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Interview with Zigaboo Modeliste

By BissList contributing editor, Josh Danson
I recently had the pleasure and honor of speaking with Joseph “Zigaboo” Modeliste, founding drummer of the pre-eminent New Orleans funk outfit, The Meters, who is widely and appropriately known by the moniker, “King of the Funky Drums.” Zigaboo has lived in the Bay Area for many years and has acted as a bridge between the two unofficial sister cities of New Orleans and San Francisco. Through his frequent gigs at Pier 23 and other venues around town Zigaboo has introduced many in the Bay Area to The Meters’ music and the musical culture of New Orleans. His drumming is widely sampled by hip hop artists and DJs and he has toured extensively over the years, bringing New Orleans second line rhythms to music lovers around the world.
Over the course of our 45 minute conversation, Zigaboo reminisced about Mardi Gras celebrations of old, the music and the musicians whose legacies have become synonymous with the annual New Orleans bacchanal, and shed light on some of the lesser known aspects of the Mardi Gras tradition and players who are no longer with us today.
Zigaboo and his band, The New Aahkesstra, are playing an all-ages Mardi Gras show at The Chapel on Feb. 9th, with pre-show Fat Tuesday celebrations starting next door at The Vestry that will, no doubt, end up spilling out onto Valencia St. Click here for more information and to purchase tickets. Zigaboo’s Mardi Gras Party at the Chapel.
BissList: Congrats on the recently announced Meters show during the first weekend of Jazz Fest, that I hear sold out in a matter of minutes. Nice to see you guys getting the kind of love and recognition for your musical contributions that you deserve.
Zigaboo Modeliste: Yeah, I’m real excited about that. Always good to get back and play with those guys a little bit. We don’t do it enough, but we gotta’ do it when we can and give it the best shot whenever we get the chance.
BL: Yeah, I was at that first Meters reunion show at The Warfield back in 2000 and that was incredible.
ZM: Oh yeah that was a fantastic show and the one down in New Orleans is going to be very good too. I’m looking forward to it.
BL: That’s great. Is it going to be at The Saenger or the The Orpheum?
ZM: It’s going to be at The Orpheum this time. It’s all re-done and everything.
BL: Yeah, it’s been closed since Katrina, right?
ZM: Yes, they did a lot of work on it. It’s really beautiful and just a magnificent place to see music.
BL: Very cool. I’m going to be sad to miss it. But before Jazz Fest, of course, comes Mardi Gras. And you’ve got a big Mardi Gras blowout coming up at The Chapel on Tues., Feb. 9th. It’s an all-ages gig featuring New Orleans food & drink, a brass band (MJ’s Brass Boppers) leading a second line parade, Mardi Gras beads… the whole nine yards. And then you and your band Zigaboo and the New Aahkesstra are headlining the main event. Did I get that right?
ZM: Yeah, you got that 100% right.
BL: Excellent. Well I will definitely be in attendance and hopefully everybody else who likes good music and good times will be there as well.
ZM: Well, you know Mardi Gras is special to me because in my home town they put a lot of emphasis on that particular holiday, if you want to call it a holiday. It’s very unique because a lot of other cities want to touch on it, but it’s never gotten as big as it is down there. You know folks shutting down everything? In New Orleans around Mardi Gras time, it’s a whole other focus. I’ve played Mardi Gras shows in different cities but nobody understands the nature of it like people from New Orleans do.
BL: Yeah, they take it to a whole other level down there, that’s for sure.
ZM: Well yeah, and I always look forward to doing that because the songs from Mardi Gras, sometimes they bring back memories, you know?
BL: Yeah, I was going to ask… There are so many famous Mardi Gras songs that provide the soundtrack to the festivities. I’ve been fortunate enough to go down there and you hear it coming out of every doorway and you know all the songs – “Mardi Gras Mambo,” all that good stuff. So is it the music? Or what is that you like most about the Mardi Gras tradition?
ZM: Well the Mardi Gras is like, it’s spiritual in nature, because it’s one of those things where most everybody goes on the stage. You have all the red beans and rice cooking, and barbeque and smoked sausages, and crawfish etouffee and all these wonderful dishes. But also you’re probably going to see a lot of people – like you know how they tailgate at football games and stuff? You might see that in the street anywhere on Mardi Gras day. People got a lot of food outside cooking, even in places you would not expect, like in downtown New Orleans, everybody’s everywhere.
But it’s not like it used to be when I was a kid. Most people back then wanted to wear costumes. Get dressed up and pretend that they were whoever it was that would get dressed up like. But now, the younger generation, they still do it some, but not like it used to be.
BL: Is that what they call “masking”?
ZM: Yes. You know, it used to be a big thing. Now you see some people that come to Mardi Gras in New Orleans and wear costumes and stuff, but I remember at the time it was like a lot of different people that you would see dressing up, masking. Not only costumes, but you actually wore masks on your face.
My parents, they were from the old school. And on Mardi Gras day somebody would come through with a costume and they’d have a mask on their face to try and hide their identity. You know, it was a big secret what they were going to dress up as. And then when Mardi Gras day came along, they might be anything. They might be a cowboy or a pirate, or Batman, or whatever. And then all of a sudden, “I know you Mardi Gras!” [What you would call out when you discovered someone’s identity]. Then there’s all these other festivities going on with the parades and dancing in the streets. It’s just a real fun time for everybody.
BL: You’ve recorded some Mardi Gras songs on your own label in recent years. And there are so many other famous Mardi Gras songs that you always hear at that time of year. Tell me about the Mardi Gras songs that you wrote and what songs from the old school that resonate with you most.
ZM: Well for me, it was a question of what songs I was hearing when I was coming up. Like it was Professor Longhair’s, “Go to the Mardi Gras,” and Al “Carnival Time” Johnson, he had one of the most successful Mardi Gras songs, “Carnival Time.” And then you had the Mardi Gras Indians, they were doing stuff like, “Shoo Fly,” you know, there was a bunch.
Then “Hey Pocky Way” came in. We got that idea from the Indians, at least the title. The song the way we did it was quite different from the way they used to do it. But the Meters song, “Hey Pocky Way,” turned out to be another staple as well. Whenever Mardi Gras comes, you’re going to hear those songs. It’s just a wonderful thing that goes on with all that music at that time of year. But the biggest one of those songs that I gravitate to is, “Big Chief,” that was done by Professor Longhair on piano. And a good friend of mine, he’s deceased now, but Earl King was one of the most fabulous songwriters ever to come out of New Orleans. He did a lot for that city. And Allen Toussaint… you know they all did a lot to preserve the Mardi Gras culture. There’s just endless amounts of different versions of those songs that are out there now. Dr. John – they made him the King of the Mardi Gras as far as the music is concerned – he had a couple of Mardi Gras songs that made him famous, like “All on the Mardi Gras Day.” And it goes on and on, the list of artists down there that contributed to that. So I’m just happy to part of a band that made music that people can recognize, and on Mardi Gras day you might go anywhere in New Orleans and hear The Meters’ songs and the songs that I spoke to you about – “All on Mardi Gras Day,” “Big Chief,” “Carnival Time” – those were really the heavy duty songs down there for Mardi Gras.
BL: Well thank you for bringing a piece of that out here to Bay Area. It’s nice to have that connection, through you.  
ZM: You know I was just thinking about it the other day, and I don’t know what made me start thinking about the issue, but San Francisco – it would probably be just a huge undertaking – but they should adopt Mardi Gras and have that up here where they just suspend everything for Mardi Gras. It probably would be something that would be too big to accomplish, but… You know, down in New Orleans you have all the merchants, TV, radio, everybody is into that spirit. You know it’s like Easter coming or Christmas coming. It has that kind of impact. You know the merchants all make a lot of money. So I know why they do that, but New Orleans is relatively small compared to San Francisco in many ways, but I would love to see it, full-blown, out here in the Bay Area.
BL: Well, I could definitely get behind that, so you’ve got a “second” here, for sure.
ZM: I lot of people would really get behind it I think, but a lot of other people just don’t know enough about it.
BL: Every once in a while you will see a second line parade break out around here. Like we just had a good friend pass away and they celebrated him with a second line, so I think maybe you’re onto something there. We’ll have to work on that.
ZM: Yeah, at least put something in motion, you know? Keep it going. Keep it real. People need more things to celebrate about these days, with all this crazy stuff going on.
BL: Ain’t that the truth? Going back to the Pier 23 days (which was the first place I ever saw you play when I first moved out here in the late nineties), you’ve always liked to put on all-ages shows. What is it you like about opening it up to all ages and letting kids get in the mix?
ZM: Over the years I’ve met a lot of people who have come up and talked me and a lot of them say, “My father used to take me to hear this one,” or, “My mama used to take me to hear that one when I was small.” You know, stuff like that where the parents carried the musical tradition that they were feeling and the spiritualism that they were feeling and wanted to give that to their kids. And I thought that was an excellent idea. I never thought it would come to a time where you would not be exposed to music. That’s in everybody’s DNA and you can’t go through this life without having some kind of desire to listen to music, no matter what kind of music it is. That’s a valuable thing for society to have – the arts, music.
So whenever we do these things where kids can come, I see the looks on their faces that they don’t get enough of it and they’re just fascinated that people are being entertained by a few people up on stage playing some music. That’s how I got it. My parents took me to see different things, different bands and that’s when I fell in love with music and never let it go. So I try to be a conduit for New Orleans music, anywhere in the world. Whether it’s Mardi Gras day, or any other day of the year, I think that it’s important that people should learn about my culture, and the time period when I was coming up, what it meant to me and what I’m trying to say to them, musically.
BL: Yeah, pass it on. Pass the torch. Speaking of those early memories, what are some of your earliest memories of hearing the drums growing up in New Orleans, hearing those second line parades coming down the street and the rhythms of the drummers in those brass bands?
ZM: Yeah, you know when we were younger we’d go out to the parades and a lot of times my parents wouldn’t go because they were like, “Been there, done that.” But for us it was like big excitement, because you know in New Orleans they celebrate Mardi Gras for seven days. There’s six days leading up to Mardi Gras day. They start celebrating it and then they have parades every night until it gets to Mardi Gras, when Comus closes it down. That‘s the way it’s always been. Rex is the King of Carnival and Comus is the last parade to pass on Mardi Gras day.
So when they had these parades, they would have high school bands and then some Krewes would have bands that would play on the floats, on the back of flatbed trucks. Dixieland bands. Which was one of my favorites. I love Dixieland music. And then they started having drum and bugle corps come to parades, which was always a killer. To hear a drum and bugle corps coming down the street. Man, it was just, the stuff be so tight! How somebody could march and play the kind of music that they play. I was always just fascinated by drum and bugle corps.
So my music has always been based on that traditional music, and with that specific value when it comes to rhythms. I always try to find songs… and it’s not all about Mardi Gras songs, but it’s the festivities plus there’s a collage of all the different types of music that you hear during that time.
And then you have the Mardi Gras Indians. Which had a bunch of people with tambourines and coke bottles [laughs]. And cowbells. All kinds of hand instruments. So that too is very powerful. If you get enough people doing it, it’ll just blow you away.  Kinda’ like when you go different  places and you see guys having drum-offs and they’ve all got conga drums and other kinds of drums and they’re sitting around playing and it’s very powerful. Very powerful.
BL: Do you remember the first time you saw the Indians marching. Did your parents go to that, would they have taken you to see that, or was that something they would’ve wanted to steer you away from? Because I know there’s always been a little sense of danger, especially back in the day, that a fight might actually break out, or there might be some…
ZM: Well, I will say this… The Indians used to fight and it was kind of prestige thing, or territorial egos. But that never was a big thing when I was small. Maybe before me. But I never seen Indians fight. There’s this old folklore that, “Oh yeah, the Indians be fighting and shootin’ and cuttin’,” but I never witnessed any of that. Now I’ve seen people a little too drunk out in the streets get into a little fracas or something, but you know most of all on Carnival Day, most of the people are in a joyous state of mind. Some people more than others.
BL: Hah!
ZM: But you know, some people when they drink they get a little bit overboard, but most of the time it’s alright.
BL: Yeah, and maybe the Indians had a hand in building up that folklore too, because you know they wanted to build up that image of being tough and ready to go and throw-down if need be.
ZM: Well, Mardi Gras Indians is mostly about pageantry. You know like, Ms. America. It’s like pageantry. They have all this makeup and designer dresses and they have certain ways they have to present themselves – you know, pageantry. Well it’s the same with the Indians, it’s just not held in one place, it’s all over the city. And you know these guys they go year-round. The day after Mardi Gras, they’re right back there drawing their costumes up again. Getting ready for how they’re gonna’ get their marabou feathers. They all design their own costumes, what color it’s gonna’ be. It’s a big thing! And how they do all this beadwork. You know you got to wear your product. You make it all year round. You sew every day, or whenever you get a chance to sew. And you really just got to be highly focused to get into that thing in the first place.
I really admire the Mardi Gras Indians so much. I recorded with the first two commercially recorded groups of Indians that went into the recording studio and cut songs that really today are just staples. Really well-written songs. The Wild Magnolias was one of the first groups that recorded Indian songs commercially. And I played on a couple of their songs. And then The Wild Tchoupitoulas were another commercially driven musical Indian group. Where some of them were pure Indians and some of them were musicians. The Neville Brothers had an uncle named Jolly…
BL: Yeah, Big Chief Jolly.
ZM: Yeah. And Jolly was like an Indian first, but he was – before he even got into that – he was a dancer. The cat was like Vaudeville or something. I mean he had that stuff going on. I don’t know the complete history, but he was an entertainer. And so was the Neville Brothers mother. They were entertainers. So when he saw that Indian thing, he embraced that and he went on to be the Big Chief of the Wild Tchoupitoulas. So that record, needless to say, was a collaboration between the Meters doing the music and the Neville Brothers doing the vocals. And it had never really been done quite like that before. And it turned out to be just fantastic. A lot of people come up to me and they’re like, “What about the Wild Tchoupitoulas?” And I have nothing but great memories of that. Because a lot of my friends were Indians – a lot of them have passed away now – like Tootie Montana, a lot of big time energy that’s just gone. But the tradition lives on.
In fact, I was just in New Orleans over Thanksgiving at my sister’s place. And she had all these people over there on Thanksgiving Day, a lot of them who masked as Indians. And they were showing all their pictures – you know they carry their pictures on little index cards – and they were showing us all like, “Here’s what I masked as last year,” and, “These were my colors from the year before.” It’s a real thing. It’s a heavy duty thing.
BL: Yeah, for sure. I’ve always been a fan of the Indians and really been intrigued by that whole culture. “Every year at Carnival time we make a new suit.”
ZM: Yeah these people now have got the little bitty kids and they’re dressing them up. And they’re getting indoctrinated into the culture, so sooner or later they’re going to be the… Like when I was growing up in New Orleans they only had a few tribes. But now, there’s like 40 tribes, and it’s still growing. So a lot of young people are being influenced and it’s still growing. Like you said, they’re passing the torch. It’s a beautiful thing.
BL: Yeah, that is a beautiful thing. It’s a living culture. It’s not just something that people are trotting out just for tourists, it’s a real living culture and that’s great to see.
ZM:  Some of the Indians now, they’ve been able to take this thing and get hired and go out of town and take their Indian costumes and take their parades and show it off in other places. So it’s starting to catch on in various places.
I was doing some reading on Mardi Grass history and you know Mardi Gras didn’t start in New Orleans, it started in Alabama somewhere [The first Mardi Gras in America took place in 1703, in the French settlement of Fort Louis de la Mobile, present-day Mobile, Alabama]. But when it got to New Orleans it just never left. And like I was saying the tradition is just really strong. And if you don’t believe it’s strong… have you ever been down there, for Mardi Gras?
BL: I have yes, when I was a younger man. I enjoyed it very much. My brother was living on St. Charles at the time, St. Charles and Washington…
ZM: Man you were right there where all the parades pass!
BL: Yep, all the parades passed right in front, so we were up on the roof and out there on neutral ground.
ZM: Damn, I know that’s right [laughs]!  You planning to go back soon?
BL: Well, I’ll be back for Jazz Fest this year. I don’t know if I’ll be back for Mardi Gras anytime soon, but I’ll definitely be back for Jazz Fest.
ZM: Well that’s a beautiful thing.
BL: Yes indeed. So, with the recent passing of Allen Toussaint, the spotlight has been shining on New Orleans and all the incredible recordings to have come out of his studio over the years, most of which you were an integral part of. As a founding member of the Meters – essentially the house band at Allen Toussaint and Marshall Sehorn’s studios over the years – you provided the trademark drum sound for some of the most widely recognized and influential recordings ever to come out of New Orleans. What are some of your memories of those days and who were some of your favorite artists to record with? I think of people like Lee Dorsey or Ernie K-Doe…
ZM: There was a bunch of people that you probably wouldn’t even know, because my thing was, I started so young. All of the elder statesman that I got a chance to pay with, they all had their ideas about what they wanted you to know and they’d pass along their values and give you little tips. Letting you know certain things about the music. So then finally when I did get a chance to play in the studio, for Cosimo Matassa, who had the studio down in New Orleans. This is going way back to when they just had four track machines. Now they got 48 tracks and stuff like that. So it was very fundamental recording – I don’t want to say antiquated because it really came out very well. The process is different now but the basic procedure remains the same.
Some of the players were Eldridge Holmes and Betty Harris, and there was other people that came through there all the time. I was just lucky enough to get a chance because I went in there with a group and the group was just so cohesive that Allen saw that and he wanted to use us on many different things, whenever we were available to do it.
I got a chance to have stint with Mr. Toussaint and I enjoyed it. I really learned a lot from that gentleman. You know there were a lot of entertainers that were around, they didn’t last, or their legacies didn’t last. But I remember a lot of guys that were trying their hardest to bring soul to the world. They were trying to get out there and be heard and you know, be artists. Chris Kenner. There’s a bunch a guys. Earl King. He was a fantastic writer. Eddie Bo. There was just so many different guys. Guitar Ray… A lot of people that brought a lot to the music. I was just a fortunate son, you could say, the be able to be in such close proximity to so many of those people that brought so much joy to the world. Frogman Henry. Just on and on.
You know the music spoke for itself. But the music has changed a whole lot since I started. It’s different today. But I remain true to my roots because when I’m speaking about that kind of music, it’s definitely something that I witnessed. The moods that it brought me to were always joyous and it was always a festive thing for me. I think, as a whole, all of the magic from that city and all of the musicians I met growing up, coming up, some of them aren’t with us today but I still remember them.
There was a guy who was a bass player named Bill Sinegal, who made a song called “Second Line,” and man that song is another one that is so popular down in New Orleans. People hear it all the time but they don’t even know who it’s by. This guy was a bass player and he also was a photographer on the weekends. He used to take a polaroid down into the Quarter and take pictures of folks and sell them. I remember him so well, but he’s dead and gone now. All those guys were my friends man.
BL: Well, it’s an incredible legacy. And incredible that you were a part of it… and not just a part of it, but right at the center of it.
You and George Porter Jr., especially. The drums and the bass form the foundation of any great band and especially a band like the Meters where so much depends on having that solid groove and staying in the pocket. Talk a little bit about your relationship with George Porter Jr. and what that’s meant over the years.
ZM: Well George and I go back a long, long ways, when we were a lot smaller. You know we even took piano lessons together. My brother was trying to teach us piano. George was a little older than me and some of the stuff was just way over my head. But George kind of stayed with it a little bit. Until the next thing I know… we weren’t staying in the same area of town until he moved into the neighborhood where I was staying, in the 13th Ward. He already had some influence from other musicians and when he started out he was playing guitar. He didn’t have a bass.
BL: Yeah, how many bass players started out playing bass?? Not many right? Seems like they all started out playing guitar.
ZM: Yeah, a lot of frustrated guitar players wind up playing bass.
BL: Well thank goodness George Porter ended up playing bass.
ZM: Yes, exactly. But he started out playing guitar, a little box guitar and he was pretty good. He knew a few cowboy chords, but that was about it. So we went to parades together, we saw Carnival a couple times, but we weren’t performers. But once the spirit hits you, all of a sudden it was a big transformation and especially for George and myself. It just happened to be that we had the same heroes and we luckily got a chance to play in the same band together. And we also got a boost with the band – the Meters – creating its own identity very early on, and it just blossomed into a very, very good thing for the both of us. So I’m just very  thankful to have been a part of that.
BL: Were you guys in any bands together before the Meters? Or was that the first time you really ended up playing together?
ZM: Well, when I was coming up, I was one of the youngest in my group but I always wanted to play with the musicians who were accomplished and not necessarily in my peer group. Because there weren’t that many musicians my age that were playing real paying jobs. We did talent shows and stuff like that at schools whenever there was the opportunity, but then some people filtered through and kept playing music. And I have some friends of mine now down in New Orleans from those days, like the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, a lot of them have been around the world a hundred times playing music. So if you want to look at it like this, I just happen to be one of the elder statesmen now. There’s all these younger musicians down there now. Most of them I don’t even know, but I’ve heard about them and they’re really talented – I’ve seen some of them play – so the tradition just keeps going on and on and on and on. It just doesn’t stop!
BL: Well amen and thank goodness for that. I’ve been a fan of your music for a long time and I just want to say thank you for all your contributions and hope you’re around for a while longer. Just one more question that I wanted to ask before I let you go, just for my own personal knowledge. I’ve always been a fan of that Ernie K-Doe song, “Here Come the Girls.” Did you play the military-style drum beat on that? And if so, is there a story behind how that beat came about?
ZM: That was me playing! And you know the funny thing about that, that was one of the last times that I actually had a chance to play with Ernie K-Doe in the studio, because all his hits were before me. That was the one song that he did with The Meters playing. Then that song it just dropped out of sight, like it went under water. But then it had this big resurgence and then you would it hear it everywhere. Ernie K-Doe was a very talented man and thankfully I got a chance to do that with him and make history with him, so I’m forever grateful.
BL: So how did that drum beat come about? Did you go into that session with that in mind, or did Ernie ask you to play that, or was that Allen Toussaint who guided you towards that?
ZM: Well, a lot of that stuff… Allen Toussaint was the kind of producer that he brought stuff out of you whether you knew what you were going to do or not. He always had some idea of where he wanted to go with his music. Cat was just a genius. And he always knew that if he couldn’t ring it up, he could get the people that could come up with the ideas that would fit the music he was trying to produce. Very seldom would he tell me exactly what to play, sometimes he did. But on that particular song, to be honest with you, I don’t know exactly who told me, or how we ended up getting there, but I do remember that session and I think it might’ve been one of the last songs that Ernie K-Doe recorded. I can’t really remember anything he did after that. It went away for a while, but then it started to become a hit overseas and I remember I was in Europe one time and they were playing that song and I was like, “Wow!” But you never know. A good song is a good song.  
BL: Well thanks again and I’ll look forward to seeing you at The Chapel next Tuesday for the big Mardi Gras celebration and we’ll get the word out and try to make sure people come out to enjoy it.
ZM: Yeah, you know people gotta’ find some de-stressers. And this is the best way to do it. Music. Good music. And I hope they come out to see it because it’s a thing that we don’t celebrate every day, but I’m hoping that the Bay Area will start to embrace it on a larger scale.

Zigaboo and the New Aahkesstra are playing The Chapel on Tuesday, Feb. 9th with opening band MJ’s Brass Boppers. Before the main event, there will be a FREE, All-Ages, Pre-Show Mardi Gras Party in The Vestry and Bars starting at 5pm featuring New Orleans food and drink specials, live music inside and out with MJ's Brass Boppers' Second Line, plus Fat Tuesday party beads and more. Click here to purchase tickets.