Recording of September 2021: Bloodstains & Teardrops

Big Chief Monk Boudreaux: Bloodstains & Teardrops
Whiskey Bayou Records WSK 1006 (CD). 2021. Tab Benoit, Rueben Williams, prods.; Steven Stanley, Michael "Boxy" Howell, Benoit, engs.
Performance ****
Sonics ****

The Africans brought to the Americas to be sold into slavery were denied every vestige of their past except their memories. And yet, they preserved their rituals in dances, songs, and stories, playing the sacred rhythms that accompanied those rituals on whatever found objects they could use to fashion beats. The customs of American peoples from various African regions have been traced to specific destinations in colonial outposts in research detailed by scholars such as John Storm Roberts in Black Music of Two Worlds and Ned Sublette in several of his African-diaspora studies.

That music has flourished over the course of centuries into rich and varied traditions that define each region by the culture preserved by enslaved people. The cross-fertilization continues to this day as the music migrates through the Caribbean and across the Americas. The music of Jamaica and New Orleans has a particular symbiosis: The development of reggae is thought to have been influenced by New Orleans R&B heard by Jamaican musicians over the radio in the early 1960s.

The influence didn't just flow one way, however. Reggae flourished in New Orleans after musicians there were exposed to it. Bob Marley is a world figure in music on the measure of Louis Armstrong, Jimi Hendrix, and James Brown.

One of New Orleans's most venerated Mardi Gras Indian Big Chiefs, Monk Boudreaux, has long been fascinated with Marley's work and written songs with reggae beats for his Black Indian gang, the Golden Eagles. For his new album, Boudreaux made his first trip to Jamaica, recording six songs at Tad's International Recording Studio with local musicians and engineer Steven Stanley of Black Uhuru and Talking Heads fame. He then brought those tracks to a studio in Houma, Louisiana, where producer Tab Benoit recorded four more with local Cajun and blues musicians, creating a fascinating reggae/swamp music hybrid.

Before entering the Kingston studio, Monk spent a week in Jamaica gathering impressions of the people and visiting Marley's home. Monk's method of storytelling is rooted in the tradition of African griots: He doesn't write out his songs but sings from memory. Nor does he write sheet music or charts for his bands. He sets the mood by singing a few lines of the song and encourages the musicians not to think about their response but to follow him in the moment. Monk brought along a guitarist, Damon Fowler, who was familiar with his methods, the Jamaican musicians readily took to his prompting, and the sessions went quickly. The tracks are pushed by Jason "Welsh Bass" Welsh's pulsing bass lines and punctuated with crisp responses from drummer Wayne "Unga Barunga" Thompson.

The addition of toasting singer Ali Meek was a great idea; Meek works as both hype man and backup singer. On the title song, Monk revels in the vocal exchange, so similar to the call-and-response conversation of Mardi Gras Indian chants. "Hear what da man say," urges Meek as Monk delivers his tale of street violence and a mother's grief. The solace Monk offers to the mother is reminiscent of the compassion Marley expressed in his songs.

Meek is also great on "Mr. Okra Man," a story from Monk's childhood about the ghetto vendors who sold produce from the back of the truck as they drove through the 'hood, shouting what they were offering as they went. It could be just as much about Kingston as New Orleans when Monk and Meek recite the catalog of goodies: yellow bananas, coconuts, sugar cane....

The highlight of the Jamaican sessions is "Blue Mountains," Monk's story of visiting Marley's home and grave. The drive up the tiny mountain road was perilous, but Monk had a religious experience in the process. His Black Indian music is deeply spiritual, and here he comes closest to that style, using biblical imagery and summoning Marley as a guide to his journey. Monk is going to the mountain top because "that's where my brother lives." By the end of the song, Monk has been sanctified. He has a new crown.

The Jamaican sessions were all built around Monk's singing, but on the four songs cut in Cajun country, Benoit places Monk in full-band settings with crackling guitars. On the fierce train song "Choo Choo," Monk has an antiphonal exchange with Johnny Sansone's honking harmonica. His technique is just as effective with blues as it is with Black Indian music. Now we can add reggae to that mix. Why not? Whatever he sings becomes Monk's music.—John Swenson

Laurence Svirchev's picture

Without yet having heard the music, John Swenson's description of Monk's compositional methods matches nicely with the methods used by an other Monk, Thelonious Sphere, as well as Miles Davis, Randy Weston, Mingus (in the jazz realm) and countless classical musicians who were improvisers before notation of scores became de rigeur.