Raphael Saadiq at Ram’s Head Live in Baltimore

A BP Concert Review

On a nostalgic night at Ram’s Head Live in Baltimore, when raucous gospel church stomping is mixed with Temptations-styled spins, slides, shuffles, and crooning, it’s difficult to distinguish the old from the new. Raphael Saadiq’s new album, “The Way I See It,” a new downtown sound that’s an ode to Motown-Stax-Philly International eras, when R&B, was, well, R&B, is the crux of the show, but it’s when Saadiq sings his hits from the Tony! Toni! Tone! and Lucy Pearl days that the crowd sings along with the most fervor.On a black and white inspired set, Raphael Saadiq stands out in a mustard-colored suit, (is that a zoot suit?!)– black-framed glasses and a skinny black tie. Ram’s Head is intimate, standing room only-more after-work happy hour than concert setting, with a few tables for couples– giving the audience members a feeling that they are part of the show as they reach out to give Saadiq a pound whenever they feel like it and rest their drinks right on stage.After a 15-minute set from neo-soul/punk Southern California group, Tha Boogie, it seems like this is primarily the classy casual two-stepping crowd, more than the at-least-one-Colt-45-per-night getting down crowd. But as anticipation builds for Saadiq, the two-stepping gets a little more thunderous and the folks with the pink furry boots start to show up. By 8:45, the lights dim, the band comes out, and you hear: “Aii-Yi-Yi-Yi-Yi-Yi!!!” from the previously calm crowd. Purses are dropped, bird calls ensue, and Saadiq runs out playing the bass guitar. There’s stomping, tambourines-and suddenly the two-step has morphed into a gospel stomp. He dives right into “Keep Marchin,’” an infectious and inspirational Temptations-meets-Marvin Gaye ditty that evokes images of fire hoses and barking German shepherds. He slows down the tempo, bringing in the holy rollers, double-clappers, and club heads, stretching it out for 5 minutes, before bringing it back up tempo, sending the crowd into a guttural roar.Then he brings them down to a romantic purr when he steps into “Love That Girl,” a song reminiscent of a Sam Cooke kind of innocent ecstasy, as he launches into 5-6-7-8 dance routines with his two dancers complete with hand rolling, high knee kicking, and double-clapping. By the time he gets to “100 Yard Dash,” he screams out, “I know y’all got some soul in Baltimore!! If you don’t move to the back! There’s leg room up in the front!” And all of a sudden, it’s more juke joint, than high school disco.  Then he launches into the Lucy Pearl hit, “Dance Tonight,” and the crowd is giving him pounds, singing, stomping, and clothes are coming off.He slows it down with “Just One Kiss,” and then with a Jackson Five-like falsetto on “Oh Girl,” a Joss Stone duet, and he and his two dancers are back to dance routines that end with freeze poses. Then he launches  into a medley of his old school hits: “Lay Your Head on My Pillow,” “It Never Rains in Southern California,” “Anniversary,” “Ask of You,” “Just Me and You.” By now the crowd has lost all inhibition and there’s back rolling and grinding in between high pitched screams, “take your times,” and lip poking.He switches it again (mind you he hasn’t broken a sweat yet) to “Be Here,” his song with D’Angelo (no, D’s not there. C’mon there’s only so much a crowd can take). The crowd is rocking it out, arms pumping, and the scene now resembles a mosh pit. Then he gets naughty, throwing off his tiny tie to the audience, opening his shirt, and telling the ladies, “This place is crowded, don’t know ’bout you, but I need some sex, some sex with you!” and launches into “Take a Walk,” then moves into “Sure Hope You Mean It,” and a gruff baritone voice in the back of the crowd screams out, “C’mon now!!” He stretches the song out for 10 more minutes, before he shuts it down.“The show was fabulous,” says 52-year-old Baltimore city worker, Deborah Hamilton, who is there with her girlfriend. “He puts on a classy show. It was old school and new school. I think I’m in love!!”But, wait, it ain’t over.He comes back out with the bass guitar and people start boxing each other out for their positions back in front of the stage.He finishes it up with “Never Give You Up,” with Stevie Wonder on the harmonica, (No, he ain’t there. C’mon people!) and raps it all up with his tribute to Katrina, “Big Easy,” complete with the trumpeting sounds of a New Orleans brass band (The Infamous Young Spoodie and the ReBirth Brass Band).As he finally ends it after a two hour church-meets-juke-joint-meets-teeny-bopper-concert, the drawers-down-to-the-back-of-their-knees thug set, the classy-casual set, the old-school set, and the healthy-eaters set, are all equally at ease and satisfied.

Jazmine Sullivan on Her First Headlining Tour at The Sonar in Baltimore with Ryan Leslie

It’s generally standing room only at the 1200 capacity Sonar Club-one of Baltimore’s tucked away hidden gems on E. Saratoga Street that most recently hosted hip hop icon Rakim-but it was definitely the case when Kia Calloway, Ryan Leslie, and Jazmine Sullivan–on her first headlining tour–hit the stage. Even quicksand couldn’t have pulled folks down to sit in a chair.Calloway came on first, flanked by two dancers with inestimable energy-who at one point did a medley of stripper dances for a couple of male patrons. They sang covers of Jill Scott’s, “He Loves Me,” and Keri Hilson’s, “Knock You Down,” before finishing off a short set with her own single, the fiery, “Back Seat.”But things didn’t start getting funky (literally it was a tightly squeezed crowd and, well, its summertime) until the musical wunderkind Ryan Leslie’s slight frame, dressed in a blue oxford shirt and jeans and sunglasses, frolicked onstage ready for some high energy. Leslie is well known by now for his 1600 perfect scored SAT’s, his 15-year-old entrance to Harvard (he entered after his sophomore year in high school) and 19-year-old graduation, and his all night music studio binges. This work ethic isn’t lost on his stage show as he hoots, slams down on the keyboards, swings the microphone stand and lets it drop, revs up his band members, dances, shimmies, rocks it out, does James Brown spins as fast as the Tazmanian devil, and a few slides, all while-you guessed it-singing! He sings “Something Like That,” leading into “Quicksand” and “You’re Fly,” and then into his hit “How It Supposed to Be,” from his self-titled debut.He slows it down to talk to the crowd about his lost love, a woman that laid an ultimatum on the workaholic–you-have-to-choose-your music or me. He pauses and tells the crowd-”Some people are there for a reason, others just for a season.” Now he’s looking for a nice girl, someone educated, independent-”I think I’ll call her my…Diamond Girl.” The crowd goes crazy, he spins, and throws the mic stand down and delves into the hit before slowing it down with his Prince-esque “Valentine.”  He launches into his hit, “Addiction,” and changes it up with Bootsy Collin’s “I’d Rather Be With You,” showing off his skills on the keyboard as he sings. Saying Leslie is a tough act to follow for Jazmine is like noting that Kanye West has an oversized ego.Then a montage of pictures of Jazmine begin to show on the big screen beside the stage and Jazmine’s  gravelly alto, edgy, and filled with emotion fills the crowd along with a bass beat. She tells them her name and her bio before the live Jazmine comes out onstage in the dark, her band is dressed in black and she’s dressed in a purple and black futuristic jacket with a black catsuit and diamond studded sunglasses, and she goes right into the Alanis Morissette on steroids anthem and gospel-inflected, “Bust Your Windows.” She launches into a medley of her songs from her debut album, Fearless, with the crowd singing along with her. In between sets a reverential hush falls over the crowd and then she asks the men if they know 100 percent that they can put it down before she goes into, “One Night Stand,” Then the violin heavy “Lions and Tigers and Bears,” the reggae infused Missy Elliott produced “Need U Bad,” and Ace Hood’s “Champion.”For a first stage show, its vintage soul mixed with creative and fearless songwriting, emotion, and an earthy rapport with her fans. But it’s no Prince show, and for a bigger venue she could work on something that will dazzle her fans to move with her Deadhead style. Still, when she ends the show with that cutie pie sweet smile giving props to her band mates and saying, “I’m sure you know my name by now, it’s Jazmine Sullivan,” you can’t help but to want to see it all over again.

The Arrival of the Neo-Soul Ashford and Simpson

Solid as a rock.

Go see Kindred the Family Soul in concert. That should be the beginning and the end of this story because like few in the business, they have perfected the art of turning a sold-out concert venue into an intimate, feels-like-they’re-in-your-living-room, storytelling, singing, and comedic adventure.  Complete with jokes and stories about parenting their five children (with one more on the way), impromptu forays into the crowd to hear the singing skills of audience members, a little bit of jonin’ (Aja Graydon looks at an audience member and asks: “Doesn’t he look like Clyde Drexel?” And he does.), and a sign language interpreter that interprets Kindred’s cover of DC native William DeVaughn’s, “Be Thankful for What You Got,”–Diamond in the back/sunroof top/diggin’ the scene/with a  gangsta lean/woo-ooh-ooh-with a  certified gangsta lean with her palm spinning an imaginary steering wheel. When even the sign language interpreter is going off script, you know you should sit tight, cause this is gonna be a ride.The Philly based couple, discovered by Jill Scott, have been called the best husband and wife duo since Ashford and Simpson–without the pre-onstage battles, or Womack and Womack–without the scandalous back story. Ashford and Simpson were notorious for their backstage battles before they bombarded the stage in a unified front and belted out, SOLID!/Solid as a rock!Kindred has no problem expressing those private conflicts and the struggles of raising soon-to-be six children-both in their lyrics and their stage shows, earning them the moniker of the realest couple in R&B. They are busy doing spot dates rather than an official tour to promote their third album, The Arrival, with the atmospheric lead single“The House of Love,” and the pleading radio friendly single, “Can’t Help It.” Ahmir “?uestlove” Thompson adds his drumming to the new Philly sound with a guest appearance on “Always Be Arriving (The Finale).” The couple is in the process of shopping a reality series, Six Is It, based on the struggles of raising a large family and navigating the shifting landscape of the music industry.At the new $27 million ARC Theater on Mississippi Ave. in S.E., a few miles from where Aja grew up in the Marbury Plaza apartments, she graces the stage with a baby bump, a gray maternity dress, a jewelry studded black half-sweater, and black stiletto heels. Yeah..stilettos. Stylish ones. Ones she manages to navigate enough to drop it like it’s hot on more than one occasion with only intermittent water breaks for “the grandmothers in the audience who were thinking to themselves, ‘She needs some water for that baby!’” There was a worrisome moment when Aja had to leave the stage. But only for a moment. Her husband explained, “Baby girl done popped her shoulder out.” He sung as she left the stage momentarily, “We gonna pop it back in, we gonna back it back in,” and explained that this was something “she does all the time.” She came back a few moments later and jokingly explained it as an, “old wartime injury.” And they kept it going. Going through their hits: “Can’t Help It,” “Rhythm of Life,” “Far Away,” “Where Would I Be (The Question), “Stars,” and “Woman First”–peppering them with anecdotes and stories as lead ins. While Fatin sits on the speaker, Aja explains how she caught a glimpse of herself in the full length mirror and didn’t like the oatmeal caked to her clothes and her hair all over head. “But no matter what goes on he still makes me feel sexy,” she says before launching into “Woman First.” They did a few covers of old school classics, like the OJay’s “Loving You” where Fatin does a growling, church rendition with a digression in lyrics-”As long as I keep the bills, bills, bills paid baby! The mortgage, the electric, the heat…we paying those bills down.”They’ve got the whole package and they do it all with a 10-year-old son, a 7-year-old daughter, a 5-year-old daughter, twin 2-year-old daughters, a baby due this month and without corniness or without the audience feeling like voyeurs on intimate moments. They sat down to talk about their life and love and how music informs all of it.Q. So, Aja you grew up in DC and Fatin you grew up in Philly, right? How did both cities influence your sound? At what point did you choose singing as a career? What were your early struggles to make it happen?A. Aja: I got my first record deal when I was 14. I guess I wanted to be the black Hannah Montana. I worked on an album for several years and went through different changes in the record business. The album was on Delicious Vinyl which some people probably know as a rap label. In the early ’90s they had Tone Loc and Young MC. I worked on a record but it never came out. Next thing I know I was 18 years old and the kind of material I had worked on was outdated in my life.Fatin and I met at a time in my life when I had decided to branch out and find out who I was as an artist. I decided to come to NY to work on some material. Fatin was introduced to me as a songwriter. He was a little older and a little wiser.Fatin: I started out as a musician, went to Creative Performing Arts High School, (?uestlove, Amel Larrieaux, and Boys II Men went there). So I started out playing the sax and rapping and singing. From singing I just starting writing songs and just honing my craft. Q. How does Philadelphia influence your sound?
A. Fatin: It’s inspirational to come from a city with such great music. It inspires the sound of what we do and the backdrop to a lot of the music that we create. But we don’t try to duplicate what has been done. We just try to infuse into our own inspiration and see whatever it is we come up with.Q. How did you get involved in the reality show project–Six Is It?A. Aja: Right now the show is a web series. We like to think of it less like a reality show and more like a documentary of sorts. I think it’s important for people to understand that we’re a real family. We’re in the entertainment industry,we have a large family, we’re a fairly young couple. Let’s face it, as far as African Americans are concerned there’s not a lot of representation of young women and young men who have families that are intact. We’ve been together for 11 years and all of our children are the product of our marriage. You have people documenting the lives of families and we’re just not necessarily included in that. We are just trying to show people what we’re all about and at the end of the day we have all of the same struggles that other families have. It’s not scripted.A. Fatin: we recognize the void of a positive African American family on television being shown in a positive light at this time and we happen to have footage of our family and happen to do music. So it kind of goes hand in hand. But we’re developing the concept at this time. Q. In your songs and in your stage show you don’t have a problem about some of the real issues that happen in a marriage. Having to hide from children to have sex, not feeling sexy..A. Aja: Other artists deal with those issues, but they just don’t write songs about them. A lot of artists are afraid to delve into what it’s really like in a real relationship cause then I guess it loses a little bit of its sexy, I suppose. I don’t think that’s true. I remember we did a show and Mo’nique was the host and my husband and I sang together as a tribute to Teddy Pendergrass. She said that’s the sexiest thing she had ever seen–a husband and wife singing to one another in that way. I wish a lot more people would be honest about what they’re really going through and who they really are and what the real deal is in their relationship. Q. You have this incredible live show, excellent music–the whole package, you would think you’d be more universally well known…A. Aja: There are a lot of factors why artists are not household names. For us it doesn’t really bother us. It’s all about being able to get out there and being true to ourselves. Certainly for us, we have a beautiful and dedicated and loyal audience and really no matter what the industry is doing, whatever they decide they’re about on any given day, one of the things that people never stop doing is falling in love and people never stop having their family and understanding what it is to have children. One of the things that makes our music timeless is our fearlessness in what we decide to talk about and what we decide to be about. We think they just haven’t caught up with us. We’re famous in our own mind.[laughs]
A. Fatin: There are a lot of musicians out there like us. There are a lot of great people who have made considerable strides in the music industry and in the world of art who have not gone on to be the best known people but that doesn’t stop them from contributing and that’s what we’re here for. We’re trying to contribute to the musical library that we respect and appreciate. That’s the first reason we do it. But of course we want to sustain ourselves and make a living from what we do cause not only do we love what we do, but it also pays our bills. We keep doing it for the love, and just hope that we really have contributed. We just keep being inspired. Q. Do you feel that with your children the pressure was on to make it in the industry?A. Aja: In my opinion I feel that I have a wonderful job that I love. I don’t feel the pressure to be successful in this business because I’m successful in life. My children are a motivation for me to constantly tweak who I am as a person and understand the world around me. I think people with children are bigger hustlers than anyone else in the world cause at the end of the day they have lives that are dependent on them. I definitely feel like we’ve carved out a pretty wonderful life for ourselves and feel pretty satisfied in what we’re doing and why we’re doing it. I don’t think there are a lot of artists with the top five records in the country right now that can actually say that their music helps and changes people’s lives. I can say that. That to me makes me massively successful. And for my children that’s giving them an example. You can talk to any person and of course they want to make more money. Who doesn’t want to go to Venice as opposed to Virginia Beach? But the bottom line is that either way it’s about who goes on the trip with you, who will love you and care for you at the end of the day. Me and my husband we have that, we don’t have to worry about that. We have each other’s back. We have wonderful gorgeous children that are smart and capable and we’re doing our best to make sure they leave out of this house prepared for the world.The thing that always touches us is when people use words like powerful and touching when they talk about our music and our show. For us those are things that set us apart from so much that’s out there. It kind of gives us a lot of strength to do what we do

HBO’s Treme Premieres This Sunday Bringing New Orleans Spirit and Music to the Masses

This Sunday at 10pm on HBO, David Simon and co-creator Eric Overmyer’s, Treme, will give viewers a trip to New Orleans that most haven’t seen past the beads, the booze, the boobs, and Mardi Gras floats. The storyline takes place three months after Hurricane Katrina and the Federal levee system failure, following an assortment of city residents as people use the weight of the area’s rich music and culture as affirmations amidst a government that has failed them.The title derives from the neighborhood Treme, one of the oldest black neighborhoods in New Orleans and hailed as one of the birthplaces of jazz. There are the same crisscrossing storylines, rugged authenticity, insider’s viewpoint, regional dialogue, and the expectations that the audience will “get it” that made The Wire, alternately the “best show on television” and the most difficult to understand.But Treme goes against one of the few critiques of the widely lauded series, The Wire—that it was too bleak, that it missed the fact that people rely on hope to get them through inconceivable circumstances. In Treme, the spirit of the people is the storyline—not in the sappy, kumbaya sense—but in the sometimes angry and determined, sometimes comedic and dysfunctional sense. Amidst circumstances like homelessness, government neglect, dead or missing family and friends, and being displaced, they are determined to regain their footing, and that footing is a funky two-step infused with brass band music.Viewers will recognize some faces from The Wire, including Wendell Pierce (who played the affable Bunk), and Clarke Peters, (who played the genius detective Lester Freamon)—both are accomplished musicians in real life. Pierce, a Julliard graduate, plays Antoine Batiste, a musician taking any gigs that will pay, including the seedy tourist traps and strip clubs on Bourbon Street. Peters plays the Mardi Gras Indian Big Chief, Albert Lambreaux, rendered homeless by the storm but determined to continue a tradition dating to when enslaved Africans were allowed to congregate in Congo Square and perform their homeland’s traditional songs and dances. The Mardi Gras Indians mask in Indian attire for parades, in part as homage to escaping enslaved Africans who were harbored by Native Americans.“Some people are honoring the Native Americans, some are honoring a day of freedom,” says Donald Harrison Jr., a real life Mardi Gras Indian chief and consultant for the show and jazz saxophonist who has played with greats like Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers and Don Pullen. “You transcend to another state with the dances and music. When you have people who have been oppressed, they need those periods.”The pilot opens with Treme’s first second line parade since the storm, a simultaneous protest and exultation. The series lends authenticity following a timeline of some of the real events that happened after the storm and through the use of real life NOLA musicians who have cameos and some recurring roles—Keith and Phillip Frazier from the Rebirth Brass Band, world renowned Trombone Shorty—who counts Wynton Marsalis as his biggest fan, Allen Toussaint, Kermit Ruffins, Elvis Costello, Donald Harrison Jr, and Yacub Addy and Wynton Marsalis who worked together on the song for the series trailer.But Treme is not a documentary, it’s all drama filled fiction. Ultimately, Treme is more character-driven than plot-driven–mostly because the characters are stories within themselves. Batiste (his name taken from the widely regarded family of New Orleanian musicians) is a struggling musician with the contradictory characteristics of being lovable, loyal, and a philanderer. Kermit Ruffins (playing himself), a celebrated jazz trumpeter, composer, and singer is asked in the pilot episode by disc jockey Davis McAlary (played by Steve Zahn) if a man of his talent really wants to just “get high, play some trumpet, and barbecue in New Orleans all your life.” He pauses, seemingly bemused by the question, before smiling in response, “that’ll work.”Ruffins is contrasted against Lambreaux’s son, Delmond (played by Rob Brown), a jazz musician who has gigs all over the Northeast including the high- brow Lincoln Center in New York, and is reticent to stay in New Orleans for very long. He only returns sporadically, shamed into coming back by his sister who has been burdened with helping her father get back on his feet. McAlary provides comic relief as the ne’er-do-well disc jockey-wanna-be-musician, with a prolific vocabulary, a bottomless well of musical knowledge, and a witty sense of outrage.Treme writer and creator David Simon describes it best: “In New Orleans, the nuances have nuances.” It may require viewers to do some homework to understand the intricacies of the verb form of NOLA’s term second-lining, it’s local Hubig pies, or ornate Mardi Gras Indian costumes. But the payoff for the self-education is well worth it.Treme premieres this Sunday, April 11th, at 10pm on HBO

Nas and Damian Marley Deliver Distant Relatives Wit’ Blunt A Glow

In 2005, Nas and Damian Marley joined forces on “Road to Zion,” a simultaneously urgent and mellow hypnotic single on Marley’s critically acclaimed, Grammy Award winning album Welcome to Jamrock. With their distinctive intonations floating seamlessly on top of the pounding beat, the collaboration screamed for the two to further explore their musical synergy. With the May 18th release of the highly anticipated Distant Relatives, they’ve emerged, as Marley hummed on “Road to Zion,”…from the darkness wit mi big blunt a glow.”It’s easy to imagine that the prevailing theme that pounds throughout the reggae-heavy Distant Relatives album is one of spiritual Diaspora unity. The unforgiving fusion of reggae, hip-hop, live instrumentation from Damian Marley’s band, production and vocals from Stephen Marley, and samples from Ethiopian jazz king Mulatu Astatke and Malian blues musicians Amadou and Mariam, offers the best musical confirmation to that narrative. You can hear it in the yearning outrage of the lyrics of K’Naan—I drink poison, then I vomit diamonds— a driving, bass happy cut, “Tribal Wars,” a track that conjures up images of the Wonder Band sharing a joint with Jimmy Cliff and Slick Rick in Kumasi, Ghana. Or on “Dispear,” with the sounds of a sword being pulled from a sheath and a roaring lion on the break beat, with a back-rolling bass, a soulful African choir, a somber trumpet call, and verses from Nas envisioning a romanticized back to the future—because before being removed from Africa, there was moving in unison—and if we could go back in time, disputes would end, and the Watt’s gangs Bounty Hunters and GrapeStreet get cool again. Jr. Gong sings along: A nuh dat we a defend, cause every man deserve a turn, like Babylon deserve to burn. But really it’s not all sermonizing here. Or maybe it is. But it’s the kind where copious note taking would do any fledgling MC well on the rhyme-fest of Jamaican patois to Queensbridge patois and back again on “As We Enter.” The back and forth delivery is done as fluently as the kings of Queens, Run DMC—as Jr. Gong rhymes: As we enter, come mek we take you pon the biggest adventure—Nas answers: Must be dementia, that you ever thought you could touch our credentials.Nas: That’s how you end up on the hit listJr: Gong: Inna Bad Man BusinessNas: No EvidenceJr. Gong: Crime scene fingerprint-less.They even flow back and forth in Swahili–Nas: Habari Gani?; Gong: Nzuri sana!What could have easily become a quietly disjointed album, a tossed salad of music genres touching but never blending, ends up folding sweetly into a bass-heavy dough of some danceable reggae fusion and hip hop, with conscious lyricism, rapid fire patois free-styling, and up tempo classic roots reggae, all of it as a testament to the soul of African born music. Topically, there’s no stone left unturned: there’s a plaintive cry for an end to intra-cultural war with Damian’s singing on the roots reggae reminiscent track, “Africa Must Wake Up,” with history lessons from Nas—But Africa’s the origin of all the world’s religions, we praise bridges that carried us over, the battlefronts of Sudanic soldiers. And there’s a little bit of the battle of the sexes and confessionals on “The Strong Will Survive”—Nas: How am I supposed to be comfy when I pay alimony and child support monthly?If it sounds esoteric, all high-minded above some roots reggae ganja filled clouds, well, it is. But there’s a subtle playfulness with Damian’s lyrics on cuts, like “Wisdom”: Scholars teach in Universities and claim their smart and cunning/Tell them find a cure when we sneeze and that’s when their nose start running. And there’s no disputing the snatches of car radio, club speaker friendly, party music. The cut, “My Generation,” offers up a radio friendly palate featuring Lil’ Wayne with a guest verse, offering hope to his generation, despite his having—Got a message from God, Heaven too crowded—the self-esteem booster tells his generation they never looked better, while urging them that change happens with the man in the mirror.If there’s any common theme here, it’s that risk taking and entertainment can still be romantically involved, even in a musical landscape flush with fading marriages of convenience. Distant Relatives is alternately ambitious, relevant, universal music and a laid-back chasing a cotton mouth with a Heineken kind of adventure. On the intro of “Promised Land,” the iconic voice of the late Dennis Brown sums up the album’s evocation best—Africa (laughs) just the mention of it, just to mention it man, is like you call mi name man.

Nas and Damian Marley Talk Hip Hop, Reggae, and Collaboration

As Nas and Damian Marley sit next to each other in Studio D in midtown Manhattan’s Quad studios on a balmy April day, at first glance they seem almost reserved about the scope of their current project. But upon closer inspection, what it more closely resembles is an anticipation about the public’s reaction. Since their collaboration on the single, “Road to Zion,” on Marley’s 2005 album, Welcome to Jamrock, a spark was lit between them, and not just with the spliff that Marley handles intermittently between nursing sips of Guinness. They realized a musical and personal kinship that brought them to deliver the unprecedented and ambitious reggae-hip-hop collaborative album, Distant Relatives.The Quad studios blend into the relative obscurity of midtown Manhattan’s cramped bustle. Its most infamous memory is of Tupac Shakur being ambushed in the building’s lobby, shot five times, robbed, pistol whipped, and left for dead in 1994. The very next day he appeared in court in a wheelchair for a sexual assault case and was found guilty. It was a foreshadowing of his irrational murder and the thread of chaos that untied the hip-hop industry for a period afterwards. Since then, hip-hop, reggae and its offshoot, dancehall, have each had alternating periods of brilliance, corruption and commercialization, only to again rise from the ashes by those unabashedly committed to the craft.Nas leans back in his chair dipped in black and white shell toe Adidas and a black Yankees cap tilted atop his head. Damian sits next to him in a Ghanaian National Soccer team jacket, jeans, and gray Nikes. They’re both deceptively laid-back, contradicting an intense work ethic that allowed for their nearly two year creative collaboration, a full-length amalgamation of reggae, hip-hop and African rhythms, rolled into a bed of revolutionary, political, and romantic lyrics.“It’s what you would expect from both of us,” says Marley. “But not exactly like what you’d hear on our individual albums.”The work is no flighty indulgence, nor is it forced or overstated like some projects that seemed designed to introduce a genre to a new audience and are often more commercially than artistically motivated. It’s a thought provoking, head nodding work that seamlessly brings these musical and spiritual cousins together for a powerful tribute to world music, while documenting a moment in time.Marley and Nas met for the first time during hip-hop’s Lollapalooza—the 1996 Smokin’ Grooves tour. Ten years later they crossed paths again for their collaboration, “Road to Zion,” on Marley’s gold-selling, Welcome to Jamrock.Welcome to Jamrock peaked at No.7 on the Billboard 200 and Nas’ most recent album, Untitled, hit No. 1. If Nas’ verbals on the 1994 classic Illmatic didn’t seal his fate among hip-hop’s elite, then 8 solo albums, 3 compilation albums—all of them going platinum, double-platinum, or gold—would close the deal.With heavy musical shoes to fill, Damian, the youngest son of Bob Marley, debuted in 1996 with the critically acclaimed Mr. Marley. His next effort, Halfway Tree, was awarded the Grammy for best reggae album in 2002. He was the first ever reggae artist to win a Grammy outside of a reggae category for the ferocious “Welcome to Jamrock,” single for Best Urban/Alternative performance. Maturing at the height of hip hop’s golden era, he counted many of the genre’s icons as musical influences and guested on albums for the likes of Snoop, Cypress Hill, Method Man, and Guru.So when management suggested a merging of their artistic sensibilities, they both jumped at what they considered a history-making opportunity, deciding to document the creative process on film with a release date that is still pending. An imminent world tour boasts dates in the U.S. and Europe, with others to follow in the Caribbean and Africa.Their beginning started with music, nursed in their formative years, for Marley from the spirit of his father, one of the greatest reggae artists to ever swing his dreadlocks in Jamaica, and for Nas in the alternating landscape of his apartment where his father played Fela, created music on African instruments he brought from the region, and played and sang blues, jazz, and R&B, to the stoops, corners, park jams, shoot outs, and E&J and piss filled hallways of the Queensbridge projects.***“‘So, I get it you’re like the white lady in Wild Style,’ Nas told me jokingly,” remembers Faith Newman-Orbach, an A&R rep at Columbia Records in the early ‘90s, right after she signed him to the label. “I said, ‘Not exactly, I have lived it, I’m not just a tourist.’” He laughed. “After that we we’re much cooler. People don’t get that he has this sense of humor.”Newman-Orbach like many other A&R reps at the time had been trying to find Nas after she’d heard the buzz about him and heard his verse on Main Source’s “Live at the BBQ,” from their 1991 Breaking Atoms album. This was happening unbeknownst to Nas and Akinyele who traveled daily to Manhattan as they both tried to shop their demos to major labels, and Nas was getting frustrated with rejections and was ready to give up. In 1992, when hip-hop heads heard his single “Halftime,” recorded for the Zebrahead soundtrack at the urging of MC Serch, they knew New York had found the next lyricist to represent. When MC Serch of 3rd Bass fame came to Newman-Orbach’s office with Nas’ demo featuring “It Ain’t Hard to Tell,” (a different version than the one that was released on Illmatic), she wouldn’t let him leave the office until a deal was signed.It was seven o’clock in the evening as she walked down the hallway to her boss, David Kahne’s office, and told him, “I know I’m new but if you don’t let me sign anything the entire time I’m here you have to let me sign this kid. I said, ‘You have to trust me.’ Then I told Serch, ‘We’re gonna do this, don’t bring it to anybody else.’”When she met Nas in person, he came into the office with his hoodie on with his head down, and was so quiet she was bending over backwards to make him feel comfortable.“I was trying to reconcile that this was the kid that I heard on the demo that I thought was genius,” she says.The seminal Stretch Armstrong and Bobbito show on WKCR  89.9 FM in New York City was the first to recognize his genius on their show in February 1991.“I was like, ‘Aw man this kid is nasty!’” remembers deejay, author, and sneaker aficionado Bobbito Garcia. “He came in 1991 and kicked verses that never came out on Illmatic. It was a treasured experience. He was a quiet kid, didn’t really say much. He was just kind of in a zone. When he came up again in 1993, he actually rhymed off the top of his head. I’ve never heard it before or since. Talk about special moments, that’s a time capsule, because you ain’t never gonna hear it again. It might have been the best show we’ve ever had. Illmatic had the most anticipation of any album from that decade, unequivocally.”Nas’ advance for Illmatic was $17,000. And in 1994, for a hip-hop album, label execs weren’t dishing out much more and for a 17-year-old artist from Queensbridge, that was more than enough. Columbia ended up having to rush the record out because it was getting leaked and bootleggers were selling it around the world. It ended up selling a little over 300,000 units that first year, modest by industry standards, but standard for hip-hop at the time. “That was a big thing for a rap group to go gold back then,” says Garcia.But before he became Nasty Nas, he and his right hand man, deejay Willie “Ill Will” Graham would travel from Queens to the 34th Street Macy’s in Manhattan regularly to record original music videos of them rhyming or remake videos like Big Daddy Kane’s, “Aint’ No Half Stepping.” Or they’d wait for Willie’s mother to leave for work and practice rhyming over Grandmaster Flash’s “White Lines” in his apartment.The plan was that, like Run DMC, who by then had put Queens on the map, Nas would be the MC, and Will would be the deejay. But a beef while collecting money for a River Park BBQ, that led to a murderous retaliation from dudes from Brooklyn cut Ill Will’s dreams short. They came to Queensbridge and shot Will once, then twice more in the back before turning on Nas’ brother Jabari, shooting him in the leg, and trying for another shot before the gun jammed.“Nas took it really bad,” remembers Stevan Smith, Willie’s first cousin. “Even at the wake, he kept coming over to me asking if I was okay. It was almost like he felt he had to take care of everybody because Will was dead. Not that he had money at the time.”At home, his mother worked the late shift at the post office and as she came in, his father, who was playing gigs at clubs in Manhattan, would be leaving. In the morning, their father would be there smoking a cigarette and writing songs. If Nas was the Michael Corleone of his family, his brother Jabari, was Sonny, hotheaded, but outgoing and charming. With the success of Marley Marl and the Juice Crew as his inspiration, Nas quit school in the 9th grade and started selling drugs, reading books, and writing rhymes. By the time he was 13, his father left Queensbridge and it was his mother and constant supporter, Ann Jones, who gave him the money to pay for studio time—time that was reserved for Kool G. Rap and Rakim’s recorded budget, but when they wouldn’t show up Large Professor let Nas stand in.“I remember listening to WBLS at night when the Rap Attack would come on and a large part of the stuff being played on the radio was produced in my hood, by this dude on the 41st side of Vernon,” says Nas. “Dude was making beats, but not only that, he’s like in the forefront of the game right now and he’s recording those records right there in the neighborhood. I saw Marley with the 850 back in the days and with the BMW in Queensbridge. I said he’s not a fly by night guy, he’s the real deal.”“MC Shan was the crown prince of rap to me because he was representing the neighborhood with, “The Bridge.” You’d see the whole neighborhood go ape-shit for that song cause that’s our anthem.”In 1988, when 25-year-old Queensbridge housing resident Richard Luke choked to death on his own vomit, lying face up in a restraining blanket while in police custody, it was later determined that the cause of death was asphyxiation, only after a state investigation refuted the New York City Medical Examiner’s conclusion of cocaine intoxication and heart failure. One Queensbridge resident, Trudie Huguley, said she saw an officer place a nightstick around Luke’s throat from behind him.There were two days of protests in Queensbridge, culminating in a visit by an irreverently coiffed, jogging-suit wearing Reverend Al Sharpton. This was a year before the mob death of Yusef Hawkins in Bensonhurst, four years after the deranged rampage of Bernhard Goetz who shot four black teens on the subway in New York City, and two years after Michael Griffith was hit by a car in Howard Beach after trying to avoid a confrontation with an angry mob.For some reason, Richard Luke’s name doesn’t make the roll call of New York’s infamous string of murderous racial tensions in the ‘80s. But a then 15-year-old Queensbridge resident named Nasir bin Olu Dara Jones remembers it well, because he was there at the protests, where 200 city police officers stopped an equal number of demonstrators from blocking traffic on the Queensboro bridge. And he was also there for the riots.“Robocop—that was [the cop’s]  nickname. Dude was a nut. We rioted, we tore shit up, we had a stand-off with the cops, the neighborhood wasn’t having it,” remembers Nas.“When he was killed by the cops, that was around the time a lot of race crimes were happening, whether it be police or just being in the wrong neighborhood in New York. Cops were always acquitted. We tore up the neighborhood, ran in the store and grabbed 40s, we ran in the rental store and grabbed the movies we wanted and we acted a fool, we turned some cars over, set some shit on fire, I think even Al Sharpton came to the hood that day.”Around the same time in Kingston, Jamaica, a 10-year-old Damian Robert Nesta “Junior Gong” Marley was practicing singing in his aunt’s living room, Donna Coore, and approached her about starting a group called The Shepherds—“She was one of the first persons that really believed in me. She said, if you want to do the music, I’ll help you. She took us and made it public,” said Damian.In Kingston, among rude houses of cardboard and corrugated metal, roots reggae was being transformed into something grittier, harder, less endearing to international audiences. This was the same year, 1988, that the death sentence was imposed on the street vendor, Dennis Lobban, for Peter Tosh’s murder. As Tosh explained his own contribution to the Wailers, he described himself as the “decoration,” to Bob’s beautiful voice. Of course, he was much more than that to the Wailers and to the Jamaican community at large. A testament to that fact came when the jury deliberated for just six minutes before delivering a guilty verdict for his murderer. A few months before, Carlton Barrett, the Wailer’s drummer and writer of the popular songs, “War,” “Them Belly Full,” and “Talkin’ Blues,” was shot to death. On Good Friday, a gunman came behind him as he walked across his yard in his Kingston home and shot him twice in the back of his head.Ten years before at the now museum tourist site, 56 Hope Road, home to the Marleys and to Tuff Gong, two carloads of gunmen got into the grounds, shot Bob, who had minor wounds to his chest and arm, his wife Rita, and his manager, Don Taylor, who was shot in his spine, but survived. The bullet in Bob’s arm remained in his arm, because he was told if he had it removed, he could possibly lose control of his fingers. It was widely believed that the attempts on their lives were politically motivated. Bob Marley died of cancer in 1981. By then, traditional roots reggae was literally and figuratively dying.Damian grew up well off in the Stony Hill neighborhood in Kingston. He and his long-time friend, Shiah Coore, son of Third World’s Cat Coore, were given musical encouragement.“We would have  a living room type of show for our parents and their friends would come over,” remembers Coore, “That’s how it got started and then the parents realized we had something, they put an ad in the paper for some musicians, and we eventually started the Shepherds.”By 1991, MC Tommy Cowan would be introducing the Shepherds at Sunsplash 14, featuring the singing and rapping of a 12-year-old Damian, 11-year-old Shiah Coore (current bassist in Damian’s band), 12-year-old Yeshemabeth McGregor on keyboards (daughter of Freddie McGregor and Judy Mowatt), Noel Parks on bass (son of legendary bass player Lloyd Parks),17-year-old Richard Bertram on drums, and 20-year-old Howard Christian on bass. It was said to have been the largest audience at a Sunsplash performance with vocalist Dennis Brown and Dougie Fresh performing and a bombastic entrance by the wildly popular Shabba Ranks who was lowered onto the stage in a cherry-picker upstaging his previous year’s entrance when as they announced his name onstage, the swollen crowd looked up to see him flying around the venue in a helicopter.“Shabba wouldn’t come on until 7am—imagine us kids, Shabba is our idol and he’s coming down in a helicopter. He was like Superman,” remembers Shiah Coore. “I’ll never forget it. It was a big influence on me and Damian.”He says, that moment, along with appearances by charismatic artists like Ninja Man, were pivotal moments when dancehall began to eclipse roots reggae. Damian didn’t have to look far musically for his inspiration, musicians were doing covers of his father’s songs at Sunsplash. But he was also inspired by the self-assured dancehall movement and hip hop artists from the States. Damian’s mother, Cindy, would buy them hip-hop albums, the first Coore heard was Method Man’s, Tical, when Cindy bought it for him.Culturally, places like the House of Lair, an outdoor venue, and the sound system Stone Loveprovided the sustenance for Damian to develop his style and The Harder They Come, the classic counterculture film starring Jimmy Cliff as a struggling musician dealing with a despotic music industry who turns to selling ganja to make a living and ends up becoming an outlaw, was the storyline for the tone and directness of his music.“Where’s Jose? Who you looking for Jose?” Damian says with a whisper. “I use that on Half A Tree, a lot of interludes come from The Harder They Come. It’s like our Superfly, our Menace to SocietyBoyz n the Hood, all of that in one.”**The legend of Jamaican born deejay Kool Herc’s break-beat style in the Bronx and his place in nascent hip- hop culture and the ties that bind reggae and hip hop is more well known than the dialogue of Beat Street for kids that grew up in the ‘80s. There would be many hip hop-reggae collaborations—Run DMC and Yellowman’s, “Roots Rap Reggae,” Supercat’s introduction of Biggie Smalls on “Dolly My Baby,” and Shabba Ranks and KRS-One joining forces on “The Jam.”Much of current commercial dancehall has been criticized internationally, fueled recently by the beef—since squashed—by Vybz Martel and Mavado, but Marley says the criticism is generational and unwarranted.“Hip-hop has reached that level where you have two generations,” says Marley. “In Jamaica one them gots the sagged pant, the generation before us be like why you doing that, where dis come from? The other day I was hearing somebody spas’ out about Soldier Boy and cursing and females and things, but I was like remember when Snoop came out, cause you were younger you were on his side. Now you’re on the big man’s side.”The Distant Relatives project exudes an optimism that hip-hop, dancehall, and reggae, and all of them intertwined are going in a different direction.“You got a lot of dudes doing something different, not a lot, but you got a few dudes doing something different whether its Kanye or Ghostface or The Roots with Jimmy Fallon,” says Nas. “It’s not really that different, it’s really just going back to where it all started.”Both Damian and Nas don’t have to look far to go back where it started—Damian, the youngest of Bob Marley’s children, the iconic artist that introduced the world to reggae music, and Nas’ father Olu Dara, a well respected bluesman, singer, jazz trumpeter, and cornetist who has worked with giants like Henry Threadgill, Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, Doug Carne, and Cassandra Wilson, provided the blueprint.Both of their fathers had unconventional views on romantic love. As a musician in the Navy, Olu  fulfilled the stereotype of the itinerant musician who had lovers and children, he says, by many different women. Bob Marley and Cindy Breakspeare had Damian. And Bob would have 10 other children, 7 outside of his marriage to Rita Marley. He and Rita remained married until his death. For Damian, his father’s death when he was two years old meant that he only knew his legacy, not the father. And for Nas, his father’s music meant he was often on the road or at late night gigs, and when his father met another woman and his parents separated he saw his father even less.But still, Nas says he believes in the potential for a more traditional life and believes monogamy is a possibility: “Yeah, I do. I mean live your life as you see fit, I’m just saying it can be done.”“Is it possible?” Damian asks. “Yeah, it’s possible. Still, my view is kind of unique cause if it wasn’t for someone who didn’t subscribe to that I wouldn’t be here.”Nas and Damian each had their own sons in 2009 almost a month apart.“It was crazy,” says Nas. “Some things are just written, it was already planned by someone higher than us. It’s just another sign that I’m doing the right thing, that he’s doing the right thing, by what we’re doing together. It’s an incredible sign.”

HBO’s “Treme”: Donald Harrison, Jr.

As Treme came to a close with the season finale, the question of whether viewers understand New Orleans culture more than before is still hanging from Mardi Gras floats.  It seems a lot of that understanding must come from the viewer’s own research, in the way that people outside of Baltimore had to dig to understand some of the nuances of Baltimore’s vernacular on The Wire. Widespread critical acclaim has garnered the series another season—amid viewer criticism that non-Treme residents get center stage on the show.Donald Harrison Jr.—a New Orleans native, show consultant, Mardi Gras Indian Chief (Big Chief of the Congo Nation), son of Big Chief Donald Sr., and world-renowned musician—had a cameo in episode six.  The character Albert Lambreaux, played by Clarke Peters (Lester Freamon for all you Wire fans), is loosely based on Harrison’s father.  Lambreaux’s son, Delmond (Rob Brown), a trumpet player drawn to the New York sound and lifestyle above his roots in New Orleans, is a composite of Harrison and jazz musician Christian Scott.  The role mirrors Harrison’s life and his commitment to retaining the culture of Mardi Gras Indians while simultaneously achieving worldwide musical acclaim.Harrison has played with Roy Haynes, Ron Carter, Eddie Palmieri, Terrence Blanchard, Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, Don Pullen, and other jazz greats around the world.  He has mentored and taught a host of musicians from Christian Scott to Cyrus Chestnut to the late Notorious B.I.G., who was his neighbor in Brooklyn.  Harrison has written and performed as a hip-hop MC and composed and played classical works with major orchestras.  He created the noveau swing style of jazz, which merges acoustic swing with modern R&B, second line, hip-hop, and reggae rhythms.  His latest CD exemplifies his eclectic musical tastes—three volumes showcasing his commitment to smooth jazz, R&B, classic jazz, and hip-hop.And he continues the tradition of the Mardi Gras Indians that originated in honor of the Native Americans who harbored runaway enslaved Africans.  More recently, they have moved toward celebrating African ancestral heritage more directly.  The tribes mask in ornate costumes and perform, sing, and dance on St. Joseph’s Night and at Mardi Gras.  The ornate costumes, sometimes 10 feet tall and 6 feet wide, are sewn by members of the tribe and can take over a year to make.  The chants and drumbeats that accompany the parade draw on bamboula rhythms from Africa and honor enslaved Africans who were only permitted on Sundays to gather and participate in dances, songs, and cultural traditions at Treme, La.’s Congo Square.  Sundays are reserved from fall through spring for playing processions around the city, the second lines.  Almost every Sunday, there’s a parade, but the ones on St. Joseph’s Night and Mardi Gras are the most elaborate.  They provide a space for tribes to compete for the best costumes and dances.Harrison says the late writer David Mills, who died from a brain aneurysm on the set of Treme earlier this year, was digging deep to get into the culture of the Indians.  It’s a catch-22, because writers, producers, and consultants want to give viewers a taste and understanding of the culture, but they don’t want it to be corrupted.

HBO’s “Treme”: Congo Square

In HBO’s pilot series, Treme, there’s a subtle storyline that viewers unfamiliar with the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina may be missing.Congo Square—an area in Treme, La.’s Louis Armstrong State Park where enslaved Africans were allowed to gather on Sunday afternoons and practice cultural rituals like dancing and singing—has long been considered the city’s spiritual center.  Today, musicians still go there to play.When Ghanaian musician Yacub Addy visited New Orleans in the 1980s, he could easily trace the roots of the music he heard there to African music.“When I was there, I felt like I was still in Africa,” says Addy.  “The way I see the people second lining reminds me of the dance they do in Ghana—a similar thing with the umbrella called Kolomashi.  I said I have to take this thing from New Orleans to Ghana.”He and Wynton Marsalis did just that: They combined their music and musicians to bring New Orleans to Africa and Africa to New Orleans at Congo Square.  The groundbreaking joint venture was supposed to debut at Lincoln Center, but just four days after the announcement, Hurricane Katrina hit.  This setback just strengthened their resolve. At Congo Square, nine months after the disaster on April 23, 2006, the free concert featured a song blending New Orleans second line with the Ghanaian Ga tribe’s traditional Kolomashi processional—a form of protest music.  The piece is about diverse people coming together, family, the individual will to freedom, war and peace, and understanding different ways of hearing. Part of this collaboration can be heard in HBO’s teaser trailer for the series.Addy and Marsalis’ collaboration serves as a testament to that fact that in New Orleans, music is an extension of everyday life. For the outsider, it’s an experience of other-worldliness bearing witness to a culture that has thrived in its isolation. It’s a unique place where an impromptu party (or second line) can spark to life at any given moment and in any location (even a parking lot). Visitors are often mesmerized.  Especially because in New Orleans, the songs never end.

Treme: Music Soothes the Soul (Pt. 2)

New Orleans reemerges in the new HBO series Treme

In the next episode of HBO’s musically opulent series, Treme, set in New Orleans three months after hurricane Katrina, we’ll meet the prodigious talent of Troy Andrews, better known as Trombone Shorty, playing himself as one of many struggling musicians trying to get back on their feet.Past the brightly-colored turn of the century French styled colonial houses, around the bend from the fantastical designs of Mardi Gras, is an area local New Orleanians refer to as Backatown, an area that includes the historic Treme neighborhood.  Andrews is one of the gems to come from this area, a 24-year-old charismatic singer, trombonist, and trumpeter with sounds that exhibit a raw physical power belying his nickname. His album, of the same name,  is due out on April 20, featuring an eclectic mixing bowl of rock, R&B, hip-hop, and jazz that he affectionately refers to as a “Supafunkrock.”Andrews has backed up everyone from Harry Connick Jr., to Dr. John, to Green Day. Wynton Marsalis is “his biggest fan,” Lenny Kravitz has called him a “genius,” and Allen Touissant has said, “Don’t get me wrong, we got it going on here in New Orleans, he’s just better.” The album (Verve Forecast) produced by Galactic’s Ben Ellman features guest heavyweights Lenny Kravitz, Marc Broussard, and Allen Touissant.Andrews who stands at over six feet was given his nickname when as a kid, he became so overcome with emotion watching a second-line parade, he grabbed his trombone and joined in though his arms weren’t long enough to reach all the positions of the slide. Before he and his neighborhood friends could afford instruments they’d go to the parades armed with a cardboard box as a snare drum or a bass drum and a big wheel as a tuba. He became a bandleader by the age of six. He made his debut at Lincoln Center and played in Lenny Kravitz’s band for over a year and a half—around the same time that Katrina struck.He made it out just hours before hurricane and levee disaster. He was on tour with Kravitz, but had come back in time to get many of his family members out in time for the storm. He’s seen his musically fertile neighborhood, a place he calls the “most influential thing in my life,”  change after the storm—gentrification, displaced residents from the storm, musicians leaving for brighter lights in New York—but he returns often and sees the residents struggle to keep the culture alive.“We still have people that hang out under the Interstate,” says Andrews. “They get their wine, they play their Indian music—they’re the Kings of Treme, just playing on bottles. But they are getting old and once that’s over it might be a different Treme.

Treme: Music Soothes the Soul (Pt. I)

HBO revisits the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina with a new series

This Sunday at 10pm on HBO, David Simon and co-creator Eric Overmyer’s, Treme will give viewers a trip to New Orleans that most haven’t seen past the beads, the booze, the boobs, and Mardi Gras floats. The storyline takes place three months after Hurricane Katrina and the Federal levee system failure, following an assortment of city residents as people use the weight of the area’s rich music and culture as affirmations amidst a government that has failed them.The title derives from the neighborhood Treme, one of the oldest black neighborhoods in New Orleans and hailed as one of the birthplaces of jazz. There are the same crisscrossing storylines, rugged authenticity, insider’s viewpoint, regional dialogue, and the expectations that the audience will “get it” that made The Wire, alternately the “best show on television” and the most difficult to understand. In Treme, amidst circumstances like homelessness, government neglect, dead or missing family and friends, and being displaced, residents are determined to regain their footing, and that footing is a funky, dazzling dance infused with brass band music.Viewers will recognize some faces from Simon’s critically acclaimed series, The Wire, including Wendell Pierce (who played the affable Bunk), and Clarke Peters, (the genius detective Lester Freamon)—both are accomplished musicians in real life. Pierce, a Julliard graduate, plays Antoine Batiste, a musician taking any gigs that will pay, including the seedy tourist traps and strip clubs on Bourbon Street. Clarke Peters plays the Mardi Gras Indian Big Chief, Albert Lamreaux, rendered homeless by the storm but determined to continue a tradition dating to when enslaved Africans were allowed to congregate in Congo Square and perform their homeland’s traditional songs and dances. The Mardi Gras Indians mask in Indian attire for parades, in part as homage to escaping enslaved Africans who were harbored by Native Americans.Donald Harrison Jr., is a consultant for the show, a jazz saxophonist who has played with greats like Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers and Don Pullen, and is a Mardi Gras Indian chief in real life. He is the head of the Congo Nation, an Afro New Orleans cultural group. Each member creates ornate costumes each year for the parades that can happen throughout the year.“Some people are honoring the Native Americans, some are honoring a day of freedom,” says Harrison. “You transcend to another state with the dances and music. When you have people who have been oppressed, they need those periods.”