[ Image Courtesy of Diwang Valdez ]

Album Review: Expect the Unexpected by the 79rs Gang is Mardi Gras Indian Music at Its Finest

16:00 June 05, 2020
By: Clara Lacey

The new full-length album Expect the Unexpected from the 79rs Gang features Mardi Gras Indian music in a way you've never heard before, with classic elements core to the music tradition expanded by vocals, electronic production, and hip-hop percussion beats. Available now to listen via Bandcamp, Soundcloud, Spotify, and more, the album vibrantly showcases New Orleans culture as it exists and evolves in 2020, bringing the tradition and culture to new audiences with an outstanding display of talent and intention.

[ Album Cover Art by Ceaux Young ]

The 79rs Gang was formed in 2013 by Big Chief Romeo Bougere of the 9th Ward Hunters and Big Chief Jermaine Bossier of the 7th Ward Creole Hunters, who put aside their territorial differences in order to create and expand the musical tradition in solidarity. Their first album Fire On The Bayou, released in 2014, focused on traditional Mardi Gras Indian music, with the "Intro" track boasting the collaboration of two different chiefs with two different styles. As they return with their second album with Sinking City Records, the music retains its roots with chants and the incorporation of a vast range of instruments, but it also pushes the form forward from its history with the sounds of hip hop, electronic, and dance music.

"In the 1970s, Bo Dollis and Monk Boudreaux opened the door and took Mardi Gras Indian music and culture around the world using New Orleans funk. On Expect the Unexpected, we bring this culture into the future," says Bossier. "We take this music around the world, using a beat machine, using the sounds of hip hop and dance music. This is music for young people and old people, for the people of New Orleans, and for people who know nothing about this culture. This is music for the whole world."

Songs like "79rs Bout to Blow" and "Brand New Day" connect eclectic instruments with a hip-hop rhythm and voice, providing beats you can't help but groove to. Meanwhile, other tracks speak meaningfully to the history of Mardi Gras Indians and New Orleanians. The shorter acapella track "History" traces the history of Mardi Gras Indians and New Orleans from slavery through Reconstruction to the development of second lines and musical traditions. "Stop the Water" uses waves of chant and soulful vocals to express the experience of Hurricane Katrina, bringing the storytelling tradition up to date.

In this way, the album continues the long tradition of Mardi Gras Indians telling the story of their origins, when escaped African slaves found refuge and intermarried with Native Americans of South Louisiana. For over 100 years, men, women, and children have masked in elaborate feathered and beaded suits handsewn over the whole year, while they chanted call-and-response lyrics to call on their ancestors and warn contemporaries to stay out of the way. These chants interplay with the sounds of bass drum, snare, bottles, cowbell, cymbals, and handclaps, all intrinsic to Mardi Gras Indian music.

[ Image Courtesy of Diwang Valdez ]

The album title Expect the Unexpected rings true with its addition of notable collaborators, including Arcade Fire's Win Butler, LCD Soundsystem's Korey Richey, Grammy Award-winning trumpeter Nicholas Payton, American percussionist and vocalist Cyril Neville, Haitian music collective Lakou Mizik, and many more musicians who enhance the universality and solidarity of this New Orleans-rooted music.

The track "Iko Kreyòl" stands out as a cultural celebration of the connections between New Orleans and Haitian traditions. With the collaboration of the 79rs Gang with Lakou Mizik, the song reclaims the Mardi Gras Indian classic "Iko Iko" chant, believed by historians to have descended from Haitian folklore, and mixes Haitian rara horns with this legendary New Orleans second-line sound.

The founding duo of Bossier and Bougere worked alongside Grammy-winning writer/producer Eric Heigle (Arcade Fire, the Soul Rebels, Lost Bayou Ramblers) to create this powerful and funky album, with artwork created by New Orleans artist Ceaux Young.

"Romeo and Jermaine are two of the baddest Indian singers out there, not to mention Romeo can play tambourine as well as anyone I've ever seen," said Heigle. "That, along with the concept of solidarity that is embedded within the 79rs Gang's concept, makes this project super unique. They worked really hard on this music, and I couldn't be prouder of the 79rs Gang for Expect the Unexpected."

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