creole gastronomy? New Orleans, of course.
In this case you add his facet of a documentary maker, with illustrious precedents like the full length features “Bass-que Culture” (2006), “Checkpoint Rock. Songs from Palestine” (2009), “Zuloak” (2012), “No More Tour” (2013) and the series about music from Arabic countries “Next Music Station” (2011) for the Al Jazeera channel. Who better than him to assess the current state of the city ten years after Katrina?
“NOLA?” has many parallels with an episode of “Treme”: the songs are very well integrated, related to what the protagonists talk about. Music converts itself, in that way, into another character in the narration. The central thread is WWOZ announcer George Ingmire, also a documentary maker and author of various radio essays about the impact of the hurricane. With his critical and ironic speech he alternates the recording of the album with observations about the state of things.
The documentary opens with an useful montage of images in black and white and colour (cotton plantations, the Ku Klux Klan, racial segregation, the disaster of Katrina... a wink to the opening credits of “Treme”?) to move to Ingmire in the studio of WWOZ saying that ten years have passed and that Fermin Muguruza has come to New Orleans to get together with musicians and give his songs a “New Orleans flavour”.
From this moment on, the speech of the DJ and the declarations of various people (the musicians of “Irun Meets New Orleans”), but also the film-makers Aaron Walker and Lily Keber) alternate with archive footage, spectacular photographs and the recording of the songs. The influence of the humidity and the heat on the music give way to a “Kolore bizia” from “Borreroak baditu milaka aurpegi” (1993) by Negu Gorriak – of Carribean outpourings and explosion of brass – with the solo at the end by the cellist Helen Gillet.
The effects of Katrina, the inefficiency of the North American government, the treatment by the media who considered residents of the city as “refugees” and their return home after their diaspora find their treatment in a tremendous “Etxerat!” - from “Kolpez kolpe” by Kortatu (1988) – with the second line cadence “This disaster and what happened made us musicians stay united. And, conscious of it or not, strengthened the music”, you can hear.
The rehearsals of a jazzy “In-komunikazioa” from “In-komunikazioa” (2002) with tribal with tribal rhythms and another brass festival with the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, in contrast to the hip-hop bases of the original, alternates with statements of the musicians - “It's part of our daily life” - the tradition - “you have to find a balance between preserving it and finding new ways of being creative in it” - the family sagas and the connection with Cuba.
The celebration of the Carnival and, specifically, the Indians of Mardi Gras are mixed in the exuberant version of “Mess Around”, a song written by the president of Atlantic Records, Ahmet Ertegun, and put out as a single by Ray Charles in 1953, although Dr. John and Professor Longhair covered it later. In fact, at the end, the keyboard player Brian Coogan exclaims: “I did the version of Dr. John!”
The practice of voodoo and the legendary queen witch Marie Laveau introduce “Zugarramurdin akelarrea” - from the soundtrack of “The Witches of Zugarramurdi” (Alex de la Iglesia, 2013) – with the accordionist Sunpie Barnes and the rapper Katey Red in a surprising bounce turn, with declarations about homophobia, corruption and police brutality.
The figure of the mythic pirate Jean Lafitte and all the legends about him, like that which connects him to the first edition of “The Communist Manifesto” by Karl Marx, fit in with “Dub Manifest” - from “FM 99.00 Dub Manifest” (2000) – with spectacular voice of Erica Falls and the powerful brass band substituting the electronic dub, while it speaks about the relation between music and community.
Capitalist abuse – “this isn't free-market capitalism like they taught you in school” - and the urban speculation after Katrina - “we have passed from gentrification to touristification” - is the perfect introduction for “After-Boltxebike” - another hit from “Kolpez kope” that changes radically, although it maintains its punk energy.
The celebration of death through the funerals and second lines brings us to the version of “When I Die” by Kermit Ruffins – originally titled “When I Die (You Better Second Line)” from his album “The Big Easy” (2002) – dedicated to Amaia Apaolaza, the manager of Fermin who died last July. Again with Erica Falls, it opens with the sound of a funeral organ to break out later with the rhythm of a festive procession.
The occupation of the Army after the evacuation of New Orleans after Katrina and survival through music is tied together with “Gora Herria” - from “Gure Jarrera” (1991) by Negu Gorriak – that Sunpie Barnes describes as “a song that could be part of Louisiana also”. In fact, he gives it a zydeco touch with his accordion (substituting the “trikitixa” - small accordion used in traditional Basque music – used in the original version).
The ending is reserved for telling how the project was managed through the words of the film-maker Lily Keber and the producer Jonathan Freilich, culminating in the funk of “Black is Beltza” - a song to accompany the graphic novel of the same title from 2014, created by Jorge Alderete, Fermin and Harkaitz Cano – and the closing by Ingmire “We're out of time”.
The greatness of a creator is recognized when their compositions fit in with any style, and in this case, some of the emblematic songs by the artist from Irun (many of them at the rhythm of accelerated ska and punk rock in their origins) have been adapted to the sounds of the city. Muguruza has followed the same impulse of hundreds of musicians from around the world who have travelled to New Orleans attracted by its enchantment (some of them staying to live there): Elvis Costello, Robbie Robertson, Willy DeVille, Luke “Winslow-King, Ani de Franco, Danya Kurtz, Jon Cleary, Anders Osborne, or, one of the most recent, Jello Biafra, with his live album “Walking on Jindal's Splinters” (2015) together with the New Orleand Raunch and Roll All-Stars.
And it's that, in the end, Willy DeVille was right when he told me “definitely New Orleans isn't like America. It's a place where all the criminals go, those who hide from the police, pirates... All of those marginalized and artists go there. It's a very eccentric city, the people are crazy; but they don't care. They only want to have a drink, play music and have a good time”.
As they say in The Big Easy, “Let the good times roll: laissez les bons temps rouler!”