Grevel Lindop

Poet, biographer, critic, essayist and writer on just about everything

Dr John: Musical Hero of New Orleans Traditions

Very sad to hear this morning of the death of Dr John, whose music was a big part of my life, and meant even more after I visited New Orleans in the aftermath of Katrina.

Dr John (Mac Rebennack) (1941-2019) was a virtuoso pianist in the real New Orleans style, learnt from (among others) his first mentor, Professor Longhair. His flamboyant stage persona, which made every performance a grand theatrical event as well as a musical one, was drawn from deep Louisiana roots. There was a load of history behind Dr John.

He took his name from the original Doctor John of New Orleans (I quote from Voodoo in New Orleans (1946) by Robert Tallant): ‘There are few names so important in the history of American Voodoo as that of Doctor John…He claimed to be a Senegalese prince and the masses of grotesque scars that marked his face were believed to support this claim… His home contained a conglomeration of snakes, lizards, embalmed scorpions and animal and human skulls, the last stolen from graveyards…He specialised in healing and the selling of gris-gris and the telling of fortunes.’

Our Dr John the musician enjoyed using Voodoo props in his act and many of his tracks, especially the unforgettable ‘Walk on Gilded Splinters’ draw on Voodoo mythology and ritual for their poetry.

Another ingredient in his persona was the use of feathers and outlandish costumes derived from the New Orleans tradition of ‘Mardi Gras Indians’ when the more adventurous citizens dress up in huge feathered carnival outfits which are locally supposed to resemble Native American costume but are actually derived historically from the West African traditions of ceremonial and ritual dress – they are related to the feathered carnival costumes you’ll see at both the Rio (Brazil) and Notting Hill Carnivals.

Dr John’s genius was to take all this and mould it into a profoundly exciting musical drama that carried his city’s deepest cultural traditions into rock, blues and jazz in the psychedelic era and beyond.

When disaster struck New Orleans with Katrina in 2005, Dr John went on tour repeatedly to raise money for his fellow citizens and musicians.

He enriched our lives and we’re grateful. Now the spirits have him in their care. Maman Brigitte, Maman Erzulie, Baron Samedi, welcome him and treat him royally!

To read my account of visiting New Orleans after Katrina, please see my book Luna Park from Carcanet Press.

JUAN FORMELL: A LIFE DEDICATED TO MUSIC

 

If you ever came anywhere near salsa, as dancer or listener, or ever went to Cuba, you will have heard the music of Juan Formell, who died on Thursday 1 May.

He was the leader, composer and bass player for Los Van Van, the greatest Cuban band of the past fifty years and arguably the greatest Cuban band ever. The style of music he created with Los Van Van – a blend of rock and jazz creatively integrated with Afro-Cuban rhythms and structures over a base which is essentially son – was unmistakable and influenced every other artist who has worked in the mix of styles and sounds we now know as ‘salsa’.

A modest presence with short grey hair who combined a quiet, concentrated manner with a genial, welcoming smile, he was an unmistakable presence whenever the band played, and was largely responsible for both the wit and inventiveness of their songs, and the incredible precision of their playing. Los Van Van’s standard of musicianship – honed by the magnificent Cuban musical education freely available to all children with ability – was staggering to those used to the amateurishness of European pop musicians. Formell clearly ran a very tight ship, but he had a tremendous sense of humour – see for example the video below, directed by Kerry Ribchester of Key2Cuba, where he plays the role of a hapless tour guide, abandoned by his tourist charges who all go off to dance after loading him with their belongings. His work with the band was also profoundly based in the Afro-Cuban religion, Santería – the delightful video for Chapeando shows the band led through the jungle and the human ear by Eleggua, the boy-god who opens the way for us through life’s difficulties, and the lyrics also celebrate Yemayá, the bountiful sea-goddess who provides us with fish – necesitamos tu produccion, Mama as the song says. Chapeando is probably the best album produced by any Cuban band in the past half-century. I saw Los Van Van live several times, in the UK and also in Cuba (see Travels on the Dance Floor for an account of one of their concerts in Havana), and their performances were full of incredible energy and joy as well as musical richness and precision. It was hard for anyone used to European bands to understand how they could go on playing and singing (and dancing!) with such energy for two and a half or three hours.

I’m sure the band – recently directed by Juan’s son Samuel – will go on and be as good as ever. But Juan’s achievement remains huge, and above all joyous. He gave happiness to so many people and his recordings will go on doing so. As he said himself, “My life has been entirely dedicated to music, and only makes sense when people make it theirs and enjoy it.”