Cover Story

It's Fest Time!

Profiles on FIL headliners Roddie Romero and the Hub City All-Stars, Dirty Dozen Brass Band and Balkan Beat Box

Coming of Age
Roddie Romero & the Hub City All-Stars capture the past and the present with The La Louisianne Sessions.
By Nick Pittman

Heading south on Highway 167 in Vermilion Parish, there's a Texaco gas station that still sells Roddie Romero's cassette, The New Kid in Town, some 17 years after its release. On the tape's cover, a young Romero is forever in high top sneakers and even higher hair. For some, he'll always remain the new kid on the block ' "that squirt with the accordion playing after Wayne Toups," as Romero puts it.

With his Hub City All-Stars' new double CD, The La Louisianne Sessions, that stands to change. Now 31 years old, Romero is all grown up with kids of his own and a bit less hair. His band's new album pairs 12 maturely composed originals by Romero and his songwriting partner and keyboardist Eric Adcock with 11 thoughtful tributes performed in a key gained only by age and experience.

The album, Romero's fifth, covers Louisiana ground from Cajun and zydeco to New Orleans piano boogie to the band's unique Hub City style. Album opener "Party Down," a Clifton Chenier cover, is a breezy anthem for a crowded, rowdy crawfish boil that contrasts with deeper originals such as "Love is Eternity," a cut for a more intimate occasion.

Another original, "It ain't Easy" is a slightly tongue-in-cheek ode to Louisiana life set to a quasi-marching band drum beat and Adcock's Dr. John-caliber funky junker house piano. Dripping with rich imagery, it tells of a lazy day on Lake Pontchartrain that ends in hurricane rains, a broken paddle and finishing off a bottle of champagne just to send a message in it. Written pre-Katrina while Adcock lived in the Crescent City, it juxtaposes good times and hard living so perfectly it could be the state song. And when the band dives into traditional sounds, it doesn't fall short ' the new composition "Hebert Jig," with its Mardi Gras song beat, could easily pass for a Balfa Brothers tune.

The La Louisianne Sessions has been more than a decade in the making. Meeting once a week at Judice Inn, Romero, Adcock and the band spent eight years brainstorming. Though periodically writing songs, the All-Stars spent most of the time conceptualizing the record. Finally, two years ago ' after playing a particularly good gig in Chicago one weekend ' the band booked time at Lafayette's La Louisianne studios to start recording.

"It's been an evolution and a growing experience, together and separately," says Romero. "We just started brainstorming about how we could make it better and how we could move forward with this and just make it the best quality and, sonically, make it the best that we can."

Adcock agrees. "The time we took to make this record gave us the ability needed to build and follow through with our vision of how this project should be built, recorded and sound," he says. "It's a big project with multiple, carefully thought-out themes, including our originals and tips of the hat to the great legends that have inspired us over the years."

When not eating at Judice Inn, the band also had other projects to distract them. Romero served a stint as the guitarist for Steve Riley & The Mamou Playboys, and Adcock performed and recorded with Richard LeBouef & Two Step. Through their other gigs, they brought in drummer Dudley Fruge (of Two Step) and bassist and fiddler Kyle Hebert (from The Mamou Playboys). Guitarist, dobro player and friend Michael Juan Nunez (RiverBabys, Black Bayou Construktion) also joined along the way.

For the recording, the All-Stars expanded its ranks to pull in other notable Lafayette talent. Lil' Buck Senegal, former guitarist for Clifton Chenier, appears on "Party Down" and "Hey 'Tit Fille," two of the King's songs. Other honorary All-Stars include Doug Belote, Feufollet's Anna Laura Edmiston, Jeff Lewis, Al Berard, plus Lil' Band o' Gold's Richard Comeaux and Pat Breaux.

Though the additions of Fruge, Nunez and Hebert are somewhat recent, Adcock and Romero's partnership goes back to their high school days. Both were child protégés, with Adcock getting kicked out of formal piano lessons at 6 years old for sharing the boogie-woogie piano style he had learned with his fellow pupils. Romero took interest in his grandfather's accordion at an early age, and by 9 began learning the instrument. At 12, he started performing in public, and he gigged at the Montreal Jazz Festival at the age of 13. By the time he graduated high school, he'd recorded three albums (one hitting No. 1 in the Netherlands) and toured both the United States and Canada. In the 1990s, the accordionist opened the doors for young musicians across the state when the Louisiana Legislature passed the Roddie Romero Bill, allowing underage musicians to perform in bars when accompanied by a parent.

When the initial sessions at La Louisianne studio were over, The All-Stars had recorded 12 originals. But Romero says it just felt natural to keep recording. With help from La Louisianne's David Rachou, the band decided to take on a project of recreating the records of legendary accordionist Aldus Roger and other greats who recorded at the studio.

"The great Aldus Roger is undeniable as an accordion giant and was a big influence on Roddie ' and not just as an accordionist," says Adcock. "Roddie has always thought the Aldus Roger & The Lafayette Playboys recordings done in the mid-1960s at La Louisianne Studio were sonically some of the all-time best sounding Cajun recordings. I agree."

The band didn't want to merely cover songs like Roger's arrangement of "Johnny Can't Dance" and "Zydeco Sont Pas Salé," but reproduce them by utilizing the same equipment and gear Roger and other legends used at the studio. Staying true to old school methods, the band experimented with tones and microphone placement to re-create the warm and full feel of the classic records. The only way its rendition of the Roger-arranged "Mamou Two Step" could sound any closer to the classic is if the late accordionist sat in with the All-Stars.

"You're walking back in the past, but the future is right there," says Romero. "It's a beautiful mixture. The stars aligned, and it was right. It was almost starting to be a third record in there. I still feel that there hasn't been anyone yet to make a record like that, and I think we've come close. Maybe 10 years down the road we'll figure out the secret."

At first, Romero wanted to split the record into two parts, segregating the originals and the tributes, but friend and Louisiana Crossroads Director Todd Mouton convinced the band to mix all the tracks together. The decision works as the pace of The La Louisianne Sessions switches constantly to provide a variety ' from the lush and inclusive sound designed by the All-Stars to the remade classics of "Joe Pitre," "Tes Yeux Bleu," and "Scott Playboys Special."

"If it speaks anything, I think it speaks Lafayette," says Romero. "Growing up in Lafayette, this big gumbo pot of great Louisiana music is right here at the Hub. It's all about Lafayette. I wanted to make each genre as true as we could on all levels: musically, musicianship, the performance of it and on a sonic level, I really wanted to make it sound like those records. It's definitely different, more mature. It's Lafayette."

The Unanswered Question
The Dirty Dozen Brass Band responds to Hurricane Katrina and the government by remaking Marvin Gaye's What's Going On.
By R. Reese Fuller

When the Dirty Dozen Brass Band's members returned to the studio to record their latest album, the destruction of Hurricane Katrina was still fresh in their minds. For a month, the city they had called home all of their lives ' 30 of those years spent as a band together ' was submerged. It was only fitting that the band would re-record Marvin Gaye's seminal, soulful and socially conscious 1971 album What's Going On.

With the help of Chuck D., Ivan Neville, Bettye LaVette, G. Love, and Guru ' and kicking off with a clip from Mayor Ray Nagin's infamous "get off your asses" tirade on WWL Radio ' the album garnered the band a Best of the Beat award and nominations for the Big Easy Awards. The album was released on the first anniversary of Katrina, and 35 years after its original release, Gaye's lyrics are still relevant and place the city's current state of affairs front and center. In the Dozen's hands, Gaye's work takes on a fierce and sometimes angry intensity.

"We're in a serious, serious situation out here in New Orleans, man," says baritone saxophonist Roger Lewis. "We've got people living in trailers. Now I was hearing on the news on WWL that the money they got to help people recover from this stuff, now they're talking about pulling troops out of Iraq and some kind of way that money's getting channeled into that system. It's messing with the money that we need to recover. I don't understand that. What's going on with that? Something ain't right."

When Katrina hit New Orleans the band was out on the road, returning from a gig in Michigan. It made it back as far as Vicksburg, Miss., where the owner of its tour bus lived. For the next year, that's where Lewis lived along with his wife and daughter. Not all of the members of the Dozen have returned to New Orleans, and some are still scattered in cities like Atlanta, Baton Rouge, Dallas, and Detroit. Lewis is living in a rented house just around the corner from the jazz club Snug Harbor, even though he razed and rebuilt his flooded home in Gentilly.

"We're just waiting on a couple of more folks to move back into the neighborhood before we move back into our house," he says in a phone interview. "Our house is the only house that's renovated in that block. Of course we have people there, but there's no one immediately by us. When you have an 8-year-old daughter and a wife, you don't want to put them in a house where they don't have many people in the neighborhood. That's my problem. I'm on the road all the time. I'd be worried to death, man."

Tenor saxophonist Kevin Harris is still living in Baton Rouge, where he's been since Katrina. He doesn't know if and when he'll return to New Orleans. "Well," he says, "I think I'll have beach front property here in Baton Rouge pretty soon. I don't see nothing to stop the next storm. We've lost the natural levees. The Gulf of Mexico is knocking on the door. It's going to happen again, and I just can't see myself going through that again. I wasn't there, but I can't go back to New Orleans. There's a different kind of attitude. I can't relate to some of those people. That's why a lot of people are really not going back."

Harris' father and brother evacuated to the Superdome during the storm. The elder Harris had a heart attack and was transported to a hospital in Houston. Harris' brother had to stay behind and eventually ended up in Dallas, where the two men are now living.

Harris says even if he did make it back to New Orleans, the city's not the same and may never be again. "You know," he says, "there's two sides to the coin. There's the tourist industry that's beautiful, and then there's the people who work hard to keep it that way. They do the cooking, the cleaning, the driving around, the things that make it better, and a lot of those people are basically not home, and a lot of different people have moved into the spots that used to be theirs. It's a dilemma. You have a lot of people who are not there, who are truly the spirit of New Orleans. You have a certain kind of spirit that goes with the tourism that will never die, but the basic essence of it comes from the neighborhoods. That will never be the same."

Lewis' mother's lower 9th ward home took on 17 feet of water. "That house was completely engulfed with water, but it's still standing!" he says. "It's survived two major floods, the one 40 years ago, which was Hurricane Betsy, and Hurricane Katrina." Lewis was at home for Hurricane Betsy. He woke up in the middle of the night to find water inside up to his knees and up to the windows outside. After moving his family to higher ground, Lewis braved water up to his chest to retrieve a saxophone ' a gift from his father ' from his recently purchased 1955 Oldsmobile. "I still got the horn. All the lacquer came off it. That was the second storm that horn was under ' Katrina. I don't know if I'm going to get it refurbished because the whole horn is green now. I might make a lampshade out of it."

Lewis' family lost nearly everything they owned; he was able to save a few horns. At his mother's house, a couple of black and white photos were all that survived. "Instruments and pictures and all that stuff are material things," he says. "I mean it means something to you, but life is the most important thing, man. When lives are lost, that really hits home. There was a lot of unnecessary suffering. I think that could have been avoided if certain parts of the government would have taken the initiative to react, to respond even faster. It wasn't a question that they didn't know, since they should have been having everything in place, knowing that that was going to happen, to get people out. Some people couldn't get out. If you're poor and you ain't got no money, how are you going to go anywhere? You had sick and elderly people. It was a mess. People went without water and food for days, man. People died in their attics. People was crying out for help. It was like Judgment Day ' every man for himself and God for us all. It was a bad, bad situation. People didn't have to go through that. It could have been handled better."

Lewis adds: "But it's just like what Marvin Gaye says, what's going on? Who knows? We're just a few specks on the earth, man."

While the rhetorical question goes unanswered, the Dirty Dozen has every intention of keeping New Orleans at the forefront of its music. "We're just going to keep on doing what we've been doing for the past 30 years," Harris says, "and that's performing everywhere, anywhere. We're going to try to share New Orleans and try and get people closer together. The closer we get, the better things get."

Middle East Meets West
Balkan Beat Box defies traditional political and musical boundaries by giving Middle Eastern folk and klezmer music a Brooklyn beat.
By Nathan Stubbs

Growing up in the 1980s in Tel Aviv, Tamir Muskat wanted little to do with the traditional folk and classical music that permeated his Israeli upbringing. Klezmer and Yiddish music was inescapable, and on Friday afternoons his father ' a classically trained organist ' would gather the family to watch broadcasts of the Egyptian Orchestra on the sole channel picked up on their TV.

"Obviously, there was a time of resistance," he says in a telephone interview from his new hometown of Brooklyn, New York. "These melodies came from my grandma's house. It wasn't really cool to like it at some point." Muskat typically found more inspiration from Western rock music, and, as a teenager, played drums in a punk band and produced Israeli metal bands in a basement studio.

These days, he's teamed up with fellow Israeli native Ori Kaplan in the band Balkan Beat Box, a New York ensemble that lists influences ranging from Yuri Yunakov, a stalwart of Bulgarian wedding music, to jazz legend Ornette Coleman and early '90s Chicago hardcore rock group The Jesus Lizard.

Muskat and Kaplan formed Balkan Beat Box in 2004, after almost a decade of collaborations that included a Kaplan solo album and the band J.U.F. (Jewish Ukrainian Freundschaft). In all of these groups, Muskat has helped lay down reggae-inspired rhythms and electronic dance beats, while Kaplan, whose childhood saxophone teacher hailed from a Bulgarian gypsy village, has added a more traditional Middle Eastern sound.

"If you look back on Ori and my projects," Muskat says, "all of them were kind of dealing with the same elements. It's the music that we were growing up with but somehow we really felt the urge and the need to twist it and make it our own."

Muskat, whose family is originally from Romania, notes the Balkan element comes from the fact that Israel is a melting pot of culture from across the Middle East and Eastern Europe, from where many Jewish families immigrated after World War II.

Balkan Beat Box is comprised of six core members, half Israeli and half New Yorkers. But with a revolving door of collaborators from all around the world always sitting in, the group has never been a band in the traditional sense.

Muskat and Kaplan keep the band's structure loose on purpose. Recently, the duo has focused on creating musical collaborations that previously seemed impossible.

"We've been living in New York for many, many years," Muskat says, "and in a way zoomed out on the whole political situation in Israel and just really started to feel the urge to do something about it." They began cultivating some of the relationships they had developed in New York with musicians from throughout the Middle East, many from countries that, as Israelis, he and Kaplan are prohibited from even visiting.

"We cannot go into Syria," Muskat says. "We cannot go into Iran. We cannot go into Lebanon. We cannot go into Egypt almost these days. We never had the chance to meet these people that are our neighbors. And so the only way to collaborate with these artists was here in New York, and we did that out of just curiosity and the love for this music. In the last three or four years, we've been constantly collaborating with artists from countries that basically our governments are at war. Some of them can't even mention their name on our titles."

Gratification from these collaborations inspired the name of the band's new album, Nu Med, set for release on May 15.

"It stands for New Mediterranean," Muskat explains. "For us, this is it. It's the possibility of a new Mediterranean, one that has a place for a dialogue. It's almost a fantasy world that gives this possibility of collaborations and dialogue in some way because Israel is not doing anything about it, and we're very much not into it."

While the band does play shows in Israel, as well as Mediterranean countries like Turkey and Greece, Muskat says he dreams of the day when the band will be able to do a full mid-East tour. "To really go into the Middle East and play a show in Lebanon would be amazing, and we can't wait for this to happen," he says.

Meanwhile, the group's current tours are bringing its unique brand of funky electronic Balkan music to a whole new audience, winning over crowds from major rock festivals like Bonnaroo and Roskilde.

Known for its high-energy live performances, with band members marching in and out of the crowd, Muskat says the band makes a conscious effort to keep its show fresh each night. On some of the group's European tours, the atmosphere can resemble a carnival, with the touring members swelling to more than 20, including a troupe of belly dancers, multiple percussionists and a full horn section.

On the current U.S. tour, Muskat says they are sticking to their six-member base, featuring Muskat programming drums on a laptop alongside two saxophone players, a guitarist and a bassist. MC Tomer Yosef, a former Israeli stand-up comedian, fronts the band. Sporting a Mohawk and singing in a mishmash of English and Hebrew, his lyrics are alternately political and blithe. On the song "La Bush Resistance," Yosef raps, "Bring the dance and leave the guns, push the brains to positance. Drums of the resistance, we're making Bush bellydance with Afghanistans."

The word positance, Muskat explains, means "positive" and comes from the multi-lingual bandmembers' tendency to mix up languages in writing lyrics. "It's BBB language," he says. "If you speak a little Latin or a little French and not pure Americana, you'll probably kind of understand what we're saying a bit more."

As for the music, Muskat says it even speaks to his parents.

"They love it," he says. "In Israel, we get an amazing response because I think we kept a lot of what was important. The movement of the beats is very similar to the original in some way. We just totally painted it in completely different colors but still kept a lot of the essence of the music. So when you come to our show and want to dance to a good old Balkan beat, you'll get it ' it's just gonna be full of crazy bass and distorted drums."