Galactic: A Funky Day In The Life Of Mardi Gras

Feb 21, 2012
Originally published on February 21, 2012 11:06 pm

Get ready to dance, because it's Mardi Gras — a day to cut loose before Lent begins. In New Orleans, that means a day of parades, costumes and music everywhere you turn.

For the members of Galactic, Mardi Gras actually started on Monday, with an "annual gig that goes until the sun comes up at local club Tipitina's," saxophonist and harmonica player Ben Ellman says. For the long-running New Orleans funk band, it's one of the biggest gigs of the year.

"And then people go out and try to find the [Mardi Gras] Indians, or they'll line up for Zulu, or whatever early thing they want to do," drummer Stanton Moore says in an interview with All Things Considered host Melissa Block. "But some of our older friends have started getting wise, and they'll actually go to sleep early, like 8 or 9, wake up around 4 or 5 a.m., and then come see us bright-eyed and bushy-tailed."

On Galactic's new album, Carnivale Electricos, the band leads listeners through the whole day of Mardi Gras, which starts with "Ha Di Ka." The song features Juan Pardo from the Golden Comanche tribe of New Orleans.

"[Juan Pardo] just represents one of the many tribes of Mardi Gras Indians, and they spend all year making these beautiful, beautiful suits," Ellman says. "They come out a couple times a year and show off and parade through the streets and do their thing."

Moving down the parade route, "Karate" features the KIPP Renaissance High School Marching Band. For Moore, it was the marching bands that got him "interested in playing drums in the first place."

"My mom started bringing me to Mardi Gras parades when I was 8 months old. You know, [there are] pictures of me from that first Mardi Gras in a clown outfit," Moore says, laughing. "As I got a little bit older — 3, 4, 5 — I started to really be impacted by the drums coming down the street at the parades. I took note of the excitement that people would get from the drums coming, and you would hear the drums first when the band was coming down the street. I started hitting on everything I could find in the house. I knew about then that I wanted to hit on stuff for a living."

Music Everywhere

Ben Ellman says that seeing those marching bands come down the street feels amazing.

"When you're watching a parade go by and there's a 100-piece marching band walking by you, it's just extremely powerful," Ellman says. "There are always bass-drum players that if you're lined up on the street, they'll walk right by you and just bash the bass drum in your face. It's really exciting and powerful. And you can hear a lot of music Mardi Gras day; I mean, it's not only from parades, depending upon where you are. You'll hear Indians some places, you'll hear marching bands some places, you'll hear hip-hop all over the place, you'll hear Mardi Gras music — there's so much music."

New Orleans rapper Mystikal makes an appearance in Galactic's "Move Fast," as does producer Mannie Fresh. Moore says you can hear hip-hop just about anywhere during Mardi Gras.

"People will set up their pick-up trucks or even box trucks," Moore says. "They'll put a box truck on the parade route and use that as their party headquarters, and sometimes they have small PAs blaring their music of choice out the back of these box trucks."

"Under the freeway overpass, too, you have DJs set up sound systems and such," Ellman says. "It's a party."

The whole city shuts down for Mardi Gras, and Ellman says it's hard to stay home.

"It's a Tuesday everywhere else, but in New Orleans, it's Mardi Gras," he says. "Everything's closed, the streets are packed, there are different kinds of parties everywhere, so I find it really hard to stay home. I never have."

All great things must end, though, so it's appropriate that Carnivale Electricos closes Mardi Gras with "Ash Wednesday Sunrise."

"You're spent, and you had a great time, but you're also sort of glad it's over because it's so exhausting," Moore says.

"Ash Wednesday is sleep, that's what it is," Ellman says. "Sleep all day."

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Audie Cornish.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

I'm Melissa Block. And get ready to dance. It's Mardi Gras, Fat Tuesday, a day to cut lose before Lent begins. In New Orleans, that means it's a day of parades, costumes and music everywhere you turn.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BLOCK: We're listening to the New Orleans funk band Galactic, which celebrates the sounds of Mardi Gras in its new album, "Carnivale Electricos." Galactic has been together for almost 20 years now, and three members of the five-piece band join me from New Orleans. Ben Ellman plays sax and horns and harmonica. Hey, Ben.

BEN ELLMAN: How you doing?

BLOCK: Robert Mercurio plays bass.

ROBERT MERCURIO: Hey. Happy to be here.

BLOCK: And Stanton Moore is on drums and percussions. Stanton, hi.

STANTON MOORE: Hello.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BLOCK: Mardi Gras for you guys actually starts earlier than Mardi Gras, right? It starts on Monday. You have a Fat Monday tradition.

ELLMAN: We have an annual gig that we play till the sun comes up at a local club, Tipitina's.

MOORE: And that's one of the biggest nights in New Orleans. It's one of our biggest gigs of the year.

BLOCK: Stanton, you're playing through the night, all through - straight through until the sun comes up.

MOORE: Till the sun comes up, and then people go out and try to find the Indians, or they'll go out and line up for Zulu or whatever early thing that they want to do. But some of our older friends have started getting wise and they'll actually go to sleep early, like 8:00 or 9:00, wake up around 4:00 or 5 A.M. and then come see us bright-eyed and bushy-tailed.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

BLOCK: Now, Stanton mentioned go out and find the Indians. Let's talk about that. Ben, we're talking about Mardi Gras Indians and the new album, which leads us, really, through the whole day of Mardi Gras, the arc of how the day goes by, starts with a song called "Ha Di Ka."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HA DI KA")

ELLMAN: That's Juan Pardo from the Golden Comanche tribe from New Orleans. He just represents one of the many tribes of Mardi Gras Indians. And they spend all year making these beautiful, beautiful suits. And they come out a couple of times a year and show off and parade through the streets and do their thing.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HA DI KA")

BLOCK: I love listening to one of the songs, "Karate," which features the KIPP Renaissance High School Marching Band.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "KARATE")

BLOCK: Stanton Moore, how many kids are we talking about there?

MOORE: I think there was about 40.

BLOCK: Forty. And as the drummer in Galactic, I imagine you're hearing the rhythm of those drums, and it's an incredible thing.

MOORE: Oh, yeah. I mean - and that's what got me interested in playing drums in the first place was my mom started bringing me to Mardi Gras parades when I was 8 months old.

BLOCK: No kidding.

MOORE: So there are pictures, you know, pictures of me from that first Mardi Gras in a clown outfit. No joke.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MOORE: As I got a little bit older - 3, 4, 5 - I started to really be impacted by the drums coming down the street at the parades, and I was - I took note of the excitement that people would get from the drums coming. And you will hear the drums first when the band was coming down the street. And I started hitting on everything I could find in the house, and I knew about then that I wanted to hit on stuff for a living.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "KARATE")

BLOCK: Ben, what's it like to be out on the street for Mardi Gras and to see one of those marching bands heading your way? What's that feeling?

ELLMAN: It's amazing. When you're watching a parade go by and there's a hundred-piece marching band walking by you, it's just extremely powerful. And there's always, like, bass drum players. If you're lined up right on the street, they'll walk right by you, just like bash the bass drum in your face.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

ELLMAN: And it's really exciting and powerful, and you can hear a lot of music. Mardi Gras day, I mean, it's not only that from parades, but depending upon where you are, you'll hear different things. You'll hear Indian in some places. You'll hear marching bands in some places. You'll hear hip-hop. All over the place, you'll hear Mardi Gras music. It's - there's so much music.

BLOCK: Speaking of hip-hop, you have the song "Move Fast."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MOVE FAST")

MERCURIO: That's the world-famous Mystikal. He's a revered rapper here in New Orleans, and also on the track is Mannie Fresh, who is a producer.

BLOCK: And where would you be hearing hip-hop during Mardi Gras?

MOORE: People will set up their pickup trucks or even box trucks. They'll put a box truck on the parade route and use that as their party headquarters, and they sometimes have small PAs blaring their music of choice out the back of these box trucks.

ELLMAN: They're under the overpass - a freeway overpass, too, you know, like DJ set up like sound systems and such. And it's a party.

BLOCK: Now, you guys are the instrumental backup for singers who you brought in, and two of them are two of The Neville Brothers, Cyril and Ivan Neville, doing this song called "Out in the Street."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "OUT IN THE STREET")

ELLMAN: It's a Tuesday everywhere else, but in New Orleans, it's Mardi Gras. Everything is closed. The streets are packed. There's different kinds of parties everywhere, so, you know, I find it really hard to stay home. I never have.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "OUT IN THE STREET")

BLOCK: Well, all great things must end, right? So Mardi Gras leads into Ash Wednesday, and that's how you close the album with this song, "Ash Wednesday Sunrise."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ASH WEDNESDAY SUNRISE")

BLOCK: And, Stanton, I think I can feel in my bones what you're feeling like the next morning.

MOORE: You're spent, and you had a great time, but you're also sort of glad it's over because it's so exhausting.

ELLMAN: Ash Wednesday is sleep. That's what it is: Sleep all day.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ASH WEDNESDAY SUNRISE")

BLOCK: Stanton Moore, Robert Mercurio, Ben Ellman, they are Galactic. Happy Mardi Gras, guys.

ELLMAN: Thank you so much.

MERCURIO: Thank you.

MOORE: Happy Mardi Gras.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ASH WEDNESDAY SUNRISE")

BLOCK: Galactic's new album is "Carnivale Electricos." You can hear Galactic live in concert on Thursday night at nprmusic.org or with the brand-new NPR Music iPad app.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ASH WEDNESDAY SUNRISE")

BLOCK: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.