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Interview: Galactic 

Alex Woodward talks to the band whose new album is Carnivale Electricos

click to enlarge Galactic has made its Lundi Gras concert into a Carnival tradition. - PHOTO BY ZACK SMITH

There are few, if any, taboo music genres in Galactic's wheelhouse. The New Orleans funk band, now nearing its 20th year, has danced enough times with hip-hop that it's left an inescapable groove in the band's step, tampering its already universal (the name's no coincidence) funk template.

  For its latest trick, the band used Carnival as the springboard, condensing the Mardi Gras experience into the 13-track Carnivale Electricos (ANTI-), out Fat Tuesday, Feb. 21.

  "Brazil represents the southern pole of the Carnival world, and New Orleans is kind of the northern pole," says keyboardist Rich Vogel, adding that the album lives somewhere between poles but isn't anchored to one or the other. The band looked to the Carnival world — from the baile funk of Rio de Janeiro to bounce beats blasting from local parking lots, and the places in between — to weave new elements into Galactic's frequently altered fabric — updated as New Orleans' music and cultural landscape adjusts its palate.

  "What we didn't want to do was 'Galactic plays Latin.' ... We knew that was absolutely not the way we wanted to go," Vogel says. "It was more about, 'Let's try and bring some of these artists into our world and what we do, and see if them doing what they do and us doing what we do makes an interesting result.'"

  Mammoth drum patterns and a one-note saxophone riff ring in the first track, "Ha Di Ka," featuring Big Chief Juan Pardo and the Golden Comanches Mardi Gras Indians. The Indians' chant is the alien introduction, seemingly pulled from another corner of the universe but undeniably a Carnival creation. Stereo-panning guitar spurts push it even further spaceward, and an otherwise conventional piano solo and Vogel's organs bring the track back to its New Orleans foundation.

  Cut to "Hey Na Na," with a slithering bayou fuzz guitar riff, calls and responses and The Revivalists' David Shaw yelping in rock fashion about the New Orleans Saints — and the band is clearly back in the north pole.

  But Latin America leaves a mark in a big, noticeable way, whether from Brazilian samba artist Moyseis Marques (who shines on "O Coco da Galinha") or New Orleans' Casa Samba, which stars on a Galactic-fied "Magalenha," made famous by Sergio Mendes. Acoustic instruments (like the unmistakable cuica and seemingly infinite percussive sounds), nylon-stringed guitars, saxophonist Ben Ellman's Carnival-conjuring lines, and loose grooves pepper the album. A Brazilian whistle sounds like a drum major's, hand drums sound like the Indians', and horns hail from both Latin roots and New Orleans streets.

  Carnivale follows last year's live album The Other Side of Midnight, recorded at a sold-out set at Tipitina's. In 2010, the band released the acclaimed Ya-Ka-May, which also starred a wish list of New Orleans talent, from the Rebirth Brass Band and Irma Thomas to bounce artists Cheeky Blakk, Big Freedia, Katey Red and Sissy Nobby. Bounce music also appears on Carnivale.

  "It may not be what you think of (as) traditional Mardi Gras tunes, but everyone knows, if you go out on the streets, you're going to hear hip-hop, you're going to hear bounce music — it just depends what part of town you're stumbling around in," Vogel says. "We're a group that's interested and learning and digesting everything we can from the traditions and the history, but we want to make music in the here and now, and make music from New Orleans that's contemporary, and learn from and digest anything else that's great, including bounce music. You (can't) ignore it. As far as we're concerned it's another chapter in the history of New Orleans music, and one that's unfolding and playing out before our eyes, or our ears."

  Sometimes those Carnival worlds collide, quite deliberately. In the instrumental "Guero Bounce," a harmonica wails over a bounce beat and Latin percussion, and on "Voyage Ton Flag," where zydeco meets drummer Stanton Moore's heavy funk and a few walls of guitar and electronic effects. Mannie Fresh and Mystikal also pair for "Move Fast," one of Mystikal's first returns to the mic since his release from prison in 2010.

  Carnivale also draws from Galactic's ever-expanding pool of guest players, with Cyril and Ivan Neville, Pardo, and KIPP Renaissance High School's massive marching band, which joins the instrumental "Karate."

  The band abandoned "traditional" Mardi Gras music for the album, with the exception of revisiting Al Johnson's classic R&B track "Carnival Time," treated to Galactic's space-funk, molasses-thick update with Johnson on the vocal track.

  "If ever a man knows a song from top to bottom, Al Johnson knows 'Carnival Time,'" Vogel says. "He came in and belted it out. He owns the fact that that's his claim to fame."

  To introduce the album and kick-off a monthslong tour, the band performs its "unwritten law" Lundi Gras concert, a long-held tradition at Tipitina's that lasts until sunrise — typically ending with the low-key Crazyhorse Mongoose track "Quiet Please." Vogel says Carnivale's closing track "Ash Wednesday Sunrise" may be a more appropriate closer to ring in Mardi Gras.

  "The only question of the band now is defy tradition, or alter our tradition, or play a variation on our tradition," he says.

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