If you know anything about Pirate’s Choice–a collaborative ensemble that brings together artists from near and far to “to explore and expand upon the music of Africa (particularly West Africa), and its deep connections to American popular music”– you know that their ongoing weeklong Positive Vibrations residency has to be one of the coolest events going on in the city. Held at the PORT warehouse venue, the residency brings African musical masters, New Orleans stars, and talented local kids together onstage for an all-new, totally enrapturing musical experience. If you loved JuJu Fest last spring, you won’t want to miss this.
The core members of Pirate’s Choice–Luke Quaranta (Toubab Krewe), Sam Dickey (Benyoro, Toumani Diabate), and Raja Kassis (Antibalas, Raja Kassis’ humanBEING)–met in New York in the early 2000s while playing with their own individual projects. Quaranta later put together a New York benefit concert for Mali when the country was in political crisis in 2012, featuring a big jam of various West African-style musicians (including Dickey). The success of that jam inspired the Super Mandé Jam he organized for last year’s Bear Creek Music & Arts Festival in Florida.
That collaboration–with members of Toubab Krewe, Dickey’s Benyoro, Kassis, Weedie Braimah of Nth Power and his group Kreative Pandemonium, and Balla Kouyate–in turn led to Pirate’s Choice. The band takes its name from an album by Orchestra Baobab, a Senegalese band important to the post-independence nationalism movements of the 60s and 70s.
Within the past year, the three core members have made New Orleans their permanent home. They’ve already accomplished a ton in a short time, most notably JuJu Fest, a ten-show celebration of West African music over the course of Jazz Fest that culminated with a Super Mandé Jam at the Purple Hatter’s Ball. They somehow managed to put the whole festival together in under than two months, a difficult feat that would have been impossible if not for the large network Quaranta had formed playing Jazz Fest many times with Toubab Krewe.
“After the Purple Hatters’ Ball, when were driving everyone to the airport…” Kassis remembered. “Personally, I’ve never been as tired in my life as I was then. And I’ve been very tired.”
Their current Positive Vibrations residency is of a similar scope, bringing in masters from Mali, Senegal, and America to teach music and history workshops to children aged 10-16 all week. The kids will be included in the Friday night PORT performance featuring Quaranta (Djembe/Dununs), Kassis (Guitar), Dickey (Djeli Ngoni/Guitar), Yacouba Sissoko (Kora), Morcoumba Gueye (Sabar), Morgan Price (Saxophone), Igmar Thomas (Trumpet), Alfred Jordan (Drums), and Eric Vogel (Bass).
Saturday night’s performance will showcase the nine-piece ensemble performing music from the traditional Mandé canon as well as material by the performers’ various bands.
All this has come of the long and truly special musical journeys that brought the band together. Although they Quaranta, Kassis, and Dickey didn’t really start playing together until 2012, they shared the common experience being “raised American, for the most part,” falling in love with West African music at a young age, and, through fortuitous circumstances, getting the chance to spend formative years in Africa, where they each forged their musical identity living and studying in the homes of some of the greatest musicians on the planet.
“That’s something we share,” Quaranta said. “Serendipitous–sometimes freaky-serendipitous relationships. You know what I mean? You meet someone, they introduce you to someone else, you meet a teacher, and all of a sudden you’re in West Africa, living with a teacher, living with their family. And you meet other cats, and all of a sudden you’re hanging with, like, the baddest cats in the world.”
Quaranta studied in Conakry, Guinea; Abidjan, Ivory Coast; and Bamako, Mali. Dickey (who spent ages 2-4 living in Burkina Faso with his family) studied in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso and Bamako, Mali. Kassis (who was born in Beirut, Lebanon) studied and toured in Dakar, Senegal and Accra, Ghana. Between the three of them, they’ve lived, studied, and played with some of the top musicians in the world.
A good part of the reason why the founding members of Pirate’s Choice have made New Orleans home is the deep lifestyle connection with the rhythm of life in West Africa, especially in the way that the culture upholds and reveres music.
“Society is dependent on music,” Kassis explained. “It’s not a want. It’s a need.”
“That’s one of the reasons we’re here, something we gravitate toward having spent time there,” Dickey added. “I mean, we could get technical about certain musical things, but it’s an energy, and an aesthetic, more than anything. [Music] is woven right in. It’s not always about this Western idea of art that you go look at on a wall. On a stage. In a theater.”
Historically speaking, New Orleans also had several colonial peculiarities that set it about from the rest of the nation, little differences that ended up being responsible for the existence of American music as we know it today.
Ruled in turn by the French, the Spanish, and then the French again before becoming part of the US, the city operated under slave laws that were (slightly) less Draconian than the British ones governing the rest of the country. One day a week, slaves were given off work and allowed to congregate at Congo Square (now Louis Armstrong Park). They could sell their own goods (allowing some to eventually purchase their freedom), speak in their native tongues, and play African music.
So, every Sunday, a tiny slice of what was to become the US rang with the drum rhythms and chants of dozens of different African countries. It would be a challenge to name a category of American music today that isn’t built upon–or at least informed by–musical fundamentals that were funneled into the country through a piece of land about as big as two football fields.
An exceptional preserving force though it was, Congo Square–as the largest and maybe the only fairly-unsupervised urban meeting spot for people of so many African nations during those years–was also a fertile ground for unprecedented musical innovation. “You’ve got all these different language groups, different musical cultures–it gave rise to so much, I mean so much music, really all over the States. New Orleans was the cradle.” Kassis said. “It’s crazy to think how things would have worked out if we hadn’t had that one place. Music would not be what it is today.”
This has been the spirit of New Orleans’ melting pot history ever since: not attempting to preserve some mythical definitive tradition, but fostering and exploring the city’s many traditions. And not being afraid to play from the heart and bring something new to the table as well.
This idea helps the band members of Pirate’s Choice frame and conceptualize their own relationship with traditional African music (rather, the many traditional African musics) as well as the music of their new hometown.
“We’re really trying to do our own thing with the music, you know?” Quaranta explained. “We’ve been playing the tradition for years, studying the tradition, honoring it, and also really trying to push the envelope in our own way. In whatever way we could contribute to the ongoing legend, essentially, of the Mandé music and its ongoing relationship with the States.”
“Talking about connections between West African music and New Orleans music,” Dickey said, “–well, this is really hard to generalize, but if you’re talking about innovation and the play between continuity and change in both cultures, I think they’re often both accused of being static, really bound by their history. But I think it’s kind of the opposite. I think the depth of tradition in both informs innovation. You’re always repurposing past material. You shouldn’t try to disrupt it or discount it–you have to respect it… while casting it in a new light.”
That’s exactly what these guys are doing, so much so that many of their old teachers flew in from Africa to participate in the SuperJams, and they’re thrilled to come back and do it again.
“That’s the most important affirmation,” Kassis said. “Not only the fact that they’ll do it, but the amount of enthusiasm they have for it. Their opinion counts for a lot.”
“We’re really and truly blessed to have had teachers that took interest in our interests, you know what I mean?” Quaranta added. “And took us under their wing and saw something in us. Someone who was coming at it from their heart. …We’re not the first [Americans] to play African music–people have been checkin’ out those classic records for years–but I think this is the first time that, you know, we’re a group of guys that got together with the real-deal guys, went through the real-deal training, and we’re able to get those guys over to America to come onstage. It’s natural, it’s not forced, and… it’s done with the right intention.”
“And,” Kassis added, “the thing that’s so fun about this project and the orchestra set up itself is that every show we do will be different. There’s plenty of times where we go to the stage and we don’t know what’s gonna happen… but… put the right people on stage, and the right things will happen.”
Audiences couldn’t agree more.