New New Orleans

Pub date March 2, 2010
WriterMosi Reeves

MUSIC Galactic’s provocative new album, Ya-Ka-May (Anti-), is the sound of new New Orleans. It’s named after yaka mein (which is alternately spelled ya ka mein, yaca-meat, et cetera), a type of Asian noodle stew. Its clash of jazz, bounce, and R&B is hot and sweat-inducing, with so many voices that you can’t tell if it’s a great party or a riot breaking out. “No more dreams, this is reality!” shouts “sissy” performer Big Freedia on the bounce track “Double It.” “You gotta shake, baby!”

“I’m a wild man,” chants funk Indian Big Chief Bo Dollis from the Wild Magnolias. “I’m a wild man, oh y’all!”

At its center is a “Liquor Pang,” a derelict’s screed from Josh Charles and Ryan Scully (formerly of N’awlins funk band the Morning 40 Federation). “I’m making bad decisions with the money I earn,” slurs Charles. “Ain’t no shame like a pang for some liquor, man.” Meanwhile, Scully screams, “Yeah! I’m shutting it down!” “Liquor Pang” is supposed to sound like an oncoming hangover, but it feels like an alarm — a reminder of how dark and unhinged the Ya-Ka-May party becomes.

The album itself seems like a happy accident. For years, Galactic was best known as part of a sprawling jam scene, one of dozens of bands that traveled through earthy festivals and small theaters like wandering minstrels. The band’s early albums, including the 2003 Sanctuary release Ruckus (which featured production by Dan the Automator) hewed to the funky, organic side of downtempo — like flagship artists Medeski, Martin & Wood and Thievery Corporation — with long instrumental passages and wah-wah workouts punctuated by former member Theryl DeClouet’s gritty vocals.

“Some of our early success on the road was due to that scene embracing us,” says Galactic guitarist Jeff Raines during a phone interview. Like many associated with the jam scene, he dislikes that phrase, calling it a “label created by the press.” He seems to prefer “taper community,” although jam fans probably don’t use cassette recorders anymore. “Our band started in a grassroots way — we got in a van and literally drove around America. The way we approached our business originally was in the jam band style of grassroots, do it yourself.”

The turning point was 2007’s From the Corner to the Block (Anti-). Inspired by Brand New Heavies’ Heavy Rhyme Experience Vol. 1 (Delicious Vinyl), where the acid jazz pioneers recorded with golden age hip-hoppers like Kool G Rap and the Pharcyde. Galactic worked with indie-rappers like Gift of Gab, Lateef and Lyrics Born from the Quannum crew, pioneering 1990s bounce artist (and subsequent “Back Dat Azz Up” superstar) Juvenile, and DJ Z-Trip. Vibrant and energizing, From the Corner to the Block was the first Galactic album that didn’t seem like a byproduct of its neverending tours.

To hear Raines tell it, there wasn’t any grand ambition fueling Ya-Ka-May. “Our intent was not to create a dark, disturbing type of record,” he says. “We were really trying to work with some of our favorite artists and do a snapshot of what the current music is there, and maybe isn’t that well known outside of New Orleans.”

Much of Ya-Ka-May features Katey Redd, Sissy Nobby, and Big Freedia from New Orleans’ “sissy” bounce culture. It’s one of the few queer rap scenes in the country that isn’t divided from the mainstream since, as Raines puts it, they perform at clubs throughout the city. “These are bounce rappers that happen to be gay,” says Raines.

A local DJ, Jay “Rusty Lazer” Pennington, served as a liaison for the bounce rappers. Other guests like “supafunkrock” player “Trombone Shorty” Andrews and the world-famous Rebirth Brass Band are longtime acquaintances of the band. “It’s a small town. Everyone knows each other.”

With so many shouting and signifying, Ya-Ka-May can wear you out like a daylong community festival with 100 performers on the bill. The specter of Hurricane Katrina lingers above it all. Perhaps that’s where all the wondrous and sometimes-bizarre mania comes from.

“For years, you couldn’t walk out of your door without thinking about the storm or interacting with some aspect of it,” he says. “But there’s life there, and there’s art being made. It’s a really fascinating city to live in, to watch an American city go through something so traumatic.

“To some degree, everything in New Orleans now revolves around that event. But Ya-Ka-May isn’t about Hurricane Katrina. It’s about the contemporary scene in New Orleans as it exists today.”


Fri/5, 9 p.m.

The Fillmore

1805 Geary, SF

(415) 346-6000