Paul Cebar drives the streets of Milwaukee, sniffing the night air for funk – real funk.
“That’s Jones Island, the waste treatment plant,” he says, referring to the bouquet of burning rubber and grinding metal that’s come upon us. A few miles down the road, he sniffs out the perfume rising from The Red Star yeast factory. Farther along stands the Miller Beer complex, this brew town’s last surviving brewery.
As far as musical funk, Milwaukee has produced quite a grab bag of entertainers over the decades, from Woody Herman to Al Jarreau to Liberace to the BoDeans. But these days, the funkiest man in town is the dapper figure in a pointed beard and, fine leather loafers who is currently coaxing the 218,000th mile out of his rusted white Taurus, leading a tour through his home city.
Though the South may boast the Chitlin’ Circuit of blues and R&B clubs, and Louisiana has its Crawfish Circuit of swampy roadhouses, but carved into the rolling corn fields of the upper Midwest is a crooked line of blues joints, college bars, and neon-laced downtown dance clubs that could be called the Cheddar Circuit. On the most woebegone winter weekend, sell-out crowds from Chicago to Minneapolis strip their down parkas and shake their long underwear to the blended sounds of Cebar’s calypso, samba, Motown, Memphis, rock steady-era reggae, mambo, zydeco, and, above all, New Orleans. Sporring vintage clothes and an electric guitar, braided blonde hair and an occasional pork pie hat, Cebar is the sultan of these swinging nights, the “king of whatchamacallit,” as he sees it.
For the past twenty years, Cebar has been steadily plying his trade, building his reputation night by night. A recent review in CMJ of the new disc – The Get-Go (on the Milwaukee-based label Don’t) – calls him “peerless,” adding that “Cebar is a bit like a carpenter or craftsman who doesn’t advertise, instead gaining all his business through word of mouth.” This word of mouth is spreading thanks to national touring, play on Triple A radio, and a major-label appearance on Capitol Records’ Bruce Springsteen tribute One Step Up, Two Steps Back, which features such names as David Bowie, John Hiatt and the Smithereens. Cebar contributes the title track which he recasts as a mournful Cuban rhumba.
And one of the most gratifying development in the career of this New Orleans inspired performer is that he’s been able to bring his music back to its taproot more frequently – including an appearance this month at Maple Leaf on November 1. “Part of what I’ve been doing is trying to make music that’s as lively as what I heard at the Glass House when the Dozen were stomping, or as humorous as Danny Barker’s slightest little witticism,” he says, steering along Lake Michigan under the beating wings of scavenging gulls. “The first goal was just to get there.”
In his music, Cebar is often striving to be going back home to New Orleans. His story is largely a tale of two cities, Milwaukee and New Orleans, and how he manages to keep a wiggling foot in both of them.
The Milwaukee tour began in Cebar’s second” floor apartment. His back porch overlooks Lake Michigan and several rows of clotheslines, but he had something else on mind – some recently acquired footage of old Cuban television. “There’s one thing you got to see,” he said, aiming his remote. Two dancers appeared, the man slowly rotating, lowering himself parallel to the ground; a woman circled around his frame, keeping him from collapsing. “That’s tremenhendous!” Cebar laughed in appreciation. It’s a phrase this passionate self-styled scholar/collector/performer uses repeatedly-alternating with “That’s won-hun-derful!”-whenever he talks about music he likes.
His apartment seems to serve mainly as a warehouse for his guitars and sagging, wooden crates full of records. He aimed a finger at the wall and traced the categories, from singer-songwriter to jazz vocalists to Haitian artists. In the last place he lived, he admitted, the collection increased in size like the potted plant in The Little Shop of Horrors, eventually numbering over 10,000 and forcing him out of his bedroom.
When Cebar – who also hosts a local community radio show – talks about records, you realize how closely linked the personal and the vinyl are in his life. In fact, he credits his musical coming-of-age to a set of records and an older woman. “It began with this gal I met – she was in college, and I was a little high school guy,” he said. “She was kind of like a mentor-slash-quasi-lover figure.” Her family had inherited an enormous record collection that originated years back with a friend of a friend of Billie Holiday. And so long before the days of reissues, Cebar was spending romantic evenings reading books on art theory and listening to Big Maybelle and Louis Jordan, the Black Ace and Cookie and the Cupcakes.
“That’s the Allen-Bradley clock,” Cebar says, pointing to the great white face that rises 300 feet above the homes of immigrant factory workers. “They call it the Polish moon.” Cebar admits he didn’t learn much about his own cultural roots from his Slovak grandfather. “He was from Croatia, a largely Serbian town in the mountains. Whenever we would push grandpa to tell us about his home, he would just say, ‘Aah, there’s nothing to tell you.’ He definitely felt like he came to a much better thing, and that was working in a machine shop in West Allis, Wisconsin.”
Cebar’s parents were both teachers; neither played music. Growing up, he hit the bongos during the halcyon days of Catholic folk masses, and played trumpet in elementary school, duetting with an accordion-playing German kid named Frankie. While in high school, he had a brief career in politics running for student council president on the platform that the arts should be as well-funded as athletics. The idea didn’t exactly sweep the school.
“That allowed the coaches to begin the ‘Cebar is a fag’ movement,” he recalls. “They had meetings and actually instructed their boys that I was a fag. I was carrying around a wool bag at the time. They ran their own guy, who won. ”
Rebuffed, Cebar involved himself in art and theater and his older girlfriend’s records, and began frequenting university coffeehouses. “I liked the coffeehouse scene because you didn’t have to drink, and it was people sitting around thinking, he says. “I was pretty shy about moving around. This was being kind of sensitive, listening to people that were telling you sensitive things.”
After high school, he left Milwaukee to pursue a humanities degree at New College in Sarasota, Florida; he titled his senior thesis “The Blues What Am” (the title of a Jazz Gillum song) and was playing the guitar in a campus coffeehouse, mixing Louis Jordan songs into his Dylan covers. He was reading about social dancing in books like Albert Murray’s Stomping the Blues, but it was during weekend college dances that he had a personal epiphany.
“I was studying Descartes, but the whole mind-body problem began to melt away at these dances,” he says. “I think the best I’ve felt in my life has been dancing. In terms of like any kind of oneness with humanity, in terms of anything that approaches a religion or a sacredness in my life, it’s been in the dancehall. Dancing will restore your faith in your own limbs.”
He is noticing a larger movement afoot in the country, as more and more couples doll up and go dancing to Western, swing, lounge, jump blues or zydeco, and live dance bands are able to stay together and make a living. Cebar lists some of his own favorite dance scenes in his song “A Knife and a Rose,” from Chicago’s Equator Club to Montreal’s Et LBalattou to the Maple Leaf, and adds that he’s recently been studying zydeco with a tutor in New Orleans. “Whenever I’ve made decisions in my life as to whether I’m going to continue having a band, or whatever, I’ve often made the decision on the basis of what dancing has done for me,” he says.
Cebar has taken 50 trips to New Orleans over the past two decades, and he hopes that his work will help extend the traditions he loves. “I do feel there is a need for more songs,” he says. “There’s always a live end to that wire.”
On his last album, Cebar penned “Hold Me To Your Bones,” evoking gospel-inflected carnality in an homage to the Re-Birth Brass Band. On The Get-Go, he reworks his own ballad “Lovely as the Day is Long” as both a samba and a second line, featuring percussion by band-member Mac Perkins, who first heard these rhythms when he was a child in New Orleans, living in a distinguished musical family (his grandparents ran the legendary music club the Caravan).
In fact, “Lovely as the Day is Long” was inspired by an afternoon buying records at the Magic Bus in the French Quarter, when he was listening to a Sidney De Paris record and walked out humming the tune. “Then I realized that I was humming something else. It was a beautiful day, as many New Orleans days are, and I had this notion of ‘Lovely as the Day is Long,’ and grabbed a little notebook and started scrawling it out.”
On his “Twice Little Sixteen,” Cebar styled his answer song to Chuck Berry’s “Sweet Little Sixteen” as a zydeco stomp. While he never plays a whole night of just second lines or zydeco – “My thing is real pluralistic, American, somewhat restless,” he says – he has recorded with Wisconsin-based brass band Mama Digdown, and deepened his connections to the zydeco scene last spring, when he visited accordionist Terrance Simien. The two musicians took long boat trips on the bayou and engaged in songwriting marathons that resulted in three tunes. Other friends in the Louisiana scene include the Iguanas – Cebar met saxophonist Derek Huston over the jukebox at Eddie’s soul food restaurant – but perhaps one of the strangest inspirations for a song came from a vision of John Mooney, with whom he’s shared many gigs. “On the last record there was a song that I had heard John singing in a dream,” he explains. “It’s a song called ‘Blood and Water,’ and I had dreamt that he was playing in the Dream Palace, singing the line ‘That reminds me of blood and water, and both taste something like you to me.’ So I had this dream, and I got up, and I actually had a tape recorder and sang it, and I eventually came up with the song off of that.”
As the Milwaukee dusk turns co night, Cebar obliges with a trip to a local music landmark, Arc Altenburg’s Bar, billed as “the only concertina bar in Wisconsin.” A pick-up polka band is playing “The Green Green Grass of Home” as we walk in. It’s a slow night. A man in a t-shirt has hoisted his child up at the bar for a Coke. Next to him, a worker is complaining about his daily wages for the day. “He toldme to thank him,” he is saying. “He should have thanked me.” Near the bandstand, a woman is sipping a cocktail and happily heckling the concertina player. “Aah, that’s first-class schmaltz!” she shouts.
Not too long ago, this would have been one of the few places in Milwaukee where Paul Cebar could go unrecognized. But last summer, he brought members of the Iguanas here following a local gig. He and Joe Cabral joined the band onstage in a chorus of “Jambalaya.” Tonight, the concertina player points out Cebar, and calls him an Iguana, and the band kicks off with “Jambalaya” again.
Cebar leans over. “I think I still have a little bit of residual polka avoidance from my youth,” he says quickly. “I think it’s also by choosing the name the Milwaukeeans. We were thinking of the original Indian word that means ‘where the waters meet.’ But I think that whatever cultural awareness there is of Milwaukee, it’s beer, and brats, polka music, it’s Laverne and Shirley. Some people’s first impression of the name is that it’s a polka band.'”
After a few more songs and some friendly talk with Are Altenburg, we move on. A trumpet player calls out to Cebar on his way out, “Next time, bring your instrument,” he smiles. Cebar nods back, considering the idea, perhaps for the first time. “It might be a lot of fun,” he thinks out loud.
The neon lights don’t burn too brightly in Milwaukee, at least on this late fall weeknight, and so we close at a 24-hour family restaurant called Omega. With polka trumpets still ringing in our ears, we order tapioca pudding and look over Cebar’s last three CDs. The subject turns to songwriting, for Cebar’s lyrics-he cites Allen Toussaint, Chuck Berry and Smokey Robinson as primary influences – are among ‘the most intricate and rewarding in contemporary music.
The opening cut of The Get-Go, “She Found a Fool,” speaks from the perspective of a man watching a former lover begin to date. It’s a subject he’s covered on previous songs. “I guess there’s a kind of character that I’ve been illuminating,” Cebar says. “It’s someone’s who’s talking one way but is definitely feeling another, and there’s something always underneath what he’s saying.
“This kind of guy comes around a lot in these songs,” he continues. “The first album had a song called ‘Watching You Love,’ and that was about someone that was trying to be fair, and trying to be open and allow someone to experience what they wanted to experience, but was also this sense of ‘I love you and I don’t much like watching you love.'”
Cebar’s lyrics often play like the thoughts of a latter-day hipster who knows he can’t quite get around with the swagger of past days. “Maybe I’m the Alan Alda of neo- R&B writing,” he laughs. “I hope not. I look at the characters in Arthur Alexander tunes, or even though Wilson Pickett is kind of a bad-ass guy, a lot of his lyrics are pretty tender. The whole nature of the soul man is there’s a bluster and then there’s the soft heart beneath it.”
Many of his lyrics are far from cheery, and Cebar often weaves his dance grooves around stories of sweet dysfunction. “Love is a many splendid wringer/Love is a live wire bath,” he penned for his last albums “Love Don’t Have a Clue.” On the new “Got to Grind,” he sings, “I have to admit I kinda loved to lose/I learned to love the spring and tingle of bad, bad news.” But tonight he shrugs off questions that try to link the tunes to his own experiences. “certain songs are pretty close to speaking from a perspective that might be mine, or could emotionally be me in some weird way,” he says. “But I do think that one of the great things of song, is that it is character playing. It’s very fun to conjure up a role by what someone says. You could say that Lee Dorsey was just being himself but I don’t buy that, it’s sort of nativist. Those songs are very crafted and just clever as all hell. ‘I didn’t know much Spanish but I could sure say ‘adios’.’” He looks up and laughs. “That’s wond-hun-derful.”
But as we dig deeper into the songs, some personal stories arise. For example, what is one to make of lines like. “Six at camp sniffing in the loo/He forgot what he knew”, sung against a Colombian-styled accordion solo? Admis Cedar: “Its arguably the most opaque line of the record. I played a gig outdoors at the zoo, in Milwaukee and I’d gone to the outdoor restroom, and as I walked I’d come upon this smell that took me back to my youth at day camp, and it was something in the disinfectants there. I mean, I think of it as sort of a degraded Proustian moment, and my madeleine was some kind of bathroom disinfectant. But I had been grappling with certain experiences that had taken me back to very early childhood things anyway, and I just felt like I had this very disorienting feeling of ‘Where am I going, or who in the hell am It I might be just that little guy. That song is pretty disoriented, and the guy is pretty disillusioned. ”
If he sprinkles his lyrics-and his conversation- with literary references, he explains that it’s all in the grain of American pop. “Smokey Robinson was coming at a time just out of doo wop and out of these various rhythm and blues forms, but he thought nothing of saying, ‘Just like Pagliacci did; I tried to keep my surface hid.’ I love those guys and I love that kind of writing. It’s a lime bit awry, a lime bit astride of the expected, and it gives a. lime bit of tang to the tune.”
The theme to The Get-Go is revealed in the title, and in Cebar’s photographs of delapidated architecture in Havana and New Orleans that decorate the CD booklet. “Every once in a while, you got to remind yourself that you’re starting anew,” he says. “I’ve been thinking a lot about that title, and I’ve been thinking of just how there is a beginning in my life now. On a cold dark night, I might say that I ain’t beginning – I’m in the middle and on my way down. But I wanted to kind of conjure up the sense that you get when you’re in a town like New Orleans or Havana, how there’s a way in which there is a freshness to decay. It’s something that’s even more modern than modern. There is a feeling that you get in these towns, of human lives lived, and a richness there. It’s somebody like Eddie Bo, standing out of time in some way, with cries to ‘Check your bucket’ that are ever youthful.
“There are those nights hearing Snooks play a whole set of Hank Williams tunes. I remember Danny at Snug Harbor talking about the night people and how they don’t grow anything. Seeing the ladies Popeyeing and Eddie Bo egging them on. Countless, countless nights. That’s as good as the music’s been in my life. Tremen-hen-dous.”
The conversation starts to turn to other New Orleans nights, but the tapioca pudding bowls are empty now, and while the lights of the 24- hour Omega never dim, Cebar has to wake up early to rent a van for the next road trip north – and perhaps stop by his folks’ house to get his hair braided. “In some ways I’ve been desperate to have someone find me in some tradition over the years, as I’ve been going about my task of emulating my betters and trying to find my way,” he is saying, getting in his car. “In my music, I’m trying to create the context like my college parties, or like the space in front of the stage at the Jazz Fest, or the dance floor at the Maple Leaf. I’d like to bring that to wherever the hell I go, to help some other shy lime kid like me have that kind of healing shit go on for him. That’s what I think I’m about.”
Cebar checks his bucket.
“But may be not in those words,” he says, steering back into the funky Northern night.