Pirate’s Choice founder/Ju Ju Fest producer Luke Quaranta is an accomplished percussionist the world over. The longtime Toubab Krewe badass New Yorker decamped to New Orleans a few years ago, and has immersed himself in the musical gumbo, as is the norm down there, bringing West African cultural flavors to his own Pirate’s Choice project, Keith Burnstein’s Kettle Black, and several other up and coming krewes. In anticipation of the massive Megawatt hit at Maison during this year’s Jazz Fest, B.Getz sat down with Luke to discuss that big show, as well as Toubab, Ju Ju Fest, his murderous NOLA posse, and how to achieve Zen whilst riding in the trunk of a car.
L4LM: First things first, gotta wish you the blessed earth strong brother! Happy belated. What are you like, 32?
L: Haha. 40, man, yea.
L4LM: No way. You keeps it young and thuggin bro. I’da never guessed.
L: That’s what’s up. My family name Quaranta means forty in Italian, and then I am turning forty, and my birthday was on Easter, so forty days of Lent, too. Lots of 40’s in my life right now.
L4LM: We’ll be sure to crack a 40 of O.E. while I’m in your fair city. (laughs). Now, to the musics, as Benny Bloom would say. I’m super stoked to see JuJu Fest come together!
L: Yea man. This year, this lineup came about in the greatest way. It’s an eleven-show program, including a show that L4LM is presenting on May 3rd at The Maison called “Megawatt.” All the JuJu Fest shows will be dope, but Megawatt, it’s just a ton of heavy hitters.
L4LM: Word. You rang the alarm, huh?
L: B. that all came together from Raja Kassis. Raja has a long history of playing a lot of reggae and dub music. Borahm Lee (Break Science, Pretty Lights), Josh Werner (Matisyahu’s original bass player, Lee Scratch Perry), and Raja played a ton of reggae and dub in New York back in the day, and they were talking about how “It would be dope to play a dub show in New Orleans during JazzFest,” and man, it just kind of took on a life of its own. Borham reached out to Deitch, and Adam Deitch was down. So then it was Deitch, Borahm, Josh, Raja, and Raja asked me and Weedie to do it. Then it was like “Wow this could be a real Afro Dub experiment.”
L4LM: Y’all had me at soundclash. Seriously. Pull up!
L: I’m sayin! And then we got Bajah, this cat that I have worked with in the past, and Raja has worked with quite a bit. He is a hip-hop artist that lives in New York and he has done stuff with a lot of people over the years: his own stuff, his own Dry Eye crew, The Roots, among others. So, you know Raja brought Bajah in and then we had a real show man, so we went to L4LM and we told them we wanted to do this show. But it’s a major show with a lot of cats on it, and we had the space already cause we were going to do JuJu programming at Maison.
L4LM was stoked about it, and we were able to work it out and do the show, and we are all excited to include it as a part of JuJu Fest programming on our schedule. So we have Deitch, Borahm, Bajah, Josh, Raja, Weedie, and I. We got Khris Royal and Maurice Brown on horns. It’s going to be a hell of a show. We are going to do a bunch of Bajah’s material a lot of dub stuff and classics. It’s going to be a fun night and a fun experiment, man with all those heavy cats on it.
L4LM: Real talk, this is Jazz Fest porn for a guy like me. Can’t wait to chant down Babylon with that band of rudebwoys! Now, please take us through the beginnings of JuJu Fest and what it is all about.
L: So Raja Kassis, one of my best friends who plays in Antibalas, moved down here a couple years ago, and Sam Dickey, also a really good friend, moved down here just before Raja right after I did. We got together and started this group Pirate’s Choice to play a lot of Mandé styles, West African music. We had been playing together quite a bit over the years in New York, and both of those guys have sat in with Toubab Krewe and I ended up playing with Sam Dickey’s band Benyoro and recording on Raja’s debut album that he put out on Ropeadope. So when those guys moved here, we really wanted to play this music, play this style. So we started Pirate’s Choice and started playing in town and cats like Alfred Jordan playing drums and Eric Vogel playing bass with us, and then it came Jazz Fest ’15.
L: We wanted to highlight this music here in New Orleans. We have always thought this music needed to be highlighted more and have a brighter spotlight on it anytime of year. But we felt Jazz Fest would be the time to do it. You know there is so much African inspired music that has developed here in a way that is pretty unique to anywhere in the States really. The way it has stayed alive and morphed and changed into all these amazing styles, New Orleans and American styles of music, so we really wanted to highlight West African music and music of the Diaspora. We came together and started JuJu Fest and in that first year, you know, things really happened serendipitously.
L: Then last year we did it again and same thing: had a great calendar, had about eight shows, kept the thing going, had a great response, great crowds. It was just sick to present a lot of different music from the diaspora. Last year we had some Brazilian music, Cuban music involved. And this year, man! JuJu Fest came together this year with like eleven shows, and Megawatt. That one is gonna be insane. You know, shows by Pirate’s Choice and Toubab Krewe.
L4LM: Yeah, Let me jump in on that. Obviously we wanted to highlight (how I came to know you through Toubab Krewe), and I think it’s safe to say a decent percentage of the community knows you from Toubab Krewe, so how did you put it back together for the gigs? Did you just reach out to the homies or was it more a concerted effort by the group? Is this a one off or are y’all going to take it back on the road, what’s the future hold for that effort?
L: Yeah, Toubab Krewe, I have been dialoguing a lot with Drew (Heller) over the last few months, and we have been kind of planning to come back to playing, touring, putting out music. You know, we took a break in like 2015, we kind of started slowing down. We were doing some one offs and stuff, but we weren’t booking any tours. We cut an album right at the end of our ten-year run, touring pretty constantly. We cut the record, sat on it for a year or two, and really recently, maybe two months ago, I went up to Asheville and spent thee days with Drew and Justin Kimmel, our bass player, digging in to all that stuff, and we got some really great stuff.
L: We are excited about the music we have. We did a bunch of editing and started to get a sense of what the album is going to look like. So this is really just a re-entry for the Krewe. We’ve got some other festivals on the books. We’ve got a number of offers that have come in. We will slowly be ramping up to touring and putting out this album and I’m sure people are going to see our name quite a bit more.
Drew Heller, our guitar player, had a baby, and he has a really great spot right outside of Asheville and he’s playing with a bunch of other cats in Asheville. Justin Perkins, the ngoni and kora player for the band, is down in Miami, playing a lot with our original bass player David Pransky. They’ve been recording, and doing a bunch of shit. It’s been a cool couple years, everyone’s been doing their thing. I’ve been here in NO developing a lot of projects. We are really excited. It’s been in the works for a while.
L4LM: You guys are in essence an Asheville band, for all intents and purposes. And if not an Asheville band, then by default a Bear Creek/Suwannee band, if I do say so. So lemme ask, why Jazz Fest, for Toubab Krewe?
L: You know these shows came together and it was the opportunity to play Jazz Fest and we decided there would be no better return than at Jazz Fest, you know, playing late night shows, which has been one of the highlights of our career really. The Krewe is coming back together; new music released soon, new tour dates announced soon. I am really excited and for the Krewe to come together back in the mix. It’s been a while. It worked out really nicely to have the shows work in to JuJu Fest.
L4LM: Man, Luke. You are in the zone, bruv! So many dope projects coming to life in the greatest musical city we have. Tell us more. What’s good with Weedie?
L: B. we got a lot of shows with Weedie. We are doing Weedie’s birthday party. We are doing Weedie Braimah and the Hands of Time, the debut of his project along with Pedrito Martinez Rumba Project, so we got a Cuban/West African mashup night.
L4LM: Weedie lives in NOLA now too, right? You guys are getting it in proper it seems.
L: Well, Weedie also moved here about a year and a half ago, almost two years, so we got this real incubator here with Raja, Sam, Weedie and myself, playing a lot of these styles. Those guys are actually going to be debuting new projects as well, Raja started a band called The Wahala Boys with Terence Higgins.
L4LM: I saw that! I love that name. The Wahala Boys. Sounds real gangster like. I saw it on the schedule.
L: Yeah it’s a cool band. Wahala (in places like Ghana, and Senegal) means basically… ‘The Bad Boys’ is what it would translate into. So this is a group of his, and we are doing a lot of seventies era West African funk, psychedelic funk and rock shit, so it’s a really great sound and great players. And then Sam Dickey started a band called the The Fu Fu All-Stars and that’s doing all kinds of Ghanian, high-life and gospel stuff in a brass band set up and that’s a really cool sound too. Weedie and I are playing percussion in both of those projects, so it’s just been a lot of fun. We have been playing together since 2006 and he’s one of my best friends too, so it’s been really dope being able to play a lot more with him here in New Orleans.
It’s going to be cool to debut those projects and Weedie’s project, Weedie Braimah & the Hands of Time. I’m psyched for all them to be able to highlight these projects during JF. It’s going to be a great calendar, man, we have a lot of good shows, great venues. It’s going to be good times. I am excited to bring something different to Jazz Fest.
L4LM: That’s exactly how I feel about the JuJu Fest calendar, Luke. It’s different and authentic and has lots of integrity and soul, and you guys aren’t appropriating cultures. You are paying homage to them, studying them, embracing the traditions, and delivering them to audiences that would never otherwise hear them. You know, there’s a difference between that and cultural appropriation. I feel like you guys are really mindful and respectful of the cultures and really put the traditions and the values first. You do the art, music and culture right and people know that shit.
L4LM: I got two more questions for you. One question I am asking everyone I am interviewing for Jazz Fest is – besides your own hits, if you could pick one artist, Fairgrounds or night shows, Luke’s can’t miss hit, what would you pick?”
L: Man, you got me there. That’s tough. It’s really hard to say, because you can’t go wrong at Jazz Fest bro. But I’m gonna go with the Original Meters at the Orpheum on first weekend. (April 29th).
L4LM: You know this last question I can obviously only ask you, is can we expect you to grab a drum and get in the trunk of a car and show up at any shows to go zen on mofo’s?!
L: Bro, you know it! Anything can happen. It’s fuckin’ Jazz Fest, man. I might end up in a trunk.
L4LM: That’s one of the all time Jazz Fest ragers right there. That is like the essence of Fest. Word. I can get on? Get in the trunk of somebody’s car with your drum, and next thing you know, BOOM! There’s my man Luke on stage at Break Science. Bringing the Zen. It was the best shit ever. My man, you went deep. Like I said way back then, you went ZEN on ‘eem.
L: Haha. That was fucking epic. I’m like “Was that even?” “Am I that same person?” That is taking it there!
L4LM: Big love, mi bredda. I’ll see you in a less than two weeks.
L: Thanks so much for the support B. and major thanks to Live For Live Music too.
As told to B.Getz