Bring The Mountain To Him
I was the tenth child of eleven growing up in the Irish Channel neighborhood of New Orleans, a neighborhood of working class and Irish, German, French and Spanish families – a tough neighborhood even when times were good.
Music is something poor folks can have in their lives because it’s in the air. We were poor but I always remember music in the house. My mother was always whistling and singing while she worked around the house. The records of my older siblings – one had the soundtrack to the life story of Hank Williams (starring George Hamilton, no less) with the singing done by Hank “Bocephus” Williams Jr. hanging on a wall. Another sister had a big poster of Elvis hanging. There was a copy of The Beatles first record that had a picture of each of their faces and each face on the copy in our house had a lipstick print on it. Music was on WTIX the Top Forty A.M radio station of the day in New Orleans and music was played in the bars of the neighborhood. Pete Fountain’s Half-Fast Marching Club came through on St. Joseph’s Day. My brothers Andrew, Joseph and John all played horns in drum and bugle corps growing up so horns were always blowing in the house. There was always somebody singing, playing or dancing. For me, music has always been escape, or at least the hope that I could escape and hope is something one can live on for a life time.
We had all of this growing up but we did not have Mardi Gras Indians. I didn’t know the thrill of hearing “Indians coming” yelled out of every doorway on the block by young and old with equal excitement. I didn’t grow up hearing their exotic language of frightening yells, chats, and songs in a code meant to exclude all but the knowing. I did not see the glorious colors and heroic nobility with the eyes of a child who could grow up to respect the traditions to the point where you think the rest of the world are fools for not knowing. John Boutté introduced me to that world, a world which if you enter respectfully and with an open heart you are likely to see such beauty as to make you catch your breath, have tears in your eyes and laugh out loud, perhaps all in the same moment. Glen David Andrews had me play my first second line last year when I joined him for the Bury the ‘Aint’s second line he organized. Shamarr Allen explained the nuances of buck jumping and how it is different from one ward to the next, (if you point your toes in when you dance it may be a tell of where you are from).
What Colman and I had for Bring The Mountain To Him was more of a concept than a song. At the end of the Tootie scene, Mayor Dutch Morial arrives at Tootie and Joyce’s house because he knows the intractable Tootie will not go to Gallier Hall if his suit is not finished.
I asked my friend, Jacques Morial, to record the part of his father, Mayor Morial, for the track. Jaques was familiar with Dan Baum’s book. In fact, he is quoted in the book at the start saying, “New Orleans is still full of brigands, freebooters, mercenaries, and slaves.” I asked him if he would speak the words his father spoke to Tootie that morning: “From what I’ve heard about Tootie Montana, he’s not going to budge until his suit is finished. So, since Mohamed won’t come to the mountain, I brought the mountain to him.” Jacques smiled, he has the sweetest smile, and said “I remember that Mardi Gras, the morning my father had to go to his house.” He said he’d be glad to be the voice of his father for Nine Lives which was and is an honor. It is was lovely that he did so with his sister, Judge Monique Morial, looking on. I thought it might be a solemn moment for her as Jacques recorded the words her father spoke in Dan’s book but Monique – who went to high school with my wife Shelly – laughed like any sister would and said, “He and Mark both think they sound like my father but they don’t” but she was smiling and proud all the same.
For this song I called Peter Boutté, Ruben Watts and Vance Vaucresson who are all cousins to each other. They are not Indians but Ruben is a percussionist who understands the beats and grooves of the music, (John Boutté says Ruben plays grooves so deep he calls up the spirits). Peter and Vance write songs spontaneously over Ruben’s grooves which they later refine into structured songs to improv around. Colman and I gave them the concept and the first lines of the song which is what Mayor Morial says to Tootie in the book and told them to take it from there with story about a Big Chief not wanting to be rushed in finishing the sewing of his costume. I only asked that the groove be different from Tootie.
Wes Fontenot, the Piety studio engineer, had the room set up with mics and waiting for a live recording. I must say something about Wes. We have over a hundred people performing on Nine Lives which meant that over a hundred egos came through the studio from fragile to sizeable and not once, not ever was Wes Fontenot’s ego an issue. He did brilliant work, instinctively knew when to be a friendly presence to the person recording and when to vanish. I can’t say enough about Wes’s contributions to making this record and just how much I came to rely on him in these sessions.
The percussionists and singers wanted to be in the same room, the track was all feel and instinct. They were going to develop musical and lyrical themes they had played with and I would edit that into a song. It was not the last time on this record that I would trust another songwriter to finish a song, something which surprised a few folks but made sense to me. I had been working with these guys since before the flood through John Boutté. I had played the last Jazz Fest before the flood with Vance and Ruben for John’s set in the Jazz Tent what seems like a happy life time ago. I have heard their demos, watched them write and produced a demo for them so I wasn’t asking blind. I like being a part of this musical community for that very reason, the diversity of styles. Some times the best way to cross into a different style is with a trusted friend. I knew what they could give me and I wanted it for Bring The Mountain To Him and the fellas did not let me down. They lit it up the studo and the track and I just listened from the control room. The short hand way of working that family has but also, because they play together a lot, that directness that musicians who work together a lot have with each other that would seem blunt if there were not so much love in the room.
They had worked out some great melody bits with plans to multi-track so Vance could harmonize with his own voice and Peter could work more chants and singing in around the parts he had created. The track is jumping, has breath, it’s electric and bursting with so much feeling that I could almost see the brightly colored feathers dancing by me.
It was three minutes of fun that needed to become a minute and a half of “yeah, baby”. They had worked out themes in the song but each took a few seconds to come together as they listened and searched for each other. Each part hung around for a few seconds before the next theme stuck it’s head out to begin. Wes and I listened for a few hours as we chose the parts that sounded developed and complete as musical ideas. It was so much fun to catch the feeling of where they connected, hanging on while the jam jelled and finding the point at which it releases into the next bit.
Bring The Mountain To Him was started by Colman and me but the song came to life with the writing, singing, playing and arranging of Peter Boutté, Vance Vaucresson and Ruben Watts and I love them for it.
~ Paul Sanchez – April 29, 2011