The Neville Brothers Interview
For more than 20 years, the Neville Brothers have played songs with meaning, songs with a groove and songs with soul. In those years they've picked up fans, received acclaim and even won a couple of Grammys. But their musical history dates back even farther than their tenure together, as each brother first ventured forth on his own.Art, who plays guitar, was first to fly, recording the "Mardis Gras Mambo" with the Hawkettes in 1954 while still living at home. This launched his career and earned him the opportunity to play with B.B. King, Bobby (Blue) Bland and many others.Aaron, whose angelic falsetto voice may be the band's hallmark, began his career just a year after Art, and by 1966 had reached the big time with his No. 2 hit "Tell It Like It Is."Later in '66, Aaron, Art and percussionist Cyril, the youngest brother, formed The Neville Sounds, which disbanded that same year when Art formed The Meters, a New Orleans favorite and one of the bands responsible for '70s funk.Travelingg brother Charles, in the meantime, had moved from Memphis to New York to put his saxophone to work in a career in jazz.Through the '60s and '70s the brothers continued to make music, sometimes together, sometimes not.In 1975, Cyril also joined the Meters, which pinnacled as the opening act for the Rolling Stones.The next year, cajoled by their uncle George "Big Chief Jolly" Landry, Aaron and Charles, backed by The Meters, joined Landry and his Wild Tchoupitoulas - a New Orleans-style Indian tribe of Native Americans and slave descendants and a regular attraction at Mardis Gras - to produce the classic album, Wild Tchoupitoulas.For the brothers, the album was such a success that they officially tied the knot, forming the Neville Brothers in 1976 and releasing the self-titled album the next year.They have been making music together - and apart, as each still pursues his own solo projects - ever since.Cyril Neville spoke with J Alex Knoll recently on the Neville's long journey.Q When I first called, you were mixing a song. What you were working on? A I'm doing some solo work for some other cats ... my wife wrote several of the songs. This one is to help raise money for Peles of the Land, a Native American organization to raise money to have their treaties honored in court. Their sovereignty rights are being questioned and held jeopardy.I feel blessed to have these people feel that I could be representative of any of this.It's because of the spirit that's in our music that we identify totally with them. A lot of people in America think that those last battles were fought in the 1800s, but there are still battles - they're being fought in court.Q The title of your new CD, Mitakuye Oyasin Oyasin / All my Relations, comes from a Lakota Sioux sacred chant ... A It's actually a prayer in itself. It means "all my relations." In Christianity, when people finish praying they say "amen." Native Americans, when they finispraying, they say "All my relations." Mitakuye Oyasin Oyasin.It's like our song "Sacred Ground" says: "Wherever any living creature sets its foot is sacred ground." We have learned from our Native American brothers that all creatures are part of creation and so are we and it's all one. When we get back to living by the great law, there'll be peace.But we all know that the new world order is not moving in that direction. We're living in a time now when you're either part of what's right or you're part of the problem.We realize that the future for the American people is getting back to the great law. As Dr. King put it, the only way we're going to live is either together as friends. [Otherwise,] we'll die apart fighting.In my estimation, we human beings have more things in common than things different. Having something as trivial as skin color separating us is a product of a fascist, racist society.Q Is it still as bad as all that? A Of course it is. Otherwise, in the music industry, there wouldn't be these things called black music and white music. From all the way back to Little Richard, rock and roll was supposed to be poison. Now it's hip-hop and the gangster rap.Every type of music out there came from the same source. American music is based on rhythm. Rhythm was here - that 4-4 thing was here with the natives - but Africans brought over the syncopations and the rhythms and the moans and the cries from the cotton fields. That's what makes American music. That's what makes our music. We experience it, we see it. I don't have to go to Haiti. I can go to on e of our projects and see the same kind of struggles and the looks on people's faces and see them also in the Third World.But as well as the pain, there are the looks of determination. People around the world have to live with the great law and the law of the lord - instead of living for the law of governments of organizations. When everyone wants for others' children what they want for their children, all war will cease.Q How do you see the Neville Brothers helping in that battle? A We have been blessed to receive truths from the creator to share along with the gift of music. We're doing, when we're on stage together, what the creator intended us to do. We continuously come forth with positive messages.Q How do you get this message into your music? A I guess it's sort of the M&M factor. You put the message on the inside and the music on the outside. In our music, we never try to bang people over the heads. Instead we cover our message with the grooves and rhythms and with Aaron's voice.Q Are you the most spiritual of your brothers? A We're all spiritual. But sometimes the holy spirit hits me and things will come up and come out in maybe a more preachy manner than any of my other brothers might use, but still it's not like I'm up on a pulpit. Sometimes the spirit takes hold of me and I just have to jump up and shout.Q You've toured the world: Europe, Japan, even Israel ... A The gift of music that the creator granteds has taken us all around the world, places that other than the music they would never have taken us. And there's still journeys to come. That is one of the greatest educations - not reading about people in the book, but actually being around people, tasting the food, digging the culture. Getting the chance to see the creator in other people.We've played everywhere but Africa and South America Maybe now since we're with one of the biggest record companies in the world - Columbia/Sony - we can go there now.Q You all just got done with the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival. Is that where you feel most comfortable, playing for a home-town crowd? A Jazz fest was pretty hip, with a lot of people playing. But actually, we don't get a chance to play at home except at Mardi Gras or the Jazz Heritage festival. And then it's usually for a crowd of out-of-towners, so we don't get a chance to play for a home crowd too often. Q Saturday May 24 you're playing in Solomons, Maryland, where the Chesapeake Bay meets the Patuxent River, about an hour and a half south of Washington, D.C. Ever been there or heard of it? A No.Q For some of our readers who may not have seen the Neville Brothers live, what should they expect Saturday night? A Expect a great show. We've been doing this now for quite some time. You can look forward to hearing stuff from Aaron's upcoming solo project and we'll be trying new stuff together that may end up on our next CD.Q What's ahead for the Neville Brothers? A We're about to start working on a new Neville Brothers album. We're going to go into the studio in late November. Aaron just finishing a new album; he's done some more songs with Linda Ronstadt and just finished some work with Roberta Flack.I'm almost finished with a new CD of my own, Cyril Soulo. My wife, Gaynielle, has a new CD coming out on my own record label.This next album, the funk will still be there, the groove will be there. We got a brand new slate here. We just did a thing with Wycliff [from Fugees]. He was one of the main people coming up with the grooves and the beat of the hiphop.Q What was it like growing up in the Neville home? A There was always music in our home. My mother sang and did ballroom dancing. My uncle played piano and sang. My father sang while he drove his taxi. There was music everywhere. The radio was either on or records were playing.When I was born, we lived in the projects. This saxophonist lived next door to us and I'd hear him practice through the walls.Then we moved uptown. [My brother] Art started out recording in 1954. The band played at the house and rehearsed in our living room. A lot of these people were the great musicians of the town, the session artists who were making the music behind Fats Domino and the like. I mean man it was like ...Music was being pumped into me from probably before the time I was born. It's the same thing now with our children. The mothers were on the set when they were pregnant, absorbing the music.Q You've been together 20 years nows the Neville Brothers. A We had been playing together [before joining together on the Wild Tchoupitoulas in 1976] but not under the name The Neville Brothers, just in different incarnations. This year makes 20 years since we put together The Neville Brothers and since we incorporated the name.Q What's kept you together? A Family. We're family. We're four totally different people but we have in common that we are brothers. That we were raised well. This is not just about us but the work that we were put here to do.Q What's it like playing with your brothers, Aaron, Art and Charles? A We're human beings and we have our differences. If we were in this for the money we would have all been out driving taxis a long time ago. But we're on a mission - I don't mean to sound like the Blues Brothers, but we're on a mission from God.Q Your own children and your wife play on All My Relations. So do your brothers' families And some of the kids have successful music careers of their own. A Yes. My wife, Gaynielle, she's done some work on All My Relations. Charles' wife and his son Ian played guitar, and Aaron's son Jason played some of the rap. It's like a real family thing.Q You're the youngest of your brothers at 48. How do you keep going? How long can the four of you keep it up? A Everything is up to the creator. He's going to decide how long we'll be doing this. There's enough work to be done. We're with one of the biggest record labels in the world, so maybe we will get our around-the-world tour and get to take our message everywhere. When my work is over, I'll fly away home. Until then, we'll be delivering the funk and the groove. Photos of the Neville Brothers, together and individually, are available from Bill Graham Promotions. Call 415/541-4900 and ask for Erin Graviln.