Handsome Moïse Viatorand his beautiful sister Alida, aged 22 and 19, respectively, were raised on the family farm in Eunice and home-schooled by their mother Deborah-Helen, an esteemed violin maker,and their father Étienne Viator, who once ruled the rock ‘n’ roll stages of Louisiana as Vince Vance and is now employed as a law professor at Loyola University. Moïse and Alida, both students at Loyola, are among the few thousand Louisianians fluent in Creole. They perform songs sung in Creole to the rhythms of Jamaican ska with twangy electric guitar solos direct from the surfing fantasies of the Ventures.
The young Viators call their eight-piece band Eh, La-Bas!, a Creole expression that means “Hey, Down There!” Down therecan mean downon the dance floor, downon the bayou, downin the swamps or simply lowdown. As Muddy Waterseloquently put it, “downin Louisiana, baby, behind the sun.”
Sodown with, so dedicated are the Viators to the culture of their state that Alida once nearly got in a fist fight with movie star Mickey Rooney after he made an unkind remark about Louisiana. But they can laugh about it, too, as did Alida when asked to define that elusive term “Creole,” utilized for products ranging from seafood seasoning to Dr. John’s last CD.
“It’s whatever you wantit to mean!” Alida, who sings and fiddles, giggled. “If a French person heard us, they’d go: ‘Oh no, that’s not French!’”
Moïse, who sings and plays guitar, continued: “There’s a professor at Tulane who did a Creole dictionary—Tom Klingler. My father was one of the field researchers for that. He went out and interviewed all these old Creole speakers in Vacherie, Lacombe and other outlying places where there’s still a thriving community of people who speak Creole among themselves.”
Alida: “It’s kind of died out in New Orleans. Outside of New Orleans, it lasted longer. Most of the people who speak it are from 60 on up…”
Moïse: “They call themselves Creole—they’re mixed Indian, Spanish, French and black, but they don’t like it when you say it. In New Orleans, Creole is actually a completely separate language. People think it’s like Haitian Creole but it developed before we had any contact with Haiti. New Orleans Creole is, in and of itself, a Creole language.”
Alida: “They have court records in Creole before there was any influence by slaves coming from Haiti. Creole was like Latin was in the medieval world—it was the language everybody could speak and understand. Slave owners knew it, slaves could speak it.”
Moïse: “The slaves would hear their masters say something like ‘La table’ with the definite article in front of the noun. The slaves didn’t know those were two separate things so the word for table in Creole is ‘latable.’”
Lest anyone imagine that the Viators are stuck in some sort of mouldy folksinger-ish world, let the record state that, as Moïse declares: “We listen to everything!” The closest approximation of the Viators’ sound would be a combination of Corey Harris, Kid Ory, Mongo Santamaria, Canray Fontenot(one of Alida’s tutors), Dick Dale, the Skatalitesand No Doubt. On their latest album, Mermaids Of The Canary Islands, the songs of Huey “Piano” Smith, Lee Dorseyand Donovanare “Creole-ized.”
“Sometimes it’s easy to translate,” Moïse explains. “But like with Donovan, we had to write new lyrics.” In Donovan’s original rendition of “There Is A Mountain,” we are exposed to caterpillars shedding their skins “to find the butterfly within.” In the Viators’ version, the virtues of the swamps’ hawthorn trees are extolled: “O ti snèlye profite dan sipriyer, ye gen bon gou, we, gen bon gou.” (“Oh the little hawthorn tree grows in the swamp, they taste good, yes, taste good.”) Hawthorns were sacred to the Celts and considered an aphrodisiac by the Arabians because the flowers, presumably, smell like “aroused women.” “Rockin’ Pneumonia” emerges with new Creole lyrics and new ailments: “Mo gen maladisekwe e ladiptèri.” (“I have the shaking illness and diphtheria.”) As a bow to the Computer Age, the Viators email their Creole lyrics, with translations, to all interested parties (firstname.lastname@example.org).
Artist Tim Ashkar created the painting for the cover of the CD and inspired the title song with its Creole lyrics by Moïse and Alida. “We saw it and it just said Creole/Canary Islands to us,” recalls Moïse. “Not to mention the bodacious babes!” seconds Alida.
Moïse finishes the tale: “The song itself is about mermaids from the Canary Islands coming up to the bayous of Louisiana, meeting some Creole boys, marrying them and having this race of half-Creole/half-mermaid progeny. The melody was an old jazz melody—‘Run Joe.’ And we stuck a surf guitar solo in the middle. We’re just mixing everything together.”
Befitting a band that sings about mermaids, Moïse and Alida Viator with Eh, La-Bas! will celebrate their new album’s release with a recital at the Mermaid Lounge on Friday, September 5.
DAVIS IN THE HOUSE
DJ Davis Rogan, who graced OffBeat’s cover last October under the domination of Mistress Genevieve, has joined the long, hallowed list of former WWOZ deejays, fired for the crime of playing the hip-hop music of Joe Blakk, a local artist who regularly performs at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, which, coincidentally or not, owns WWOZ.
Davis, a recent entrant in the race for the state House of Representatives, District 96, offered the following “official” statement: “I’m leaving the station to pursue a career in politics and to devote more time to my education career. The reality is I was shitcanned for playing rap music. I received a letter saying I was being dismissed for ‘excessive tardiness’ and ‘erratic behavior.’ I’m tired of the years and years of disrespect so I think the time has come to walk away. I’ve been on the radio for 28 years, ten of those at ’OZ. I would encourage everybody to donate to the station during fund drive—after all, there’s a half-dozen functionary bureaucrats whose subsistence depends on that. They need to eat so they can harass station volunteers.”
Davis’ political platform is typically outrageous: “I’m running as a Democrat because I’m a lefty nutcase. I’m more entertaining than Arnold Schwarzeneggerand I have a better command of the English language.
“I’ll legalize marijuana in bars, tax it and use the money to fix the streets. I call this ‘Pot for Potholes.’ We’ll legalize a red light district and use that money for funding education: ‘Ho’s for Schools.’ Do I want to shy away from the nutty things I’ve said on my previous records or do I want to go forward and say ‘This is me’? People who want to dislike me, I’ve given them plenty of ammunition.”
Many of Davis’ musical supporters, including Kermit Ruffins, Irvin Mayfield, Jon Cleary, Joe Blakk, Mia X, UNLV, the ReBirth Brass Band, Johnny Sketch and the Dirty Notes, and the Li’l Rascals, will perform on his behalf at Café Brasil on Thursday, September 18. The candidate will kiss babies and any willing women: “I’m going at this as 110 percent Davis.”
The art of two New Orleans women—photographer Shannon K. Brinkmanand painter Suzanne Saunders—will hang together in a joint show at the Big Top, 1638 Clio Street, presented by 3 Ring Circus Productions and opening Saturday, September 20. Shannon, whose photos of Clint Maedgenaccompanied Christopher Blagg’s recent OffBeatprofile, will exhibit “music-centered atmospheric pics—the amazing joy of music and the amazing minds behind it,” as well as portraits of “animals—the non-human sort.”
West Bank rapper Ballzack, who will stage his “Blow-Out Extravaganza Bonanza” with guests stars Glorybeeand the Scriptsat the Howlin’ Wolf on September 6, is concerned that innocent college students aren’t getting the right information when they arrive in New Orleans. Therefore, Ballzack has composed Five Tips for Freshmen, which we pass on, more or less intact:
1. Read half of Confederacy of Dunces, but tell people you read the whole thing.
2. Don’t condescend to the locals…they’ll kill you.
3. Realize that you’re paying way too much for the school you go to and transfer to Delgado. “Delgado” means “Ivy League” in Spanish.
4. If Financial Aid gives you trouble, go see a guy named Icepick. Pay him back.
5. Upon arriving in New Orleans, avoid Uptown, the Marigny, and New Orleans in general. The West Bank is where the real culture is.