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Galactic Jazz-Funk from New Orleans

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Photo: Jason Scheuner (TELEFUNKEN Elektroakustik) with
band members Rich Vogel, Jeff Raines, Robert Mercurio and
Ben Ellman. ( Click To Enlarge Photo )

Galactic was formed eighteen years ago in New Orleans, and they cut their teeth playing the biggest party in America: Mardi Gras, when the town shuts down entirely to celebrate. Galactic is a collaborative band with a unique format, featuring Ben Ellman, harps and horns; Robert Mercurio, bass; Stanton Moore, drums and percussion; Jeff Raines, guitar; and Rich Vogel, keyboards. It's a stable quintet that plays together with high musicianship. They've been together so long they're telepathic. But though the band hasn't had a lead singer for years, neither is it purely an instrumental group.

Galactic is part of a diverse community of musicians, and in their own studio, with Mercurio and Ellman producing, they have the luxury of experimenting. So on their albums, they do something that's unusual in rock but not so controversial an idea in, say, hip hop: they create something that's a little like a revue, a virtual show featuring different vocalists (mostly from New Orleans) and instrumental soloists each taking their turn on stage in the Galactic sound universe. Mostly the band creates new material in collaboration with its many guests, though they occasionally rework a classic. Despite the appearance of various platinum names on Galactic albums, they especially like to work with artists who are still underground. If you listen to their latest release, Carnivale Electricos together with the two previous studio albums (Ya-Ka-May and From the Corner to the Block), you'll hear the most complete cross-section of what's happening in contemporary New Orleans anywhere — all of it tight and radio-ready.


Photo: Ben Ellman of Galactic on Sax
( Click To Enlarge Photo )

Despite the electronics and studio technology, Galactic's albums are very much band records. Mercurio explained the Galactic process, which starts out with the beat: "The way we write music," he says, "we come up with a demo, or a basic track, and then we collectively decide how we're gonna finish it." The result is a hard-grooving sequence of tight beats across a range of styles that glides from one surprise to the next.

What pulls all the diverse artists on Carnivale Electricos together into a coherent album is that one way or another, it's all funk. Galactic is, always was, and always will be a funk band. Whatever genre of music anyone in New Orleans is doing, from Mardi Gras Indians to rock bands to hardcore rappers, it's all funk at the bottom, because funk is the common musical language, the lingua franca of New Orleans music. Even zydeco can be funky—and if you don't believe it, check out "Voyage Ton Flag," the album's evocation of Cajun Mardi Gras, in which Mamou Playboy STEVE RILEY meets up with a sampled Clifton Chenier inside the Galactic funk machine.

To make Carnivale Electricos, the members of Galactic drew on the skills, stamina, and funk they deploy in the all-night party of their annual Lundi Gras show that goes till sunrise and leads sleeplessly into Mardi Gras day. Carnivale Electricos begins on a spiritual note, the way Mardi Gras does in the black community of New Orleans. On that morning, the most exciting experience you can have is to be present when the small groups of black men called Mardi Gras Indians perform their sacred street theater. Nobody embodies the spiritual side of Mardi Gras better than the Indians, whose tambourines and chants provide the fundament of New Orleans carnival music. These "gangs," as they call them, organize around and protect the figure of their chief. The album's keynote singer, War Chief Juan Pardo, is, says Robert Mercurio, "one of the younger Chiefs out there, and he's become one of the best voices of the new Chiefs. Pardo grew up listening to the singing of the older generation of Big Chiefs, points out Ben Ellman, and "he's got a little Monk [Boudreaux], a little Bo Dollis, he's neither uptown nor downtown."

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