New Orleans is rightly acclaimed as the birthplace of jazz, that most American of art forms. But the city’s rich, multiethnic heritage gave rise to an even earlier musical style. Though Mardi Gras Indian funk doesn’t enjoy jazz’s high profile, the lively and expressive form is kept alive through the music and performances of groups like 101 Runners. Coming to Asheville for two shows on Friday and Saturday, Sept. 12 and 13, and featuring Big Chief Juan Pardo, the group is an exemplar of the Mardi Gras Indian tradition, renowned for pageantry and reveling at carnivals in New Orleans.
Bandleader Chris Jones characterizes Mardi Gras Indian funk as the musical product of a magic, mystical, spiritual and ancestral tradition, dating back to the late 1800s. It was a time during which, he says, “local Indian tribes and formerly enslaved African-Americans had commonality.” These ethnic groups had common problems and helped each other in many different ways. Centered around New Orleans’ Congo Market, they interacted freely and often, trading goods and mingling bloodlines. Jones points out that the oral tradition of singing, chanting and drumming that developed among the combined cultures is relatively undocumented, though some recordings by artists such as Jelly Roll Morton showcased the developing style. The first tribe debuted in the 1880s, calling itself The Creole Wild West; it remains active today.
Jones considers the Mardi Gras Indian tradition “one of the most incredible subculture phenomena” in America. “Two of the most oppressed peoples of the time were able — through craft and song — to form a bond that helped them weather the storm,” he says. And that strength has helped the practice continue to this day. There’s a lot of mystery to that tradition, Jones says. “A lot of things, they keep close to their vest.”
Asheville’s Goombay festival, then, is an ideal showcase for 101 Runners. The deep connection between Native Americans and African-Americans is explored in the group’s percussioncentric music.
Perhaps the best-known major group exploring the style was The Wild Tchoupitoulas. Produced by Allen Toussaint, their 1976 album brought the style to national prominence. They added “a foundation of funk organization” to traditional tribal drumming. 101 Runners builds on that style, further exploring the music’s African percussion roots. “A lot of the music starts with the chants and percussion, then the music comes in,” Jones explains. “Then we go on the musical journey together.” He sums it up as organized chaos.
The band’s pair of Asheville dates — an official Goombay after party at New Mountain, and a show to close out Goombay on Saturday night — will feature African dancers and the flamboyantly dressed Mardi Gras Indians. (Jones says that Big Chief Juan Pardo spends countless hours creating his outfit. The result is full of beads, feathers, rhinestones and other colorful ornamentation.) 101 Runners will widen its musical vision further to include a number of local Appalachian musicians who’ll be sitting in. Jones has experience in this area: he conceived and produced the BlueBrass Project, a series of recordings that paired New Orleans and Appalachian musical styles.
Asheville-based musicians Jay Sanders and Woody Wood are veteran members of the loosely knit 101 Runners collective. Jones says that Asheville concertgoers will get to experience a unique mashup of cultures and roots music styles. By focusing on that, plus the African elements highlighted in the Goombay festival, the group will “cross-pollinate.”
“They originally wanted us to play 45 minutes,” Jones says of the Goombay set. “That’s like two tunes for us.” 101 Runners negotiated to play longer. But Jones stresses that the dance-oriented, partying Mardi Gras Indian funk is about fun; it’s not “deep and trippy and jammy.” Onstage, the group never does never the same thing twice. “In 10 years, we’ve had two rehearsals. And one of them was terrible,” Jones says. He points out that the ancestral nature of the music — paying tribute to so many American traditions — can “wake up some of the ones who came before.”
He adds, “One thing I learned really early was not to put any confines on it. We let the music take us where it goes. It’s moving artistic expression.”
WHO: 101 Runners feat. Big Chief Juan Pardo
WHERE: New Mountain, as part of the official Goombay Festival afterparty with members of Dirty Dozen Brass Band, Acoustic Syndicate and The Bluebrass Project. Friday, Sept. 12, at 9 p.m. $10/$12. newmountainavl.com
WHERE: Goombay festival on Saturday, Sept. 13, at 8:30 p.m. Free. ashevillegoombayfestival.com