Interview with Producer Fabian Jolivet of New Orleans Benefit "The Congo Square Project" Distributed Exclusively By Amoeba

Posted by Billyjam, January 27, 2013 03:02pm | Post a Comment
It may now be eight years since Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans and the Gulf Coast but that does not mean that Amoeba Music has in any way abandoned its continued commitment to doing its bit in the still much needed recovery and rebuilding in the area. On the contrary; we've up the ante, and so this Fat Tuesday (Feb 12th) Amoeba invites you to celebrate Mardi Gras in style with us while simultaneously helping the city of New Orleans in its long, slow uphill road to recovery and rebuilding - with a portion of proceeds from all sales at Amoeba on Fat Tuesday going directly to NOLA and benefitting Tippitina's Foundation and the New Orleans Musician's Clinic. For Fat Tuesday at Amoeba Hollywood there will be  big celebration that will include a very special performance by the Dirty Dozen Brass Band (they play UCLA later that night with Allen Toussaint), DJs spinning rich diverse mixes of New Orleans music, plus another popular Line Parade (see video below of last year's Line Parade at Amoeba Hollywood). And in its continued homage to New Orleans as cultural center of American music and in helping preserve and protect its musical legacy,'s Vinyl Vaults now feature more than a hundred remastered rare songs (circa 1923-1932) of N.O. legend Louis Armstrong. Additionally Amoeba will exclusively be distributing six volunteer/benefit releases compiled/produced by Fabian Jolivet for The Congo Square Project Foundation with all proceeds benefiting New Orleans relief efforts. 


Back in 2005, at the very same time as Hurricane Katrina was wreaking havoc on New Orleans and other parts of the Gulf Coast, Los Angeles based drummer/producer Fabian Jolivet was in the midst of recording The Electroroots Project with such talents as Deacon Jones (John Lee Hooker); guitarist Freddy Koella (Bob Dylan), and bassist Hal Cragin (Iggy Pop). Coincidently the "Project" included a passionate drum suite tribute to The Crescent City, titled "Congo Square." Then after the reality of the sheer devastation of Katrina and the realization that help was not as forthcoming as it should have been for the folks in New Orleans, had fully sunk in Fabian knew that he had to do his part to help and give back to a city that, musically and culturally, had offered him so much as both a musician and a human being. And so, The Congo Square Project was born: a loose knit volunteer organization whose mission statement included being "dedicated to help the New Orleans musicians in need via six albums recorded worldwide." For this Amoeblog I caught up with the ever passionate, hard-working, talented musician/producer/activist Fabian Jolivet to learn more details about his work and his commitment to New Orleans.

Amoeblog: You began your work on New Orleans music before Katrina hit. What specifically was it that drew you to the music of New Orleans and/or was it something you have always had an affinity for?

Fabian Jolivet: Yes, like all trap-smiths, I have always been fascinated by Louisiana's rich rhythm culture. [I] spent the year prior to Hurricane Katrina recording my own album of purista futurista instrumentals entitled The Electroroots Project for a British music production company, often traveling back and forth to London [that were] recorded with help from friends, producers-engineers, including legendary Brit engineer-producer John Leckie (John Lennon / Pink Floyd / Radiohead / Los Lobos). Most of those sessions took place at The Sound Factory, Cello Studios, and Mad Dog Studios. After John Leckie completed Dr. John's Anutha Zone and Los Lobos' Good Morning Aztlan, we both went to NOLA's Jazz Festival invited by Mr. Mac Rebennack. Like all music loving-tourists we drove up and down the Mississippi River fishing for blues ghosts that had disappeared long ago, traveling side roads from Clarksdale to Memphis, Vicksburg to The Crescent City, etc. It was a fascinating trip to say the least.

A few months later, during my album's final recordings with Hammond B3 wizard Deacon Jones and guitarist Rick Holmstrom (Mavis Staples), I started laying down the basic rhythm track for this Afro-NOLA influenced Drum Suite inspired by Art Blakey's Orgy In Rhythm [which was] based on the ancient 6/8-4/4 Afro-BEMBE Clave. And I was planning to invite a few great drummer friends to join me on the skins: Stephen Hodges (Tom Waits); Clem Burke (Blondie) and Don Heffington (Lucinda Williams).  I recall that engineer/producer Eddie Kramer was re-mixing some Jimi Hendrix tracks in the main room - everybody was happy at Mad Dog Studios that week. Eddie and me even sent a postcard to our good friend in common Bill Wyman (Rolling Stones) over in the UK.  Suddenly, Katrina hit! We all watched it on the studio lounge's TV. We could not believe the nightmare that was unfolding down South, the lack of response from the authorities, from a government that was willing to waste billions invading foreign lands, but, would not spend much on its own people, on thee cradle of modern music! New Orleans suffered another slap on the face, after 300 plus years of insults and degradation.

The recent trip's happy faces, street parades & tap dancers, spicy gumbo, Preservation Hall, Tipitina, The Jazz Fest, characters like Uncle Lionel Batiste - such an open bunch of good timers… the whole thing kept haunting me. So, I decided to use the drum tracks recorded with my friends for a better purpose, I said to myself: "forget my album, lets gather as many drummers/percussionists as possible to do something unusually interesting." 

First I contacted Louie Bellson (Duke Ellington) and Airto Moreira (Miles Davis), two giants of the skins. They both responded the very same way: "Just tell me when and where you need me. I will be there!" - So, that's how Drummers United (with a little help from our friends) began. Note: We are actually going backwards-releasing the albums recorded last first, as in the following list of six volumes:

1) SACRED GROUND volume 1
2) SACRED GROUND volume 2
5) DRUMMERS UNITED (with a little help from our friends) volume 1
6) THE CONGO SQUARE PROJECT Re-Mixes (International DJ's) volume 1

Amoeblog: How do you succinctly describe the real meaning of the Congo Square Project Foundation to someone who has no idea of what it is all about?

Fabian Jolivet: This project is about the history of modern music; the sounds of Congo Square are the true heartbeat of American music.  Think about it: no New Orleans means no recordings of Louis Armstrong, Preservation Hall Jazz Band, Smiley Lewis, Professor Longhair, Fats Domino, Little Richard, The Meters. Without them, there would have been no Elvis Presley, Ray Charles, Chuck Berry, James Brown. No Beatles or Rolling Stones. No Cream or Led Zeppelin, and no Prince or  Los Lobos as we know them either. Congo Square is the mother of all kitchens. That's where the African, European, and Latin cultures cultivated the main cultural-musical ingredients, and, cooked the original recipe for that rich gumbo eventually called jazz. Note: Congo Square was Sacred Ground for the local natives long before the Europeans and Africans arrived, it's an actual place in the Treme neighborhood, north of The French Quarter.  This Sacred Ground was first used by Houma Native Americans and later by slaves in the region, as a place to enjoy one day of freedom.  African people used this as a place to maintain a connection to their true status as free people of Africa.  Native Americans, as well as Europeans often joined in the celebration.  Music, abolitionist organization, food, and dance were all intertwined to make this one day a week festival.

Here's an excerpt from my favorite NOLA book The World That Made New Orleans by the great writer Ned Sublette: from Chapter 1 - Rock the City -  "On sabbath evening,” wrote a visitor to New Orleans in 1819, “the African slaves meet on the green, by the swamp, and rock the city with their Congo dances.” Most of the United States was quiet on Sunday. In many parts of the rural, mostly Protestant nation, dancing was frowned on. But the mostly French-speaking, mostly Catholic, black-majority port city of New Orleans, proudly unassimilated into the English-speaking country that had annexed it, was rocking. Jump forward 128 years, to Roy Brown’s “Good Rockin’ Tonight.” If I had to name the first rock ’n’ roll record, I would first say that there is no such thing, then I would pick “Good Rockin’ Tonight.” It was recorded at Cosimo Matassa’s rudimentary studio on the edge of New Orleans’s French Quarter: a microphone and a disc cutter, in the back room of a record store at Rampart and Dumaine. Cosimo’s place was catty-cornered from the legendary “green by the swamp,” known in the old days as Place Congo, or Congo Square. The distance between rocking the city in 1819 and “Good Rockin’ Tonight” in 1947 was about a block."

Amoeblog: For the latest (third) installment you have some amazing guests like Levon Helm and the Preservation Hall Jazz Band. How did you go about getting these greats on board?

Fabian Jolivet: First of all, you must believe in order to survive the walking and hassling required to completing such a long project. Specially in this a capitalist society of ours, were nobody seems to be interested in investing one dollar into anything unless they can get a hundred dollars back. See, I am first and foremost a struggling drummer, and will always be. So I am used to being in the trenches [and] expected [to] and made zero out of this long labor of love, investing tons of my time and my own money over the past seven to eight years to get it completed. It hasn't been easy, but, it's here and we are all very, very proud. Note that none of the income comes to me. It goes directly to New Orleans (forever).

You call them up, explain the project, assure them that you are not another scam artist. The kind folks involved in this project, like Preservation's Ben Jaffe who provided a couple of great tracks, are all musicians, thus, we all speak the same language you know?  Without the unconditional support of people like John Boudreaux (Professor Longhair), Steve Jordan (Keith Richards), John Densmore (The Doors) and Levon Helm and The East Coast Gang amongst many others, this would have never been possible. Levon and his engineer Justin Guip offered their Woodstock studio and services (for free), then Peter Gabriel and Tchad Blake over in the UK (also for free); Dusty Wakeman and Iggy Elisavetsky here in LA also for free - the graphic designers/pure kindness.

You must also do the proper research, go down there in person to find the right charities - walk the talk and ask the musicians involved and the local volunteers.  There's plenty of good people helping: The NOMC - The Congo Square Preservation Society, Tipitina Foundation, Preservation Hall Foundation, Music Cares, Habitat for Humanity, The Mardi Gras Indians Foundations, and others too.  Hey, I consider myself more of a pro-loser than a producer. These albums produced themselves, almost by divine intervention. They are not mine. They belong to the people involved and the New Orleans musical community!

Amoeblog: From a historical standpoint what landmark periods in the history of the music of N.O. does the albums Sacred Ground & Saints at Congo Square cover, and, why did you focus on these areas?

Fabian Jolivet: Because its the foundations for the history of blues, jazz, gospel, rock'n'roll, soul, funk, etc.
The hidden core of Congo Square and Drummers United focuses on the development of the West African Bembe Clave (rhythm), one of the key ingredients of jazz. Drummers United features fantastic percussion based musical compositions and short drum solos recorded all over the world that unite our cultures - we all came from the same place - includes tap dancing, street parades, sharp beat poetry to open your mind. The Congo Square Project covers a long line, from Afro-Yoruba seventh generation West African priest Ayo Adeyemi (Babe Olatunji) blessings to the most avant-garde modern be bop recorded by The Barry Alschul Quartet (Chick Corea) - from native North Lakota priest Nathan Chasing Horse chanting (their rhythm the origins of the modern rock 'n' roll groove) to Levon Helm (The Band) soulful singing-drumming over Hubert Sumlin (Howlin' Wolf) bluesy guitar riffs [and] from Afro Native Colombian chanting by Benitez-Valencia-Osorio to the magic composition by classical music prodigy Thomas Bloch, storytelling by Earl Palmer, Javier Martinez, Mike Watt, Chuck E Weiss, Moris, John Densmore, and others.

Check the fantastic contribution titled "Saints At Congo Square" led by Francisco Mora-Catlett (directly related to NOLA legend, Louis Armstrong's drummer Big Side Catlett) featuring Sun Ra's protege Marshall Allen on sax. Now, that contribution is ahead of its time!  It also traces not only the African influence but the unity of World Music; American Native, European, Afro-Native Caribbean and Latin contributions. For instance, most people do not know that Mexican music had a huge influence in jazz via Emperor Don Maximiliano Prussian-Austrian marching bands (bands that were hired for the New Orleans World Fairs). Without Mexican musicians we would not have polka, nor the clarinet or tuba instruments. The message? We all came from the same place and music color blind.

Amoeblog: As central musician/percussionist and compiler/producer of the Congo Square Project how did you oversee the recording process - IE was it tightly structured or more freeform or a combination of both that you later pieced together in post-production?

Fabian Jolivet: There are tons of great drummers/percussionist leading themselves here. Still, "Do what nobody else ever allowed you to do" was my motto. Freedom was, is the key always, let it flow, these are seasoned players [so] they almost produce themselves at all times-all you really need to do is supply the right direction & pick great studios, just gather the right kinda players in the room. Isn't that what Rudy Van Gelder did? Organizing the sessions (dates) took longer because of everybody's schedules. For instance: The fantastic Jimmy Cobb (Miles Davis) sessions took place at Levon Helm's studios in Woodstock. It took me a year to connect busy drummer Jimmy Cobb with pianist Warren Bernhardt and bassist extraordinaire Ira Coleman - the first was touring Europe; the second with Steely Dan; the third recording with Cassandra Wilson. Jimmy had just arrived from Germany, his lovely wife drove him straight from JFK, and then, it took only one hour,and, just two takes to complete it. It was all worth it 'cause Cobb was on fire, and, having him there... Levon was in heaven, especially when Joe Morello (Dave Brubeck) called me during the session's break to organize his participation & we put them drummers on a 3 way phone conversation.

Note that Levon always had a photo of Joe on his kitchen's fridge. The Levon Helm & The East Coast Gang sessions took a lot of time to organize too. But in the end, thanks to soul bro number one Steve Jordan's help and leading skills, those were also an afternoon of pure-pure joy. Recording those three tracks with Levon Helm, Hubert Sumlin, Teresa Williams, Larry Campbell and Danny 'Kootch' Kortchmar, with engineer Niko Bolas behind the desk at NYC Skyline Studios was a fantastic learning experience. [see video of session immediately below] And note that this project truly never ends. Next month we will be completing one of those Levon Helm tracks, adding the last touch to one of the session's gems, overdubbing backing vocals and fiddle with my friends The Mastersons from Texas.


Amoeblog:  What would you like the average listener to get from this project?

Fabian Jolivet: Honestly? I would like people to switch off their TV sets, computers, and those bloody cellphones for a while. Offer them to sit down on a park bench or lay down on a carpet to listen to music once again, the way it used to be, and let it all transport them to another dimension, to escape away from this world.

Amoeblog: What plans do you have for the upcoming installments in the series?

Fabian Jolivet: We are completing a couple of tracks; currently mixing Saints At Congo Square Vol. 2 and Drummers United (with a little help from our friends) volume 1. We started to remix some key tracks to be able to reach out to the younger generation. Already contacted a couple of interesting, well know DJ's and beat poets [and] would like this opportunity to invite more of them to volunteer to remix and recite
poetry-spoken word over rhythm legends such as James Gadson, Earl Palmer, John Boudreaux, Clayton Cameron, Clive Bunker, Airto Moreira, Pete Lockett, Bill Bruford,etc. [and am] really looking forward to that wild experiment and to working with Karen Pearson and the whole of Amoeba Music's staff to make this a success: gather the long overdue attention from the press and collect needed funds for The New Orleans Musicians Clinic & Co.

Post script: Sadly several of the percussion legends/participants have passed away since starting this project: Louie Bellson, Earl Palmer, Joe Morello, Richie Hayward, John Brunious, Bernard Bunchy Johnson, Uncle Lionel Batiste, Hubert Sumlin, and Levon Helm. Also, Mitch Mitchell was about to record his contribution when he passed away. I would like to dedicate this project to their soulful musical souls.  Levon Helm once said to me: "Fabs, thanks for what you are doing for New Orleans" - as he slipped a joint in my pocket. "Please, Never, Never, Never give up, OK?"


Amoeba Music is offering you a Free Download  of "Shallow Water" by The Young Guardians of the Flame. You can purchase a download of the entire first volume for only $5.98 with all the proceeds are going directly to NOLA. And in the next Amoeblog installment leading up to Fat Tuesday we are looking forward to even more great music with another free download. So check back here.
And meantime check out the CongoSquareProject website

Relevant Tags

Fabian Jolovet (2), Dirty Dozen Brass Band (4), Fat Tuesday (19), New Orleans (56), Congo Square Project (3), Rhythm & Blues (4), Mardi Gras (24), Fat Tuesday At Amoeba (2)