As their new second album, Brand New Dance, attests, Los Po-Boy-Citos are different from other local brass bands, and not only because they represent a form of Latin music in New Orleans. On their first album, 2008’s New Orleans Latin Soul, the group took traditional New Orleans R&B and other standards such as “Big Chief,” and melded them with the very specific Latin boogaloo genre.
“The genesis of this band is us recognizing boogaloo music as being so in tune with New Orleans music,” says Po-Boy-Citos’ guitarist Matt Sakakeeny, a Tulane music professor who teaches American music, from local to classical. ”Our raison d’être is to find that connection between the two genres—which is a challenge! Like, even though it’s there, it’s tough to draw out the Latin influences in say, Ernie K-Doe’s “Mother-in- Law.” It takes some ingenuity, and that’s what we bring to the table in meshing these styles together.”
Sakakeeny, along with bandleader/saxophonist Jacob Leland and company, have made so much musical progress since the first album that they now consider the original mash-up idea as “more of a growth period for the band.” Sakakeeny adds, “Some of those first songs are great, like our version of ‘Fat Mama.’ They’re successful, but they’re stepping stones to what we’re doing now, coming up with our own sound.” Brand New Dance features four original songs, while the Latin/New Orleans mash-up concept has become less a gimmick and more of a theme.
Either way, Los Po-Boy-Citos’ stylistic twists have drawn in a lot of fans. “Latin audiences especially love us because it’s something different,” says Sakakeeny. “We’re not a salsa band, so even for Latin dancers we’re playing something different.” The album cover of Brand New Dance depicts the dance steps that comprise the traditional boogaloo. “There used to be actual dance steps to particular rhythms; that’s kind of a lost art,” Sakakeeny laments. “There was a dance called the Boogaloo, there was a dance called the Shing-a-Ling, the Cha Cha Cha. Ideally, we’d love to find someone who knows those dance steps and could do a little instructional thing before our gigs.” Which makes sense, since dance lessons are offered before some bounce concerts now. Though really, Sakakeeny hopes a wholly new dance might come out of his band’s unique style: hence Brand New Dance.
Both of the group’s albums were largely recorded live; Brand New Dance was produced by Earl Scioneaux, best known for recording the Preservation Hall Jazz Band. “We love New Orleans brass bands and we want the records to capture the interaction between the band members,” Sakakeeny says, “from our version of ‘Now You Know,’ which we captured in one take, to the original ‘Baila Conmigo,’ which has got so much going on, it took a fair amount of working it out to get everyone in sync and groovin’.”
But again, Sakakeeny points out ways in which Los Po-Boy-Citos are different than their local peers. “The line-up is very consistent, and we do rehearse,” he chuckles. “We like to work out our songs, learn new songs, bat new ideas around. We are different in that we really work on our arrangements; the horn section may come in here, then a little guitar break, then a special percussion thing comes in, then a solo vocal piece, then a group chant we kind of picked up from the brass bands. Maybe that’s our contribution to New Orleans music: to take the music to a new place, work on the arrangements, put a little thought into it. Then we rip it live so it has that loose dance feel to it.”
And Sakakeeny is ready for the question of authenticity before it is even asked. “We get questions about authenticity a lot because we play Latin music, but none of the guys in the band are Latin. Frankly, I think that puts some people off,” he accepts, explaining, in a patient, scholarly manner, “But people don’t realize that boogaloo from the ’60s and ’70s was made by Latin musicians in New York’s Spanish Harlem playing soul and funk. Meaning there are Latin grooves to the music, but it’s definitely down on the one, James Brown-influenced funk. So this music already was a mash-up of different styles.” Sakakeeny also points out the group’s recent acquisition of great Venezuelan timbale player Gabriel Velasco of Otra and EOE.
Sakakeeny says his band stays truer to traditional funk than most. “Funk was invented by James Brown in the ’60s, when he turned from a swing or ballad-type beat on “I Feel Good,” or “Please, Please, Please,” to a total straight beat, emphasis on the downbeat,” he says. “Brown made cyclical, repetitive grooves the underlying principle of his music— repetition, because that’s when we can lose ourselves in the groove, dancing. But a lot of New Orleans funk musicians start noodling, doing stuff they shouldn’t be doing. James Brown would fire his musicians for doing that, but many local funk bands encourage it. Which is great if you’re into musical freedom, but if you’re into drop down funk, then you’re missing the point.”