The last several years have seen a resurgence of music made in and about the city of New Orleans—a testament to just how deep within the city’s marrow music really is, and to the town’s own resilience—but my two favorite records both come with Allen Toussaint’s name emblazoned on the cover. And isn’t it fitting? Not only is Toussaint one of the Crescent City’s brightest musical treasures (and seemingly one of its best-kept secrets), but his two albums show just how deep and wide these post-Katrina feelings run. The first, The River in Reverse, was a collaboration with Elvis Costello and producer Joe Henry, and it was a celebration of the city’s legacy, tempered by political outrage and deep sadness. Then, he ditched Costello but kept Henry for the jazz outing The Bright Mississippi, which was and is a flat-out joy.
Toussaint appears on a single track on Ya-Ka-May, a record named for a New Orleans delicacy and spearheaded by a New Orleans funk outfit called Galactic, and—perhaps unsurprisingly at this point—this one’s still another new stripe of New Orleans record. There’s no politics here, no sadness, and though there are some iconic musicians present here, no nostalgic looks to the city’s past. This is music for the here and now; it’s a parade of bright and dizzying colors, a party album where the funk doesn’t ever let up, and it’s as boisterous and bawdy as anything coming down Bourbon Street.
But back to Toussaint: I mention him because his contribution, “Bacchus,” strikes at the heart of what this album’s really about; the song is a clever and (naturally) soulful ode to inspiration, improvisation, and intuition—a celebration of all the right kinds of in-the-moment decadence. And so is the record itself: Splitting the difference between simple elegance and randy nonsense, Ya-Ka-May is all about the virtues of simply enjoying oneself.
The Galactic crew makes sure we don’t overthink it: The album literally never stops moving. The closest thing to a ballad or a torch song here is a spirited, clap-along anthem by Irma Thomas called “Heart of Steel,” a survivor’s tale that rings true of the city that inspired this music. But most of this music simply revels in the sensual energy of where the city is now, at least musically: the Rebirth Brass Band brings some New Orleans swing but Galactic anchors it to the present-day with dirty hip-hop beats, while an array of impressive New Orleans MCs—you’ve probably never heard of them before—show off a local style called “bounce,” basically an aggressively funky, good-times brand of rap.
It might sound odd on paper, the thought of songs like these brushing up against numbers by Toussaint and Thomas, or by John Boutte’s slightly moodier, cello-accented “Dark Water,” but that’s the record’s appeal: It’s a bright and shimmering collage of sounds and songs, perspectives old and new but always seeming fresh, that are quite literally on parade. It’s not an homage to New Orleans any more than it’s a monument to the endless joys of communal music-making, which, in its own way, makes this a relentlessly fun tribute to a city where the music never dies.