By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
Paul Prudhomme and Marie Laveau--even if they were blazing on crystal meth and working 'round the clock--couldn't begin to figure out the recipe for the gris-gris gumbo that is the Neville Brothers. After all, in New Orleans, a city where funerals are an excuse to party, it's rumored that the Nevilles' brand of soul-pop--a marriage of funk, gospel, and R&B that might waft out the windows of a Baptist church on a Caribbean island--could make even the dead dance.
But like their home--where crime rages like a plague in the Iberville projects only three blocks from the licorice-twist wrought-iron balconies of the French Quarter--there's a lot more to the Neville Brothers than the perpetuation of an eternal Mardi Gras. This is particularly evident on Mitakuye Oyasin Oyasin/All My Relations, their latest album, which finds the Brothers--vocalist Aaron, saxophonist Charles, keyboardist Art, and percussionist-vocalist Cyril--voicing social concerns from beneath their percolating rhythms.
"The theme of the record is more a continuation of the same message we've been sending all along," Charles Neville says from his New Orleans home. "Awareness, compassion, and acceptance of Allah and fellow creatures as brothers and sisters. Maybe it's a little more up front, lyrically."
Indeed. On the calypso-flavored "Whatever You Do," one of the new CD's catchiest songs, the Nevilles acknowledge the class differences in America even as they exhort both rich and poor to take responsibility for their actions. "Talk to me of freedom/It commands the highest price," Cyril sings. "For those who don't have it/it demands the greatest sacrifice."
"Even though there are still racial problems in our country, it's more of a class situation," Charles maintains. "The people who have everything against the people who don't have anything...the people who have everything make sure that they maintain what they've got at the expense of everyone else."
On Aaron's smoothly funked "You're Gonna Make Your Momma Cry," he warns inner-city youth of the pitfalls before them: the gangs, crack, and gunplay that tattoo the New Orleans projects every night. Temptations are always there, quite possibly deliberately placed there by powers that very much want the ghettos to stay that way.
"It's just like the situations I've seen on different Indian reservations," Charles explains. "The Indians don't own the liquor stores, but there are certainly plenty of them on the reservations; more than food stores. It's the same with the inner-city stuff. Some of the problems experienced by the kids there are a direct result of the drug trade becoming such big business--and it's made to appear that it's a problem created by and monitored by gang kids, which is clearly not the case. They don't manufacture it, they don't import it...All the while we're spending more money to build jails and to bolster the police forces than on school buildings and educational programs."
"You're Gonna Make Your Momma Cry" also features a rap performed by Aaron's son, Jason, which is only partially an attempt to make the song more palatable to the kids it's written about. In fact, the Nevilles started incorporating hip-hop elements on earlier studio efforts like Yellow Moon and Brother's Keeper. It might seem a crass calculation aimed at expanding the Nevilles' fan base, but the band also has purer motives.
"Sure, part of it is to try to reach a younger set of listeners," Charles says, "but it's more an effort to get the different generations of the Neville family involved in the music. Jason, for example, is obviously of a generation whose interest in music revolves around the so-called black music of today, which is hip-hop. We're recognizing the validity of his generation and, hopefully, delivering the message, as well."
But for all the problems examined by Mitakuye Oyasin Oyasin, hope persists and there are solutions in the music itself: the gorgeous harmonies of the kick-off track, "Love Spoken Here;" the Chautauqua tent groove of "Holy Spirit;" a reggae-flavored take on the Grateful Dead's "Fire on the Mountain;" that features Bob Weir playing guitar, and even the relaxed familiarity of Aaron's version of "Ain't No Sunshine."
The album was a joy to make. "It's just so much fun just to see what's going to happen when we get in the studio," Charles says. "Whatever style we try--covering somebody else's material or the hip-hop--is going to come out sounding like the Neville Brothers. We've had the Bill Withers song ["Sunshine"] on the gig list for so long, and Aaron really wanted to put it on the record. We've got a song by Mike Reid [country songwriter, concert pianist, and ex-Cincinnati Bengal] and one by Lee Roy Parnell."
Jason isn't the only additional family member on the album. "We've got lots of family," Charles says. "Wives, brothers and sisters, kids." He pauses, and then you can hear the pride in his voice: "My wife, Kristin, even wrote a song with me." The piece, "Sacred Ground," is a hypnotic, slow-burning tune celebrating the spiritual nature of ancestry. It also serves as a sort of thematic coda to the album.
"Well, the record's about family--the human family as well as the Neville family," Charles chuckles softly. "Even the name of the album, Mitakuye Oyasin Oyasin, means 'all my relations,' which refers to the holy concept that all people are brothers and sisters, and anywhere a human being treads is sacred ground. It's literally a phrase taken from a Lakota [Indian] ceremonial chant, which we had to get special permission to use."
If the sentiment seems deeper and more socially concerned than in the days when the Brothers' concerts consisted basically of Crescent City party fare like "Iko Iko" and the de rigueur rendition of Aaron's pop classic, "Tell It Like It Is," well, their priorities have changed. In early, pre-Neville Brothers days, as most earthlings now know, Art, Aaron, Cyril, and Charles themselves experienced plenty of drug and alcohol problems and no small amount of jail time. It wasn't until their sainted uncle, George "Big Chief Jolly" Landry, assembled them for a family recording that would become the immortal The Wild Tchoupitoulas that the four straightened up, and the resulting album of traditional Mardi Gras Indian chants gave birth to the Neville Brothers proper. That attitude has only strengthened, and there is a certain security and comfort in the knowledge that there always will be a Neville Brothers.
"The four of us definitely still feel a collective spirit between us," Charles assures. "Regardless of the success of individual projects, we all know that being together saved us once, and the Neville Brothers will always be bigger than us as individuals."
The evidence is obvious on Mitakuye Oyasin Oyasin: The Nevilles once more have pulled together various social, spiritual, and musical vibes and woven from them an irresistible, mystical spell. Somewhere the ghosts of Martin Luther King Jr., Professor Longhair, and Louis Armstrong are smiling--and Paul Prudhomme and Marie Laveau are still trying to figure out how they do it.
The Neville Brothers perform Saturday, September 28, at 5:30 p.m. at the State Fair of Texas.