The Neville Brothers capture the spirit of Mardi Gras as completely as Bing Crosby or Charles Dickens embody the spirit of Christmas.
So, with Mardi Gras coming next month, it seemed apt to start an interview with Cyril Neville, the youngest of the four New Orleans rhythm and blues brothers, by asking for his most vivid memory of his hometown's annual celebration.
The 42-year-old singer-percussionist quickly summoned a long-ago moment in which a proud tradition of black New Orleans, the parading of "Mardi Gras Indians," intersected with a tender display of family love.
"(I remember) watching my mother help my Uncle Jolly put his Indian costume on to go out Mardi Gras day," Neville said, his voice warmed by the memory as he spoke over the phone recently from San Francisco. "It was 4:30 or 5 a.m. I was a little kid, and it was the first time I ever saw the sun come up. Looking at the joy my mother was taking in helping her brother do what he was doing--it was something very special to me."
The idea of family members cooperating to keep alive a strong sense of tradition is a big part of what the Neville Brothers (Art, Charles, Aaron and Cyril) have communicated since they formed their band in 1977. So is the flat-out, effervescent fun and uplift of the polyrhythmic party anthems that crop up regularly in the brothers' repertoire--fierce but buoyant songs including "Big Chief," "Iko Iko" and "Brother John," derived from the annual Mardi Gras parades in which competing groups of revelers from New Orleans' black neighborhoods proclaim their mettle and spirit while donning colorful, feathery American Indian garb.
But a deeper, darker side, full of troubled themes set against simmering rhythms, has entered the brothers' sound in recent years. It emerged in the haunting quality of the Nevilles' acclaimed 1989 album, "Yellow Moon," which included starkly atmospheric renditions of spirituals and protest songs. Social concerns have come even more to the fore on the current "Brother's Keeper."
The New Orleans depicted in new songs such as "Brother Jake," which tells the story of a doomed fugitive, is nothing like the city's popular image as a frolicsome cradle of jazz and R & B. In the Nevilles' recent vision, the "Big Easy" is a hard place.
He finally made it back to New Orleans
Man, his hometown was sure 'nuf mean.
Back in his jungle, where he lived his life,
Where the law of the land, it was a gun and a knife.
Late one night, down on the avenue,
That's where Brother Jake's dyin' breath was drew.
He thought his home was with family and friends
But somebody caught him off guard and brought his life to an end.
Cyril Neville sets aside the mental snapshot of his mother and his Uncle Jolly preparing for the big Mardi Gras parade, and the glow fades from his voice as he brings up another side of Mardi Gras in New Orleans. He wants to make it clear that the festival also evokes bitter images for him--images he says stem from pervasive racism that distorts the celebration and cleaves it in two.
"I was always made aware that there was another part of Mardi Gras that wasn't for me, and I was told to stay as far away from it as I could, because it was open season on young black people," Neville said. "It is still two Mardi Gras, man. I tell my children the same thing my mother told me: 'Stay away from the white folks' parade. They don't want you, it's not for you.' "
The youngest Neville brother, with his Rastafarian-style dreadlocks, Afro-Caribbean garb, and fiery stage presence, has long had the reputation of being the most politicized member of the band, the one most deeply involved with issues of black struggle and black heritage. But the social commentary on "Brother's Keeper" comes from all quarters of the band, Neville said.
"Everybody looks at me like I'm the only person in this group who has any political awareness. That's not so," he said. "Maybe I am the most outspoken about it."
Aaron Neville, the group's angelic tenor voice (and resident hit-maker in his recent moonlighting appearance as Linda Ronstadt's duet partner on "Don't Know Much"), contributed the lyrics for several of the album's reflections on bitter street life, including "Brother Jake." Art Neville, the keyboard-playing eldest brother, stepped out of his usual laid-back stance to provide the album's most confrontational song--"Sons and Daughters," in which Art's narration ranges through images of gang warfare, injustice and censorship.
The album oscillates between portrayals of poverty, violence and despair--life as it is in America's least fortunate precincts--and spiritually informed visions of possible redemption--life as the Nevilles hope it can be. Similar shifting currents flow through Cyril Neville's conversation.