The 79rs Gang makes modern Mardi Gras Indian music on ‘Expect the Unexpected’
Before they could collaborate to modernize Mardi Gras Indian music, Romeo Bougere, of the 9th Ward Hunters, and Jermaine Bossier, of the 7th Ward Creole Hunters, had to first set aside their differences.
And their weapons.
As Big Chiefs of rival Indian gangs with a complicated personal history, their confrontations on the streets, ostensibly about who had the prettiest suit and the strongest voice, teetered on the brink of violence.
“We’d bump heads a lot — machetes getting pulled out, hatchets getting swung, things of that nature,” Bossier recalled this week. “It’d get serious — this is a warrior culture. Romeo was making a name for himself; I was making a name for myself.
“We had to remind ourselves at the end of the day to shake hands. We’d have to remember that we’re not really trying to kill each other.”
They eventually resolved their personal beefs and joined forces as a musical duo, the 79rs Gang.
On Friday, the 79rs Gang’s second full-length project, “Expect the Unexpected,” will be released by Sinking City Records, the boutique local label that specializes in vinyl albums.
On it, Indian voices and percussion are augmented by electronic flourishes courtesy of producer Eric Heigle. The result is a hybrid of hip-hop, electronic and Mardi Gras Indian music, with cameos by LCD Soundsystem’s Korey Richey, trumpeter Nicholas Payton, cellist Helen Gillet and Haitian music collective Lakou Mizik. Arcade Fire’s Win Butler co-produces one track.
“The norm, for me, wasn’t going to cut it,” Bougere said. “That’s why I was so adamant about the title (of the album). The norm is what people expect. If you give them the same quality as the norm, but different, that’s a winner. Good music, but a different type of sound.”
Romeo Bougere grew up in Mardi Gras Indian culture. He first masked Indian at age 4, and became a Big Chief at 17. He inherited his vocal skills from his church-singing grandmother.
Jermaine Bossier also came up through the Indian ranks, first as a member of the Yellow Poca Hunters, then Trouble Nation. In 2009, he formed his own tribe, the 7th Ward Creole Hunters.
Bougere sometimes tagged along with the older members of Trouble Nation. This caused jealousy and scuttlebutt that led to friction between him and Bossier.
“I didn’t too much care for him,” Bougere said. “Every time we saw each other, we went at each other extremely hard. It went on for too long.”
In their early confrontations, Bossier didn’t sing much, as he wasn’t yet a Big Chief. Bougere, by contrast, thrived on squaring off in the Indian equivalent of a battle rap.
“You put anybody in the ring with me, I slaughter ‘em,” Bougere said. “Been doing it for years.”
Bossier saw it happen many times. “When it comes to Indian practice, Romeo would really embarrass you. If you told him something and he has to sing at you, you’re never going to do that again. We battled one day and I held my own. Not too many people can do that with that guy. I think he realized I could sing.”
They eventually concluded they’d be stronger as partners than rivals. At Washington Square Park, “we sat down in the middle of the park, Indian-style,” Bossier said. “Ever since then, we were cool. Why not come together and make some music? We went to the studio, and it was on from there.”
The 79rs Gang’s first album, 2014’s “Fire on the Bayou,” was a traditional Mardi Gras Indian album.
“I think that was necessary,” Bossier said. “We wanted to be accepted in our community before being accepted anywhere else. During Indian practice, we can go in a bar and rock that whole bar. That’s what we had to put on the table with that first project. We had to put out something that the Indians could feel.”
Looking back, Bougere doesn’t think that first album was particularly inspired.
“With ‘Fire on the Bayou,’ I didn’t have the dream,” he said. “We had no insight on what we were doing. It was like we were in a room for Indian practice, and how it came out is how it came out.
“For ‘Expect the Unexpected,’ we made music. This is music.”
That they were headed in a fresh direction was tipped by the 79rs Gang’s second release, a 2017 digital single that paired “Dead and Gone,” a traditional salute to departed Indians, with the more contemporary “Wrong Part of Town.”
“You could tell that we were going in different directions,” Bossier said.
Eric Heigle pushed them even further in that different direction.
A member of contemporary Cajun band the Lost Bayou Ramblers, Heigle is far busier these days as a producer and recording engineer. He’s working on the next Arcade Fire album. He was a producer on the Soul Rebels’ 2019 release “Poetry in Motion,” and guided recent recordings by Dumpstaphunk and Lakou Mizik.
Heigle first worked with the 79rs Gang on “Take Me to the River,” an ambitious, multiplatform initiative to promote access and exposure to arts and culture via documentary films, tours and school curriculum/master classes. He and fellow producer Zach Fawcett arranged to film the 79rs Gang at the local Parlor Studio. Heigle was surprised when the “gang” turned out to be just Bossier and Bougere.
They recorded the traditional Mardi Gras Indian chant “Ooh Nah Nay.” Months later, Heigle brought the recording of “Ooh Nah Nay” to New York to play for his cousin Korey Richey, a member of electronic-influenced rock band LCD Soundsystem.
At LCD Soundsystem frontman James Murphy’s DFA Studio, Heigle started tinkering with “Ooh Nah Nay,” adding sequencers, synthesizers and drum machines.
“Not chords or horns or guitars or organs, but things that don’t mask the inherent bluesiness of the vocals or the funkiness of the rhythms,” Heigle said. “Things that go on top of or below the core traditional elements. You haven’t distorted the picture at all. You’ve augmented it and pushed it forward in a way.
“It didn’t take much. We did a couple of passes, maybe 20 minutes of recording and an hour of editing. It was strong. The result of that initial night in New York was enough to excite me about doing a whole project.”
He brought his New York remake of “Ooh Nah Nay” back to New Orleans as his “proof of concept.” Fawcett arranged a meeting with Bossier and Bougere.
“I thought, ‘This can go one of two ways. They’ll either love it or hate it,’” Heigle recalled. “I pressed ‘play,’ and they loved it.”
“Me and Romeo were just looking at each other,” Bossier said. “Both of us were like, ‘I think this is the way to go.’ From that first time he played it, we let him do what he do, and we did our job with the Indian part.”
Their lyrics on “Expect the Unexpected,” some rapped instead of sung, are forthright, from calling out cultural profiteering on “Culture Vulture” to the Hurricane Katrina narrative “Stop the Water.”
Bossier’s vocal on “Brand New Day” was lifted from the original “Ooh Nah Nay” recording from “Take Me to the River,” symbolizing how the project as a whole reinvents traditional music.
In the early 1970s, the Wild Magnolias, fronted by Monk Boudreaux and Bo Dollis, revolutionized Mardi Gras Indian music by pairing chants and rhythms with electric instruments on a series of landmark albums.
To Bougere and Bossier, “Expect the Unexpected” represents a similar step forward.
“The Wild Magnolias, that’s the blueprint for Mardi Gras Indian music,” Bougere said. “Everybody who makes Mardi Gras Indian music is doing it off of that.
“Lo and behold, we were too, until I realized I didn’t want to be the next Bo and Monk. I wanted to be the next Romeo and Jermaine. Let’s let them be them, and let us be us.”
Bossier says he and Bougere “both consider ourselves to be culture bearers. We wanted to stay true to the culture, and not water it down too much.
“But at the end of the day, things have to change. We didn’t want to sound like everybody else. We just want to be different, to tell stories in a different way. I think we hit the nail on the head.”
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