Raja Kassis is nothing if not a busy man. The longtime Antibalas axe-man relocated to New Orleans a few years ago, planting his roots and absorbing the music and culture of the Crescent City. Kassis is among the most studied musicians of West African music in the city, and his reputation proceeds him, regardless of whatever stage he steps on. Naturally, he’s got a raging itinerary for Jazz Fest after dark in 2018. Live For Live Music’s B.Getz caught up with him between gigs, to chat about the return of Megawatt, the 4th Annual JuJu Fest (which takes place during Jazz Fest), Weedie Braimah, Toubab Krewe, Ghost Note, and even a stealthy pair of Fairgrounds sets he’ll be on.
L4LM: Before we dive into NOLA Jazz Fest madness, please catch everybody up on Antibalas. You recently played twice at a festival in Idaho? What was that about, and how does that region of the country respond to your band?
Raja Kassis: Had a great time in Boise, Idaho, for a really cool festival called Treefort Music Festival. I had never been there, so I didn’t know what to expect but was quickly and pleasantly surprised by the overall vibe. It essentially felt like a low-key South By Southwest—a ton of bands and musicians descended into town for the weekend, and it was clear music was the main focus for everyone living there, which is super cool. The shops all had “Welcome Musicians and Music Fans” signs outside on the sidewalk, which you don’t really see too often, yet with only four or five main venues, it remained intimate and accessible. All that in a beautiful part of the country. A+ overall.
L4LM: Please tell us about the Antibalas LP released last September. That record is fire.
RJ: The band is really cooking, fresh off the fall release of their new album released on Daptone Records entitled Where The Gods Are In Peace, which was cooked up conceptually as an Afro-Western, if you can dig it. There are some amazing compositions on it that had been developed on the road the last few years into what eventually became the album versions. I have always felt Antibalas is an important band, both in message and in music, and a crucial voice, especially in these uncertain times. I feel very lucky to be involved, and it’s a great source of inspiration for me.
Individually, everyone, from the core members to the extended family, are some of the most unique and inspiring musicians and bandleaders in their own right. It’s a big family with many branches, which I feel ultimately makes the whole vision that much stronger. I believe in that strongly—to allow band members to express themselves in many different ways, to go on personal journeys when they need to, which continually allows fresh ideas to come in. We’re creative people, you know? It’s a big band, so logistically, it’s a necessity to have shared roles on the road, while at the same time, allowing me time to do all this Jazz Fest stuff for instance, as well as many other projects including my own Raja Kassis’s HumanBEING (Ropeadope Records).
L4LM: What’s in the pipeline for the Antibalas crew? Seems like the whole squad has a handful different side projects.
Raja Kassis: Most recently, Marcos Garcia, also known as Chico Mann, a band OG and who I share one of the guitar chairs with, just launched an incredible project called Here Lies Man—a heavy fuzz-rock Afrobeat kind of outfit that everyone should check out. They’re hitting the road pretty hard, so keep an eye out. The live show is amazing. Another guitar player in the band, Tim Allen, also known as Timothy James, just released an incredibly inspiring instrumental guitar record called the Wind LP (Tigershrimp Records). I’m a fan of both for sure—be sure to keep a look out for their happenings as well as all things Antibalas.
L4LM: Lets pivot to the main event. You live in NOLA, and Jazz Fest is approaching. I’m curious how do you prepare for such an onslaught of activity? What’s the vibe like in the city in the run-up?
RJ: That’s a great question. [laughs] Jazz Fest is a special time of year, especially living here. It really feels like an annual ritual in my life now. Once you get through Mardi Gras and the Super Sundays, you kind of feel a shift—a tension in the air inching forward waiting to explode. Maybe it’s just me and all the music I got to learn. [laughs] But yeah, pretty much now until the end of Jazz Fest, all my focus and energy goes towards that. Day by day, song by song, I just try to be as prepared as possible so I can just give in to the energy and enjoy the hell out of it when it arrives.
L4LM: One of the shows I’m most excited about is the second coming of your project MEGAWATT. Last year was tremendous, but I have a sneaking suspicion that this year’s hit will surpass 2017. People want to know the deal. What was the inception of this band? Who’s in it, and how did y’all come together?
RJ: It all started with a conversation with one of my most trusted comrades in life and music: the incredible bassist Josh Werner (original Matisyahu, Lee Scratch Perry, recorded with Wu-Tang, Ghostface Killah live band). Overall, we wanted to offer something different within the late night Jazzfest experience. The initial idea of Megawatt really came out of a desire to do this music, which has been such a big part of our lives—specifically heavy dub, roots-reggae, dancehall. Think Black Uhuru, Roots Radics, Sly and Robbie, Buju Banton, Eek-A-Mouse, Sizzla, etc. Also culturally speaking, I personally wanted to do it in New Orleans, which has such an important Caribbean and African connection.
From there, we reached out to Borahm Lee who we had done a lot of that stuff with through the years. Specifically, with him on board, we knew we could execute the true essence of the music faithfully. That’s important—it would either be done right or not at all. After that, the call naturally went out to Adam Deitch, one of the best groove guys around, and then Khris Royal and Maurice Brown for the horn section, who not only are incredible players but also use effects masterfully within the genres we cover. To put it over the top, there was no question but to include my go-tos: Luke Quaranta and Weedie Braimah on percussion. I do a lot of stuff in New Orleans with both of them on the hit, and they are incredible in tandem.
[Video: Raja Kassis]
L4LM: You guys rock with Bajah of the Dry Eye Crew. How did he get into the Megawatt mix?
Raja Kassis: With a hell of a band in place, we needed a hell of a frontman, and we all unanimously decided to call a great friend and longtime collaborator Bajah. For those not familiar with Bajah, he is a legitimate superstar in his home country, Sierra Leone, where his band, the Dry Eye Crew, rose to fame in the midst of a brutal civil war. They essentially became a voice of the people, playing huge shows in the national stadium and delivering a much-needed conscience message. They affectionately called Bajah the “Lyrical Paparel,” which is translated as the “Lyrical Bomber”—that should give you an idea or his crazy delivery. With the addition of Bajah, the scope of the music could expand into the addition of a West African reggae element, which although similar on the surface to classic Jamaican reggae, offers a whole different kind of subtle feel. With the versatility of Bajah on board, it all happens very naturally.
We had also done a lot of crazy Felabration parties through the years, so Afrobeat also emerges inevitably as well. All that being said, with the planned musical foundation we construct, there is a ton of room left for things to happen on the spot and off the dome, staying true to the late night Jazzfest tradition. All the musicians involved know the language, so it makes that possible. It also requires a huge amount of trust to open it up to the unknown, but that’s why these musicians were called. They are all the best at what they do in their own right, and more specifically, they know the feels of the music Megawatt touches on intuitively, which you just can’t teach.
L4LM: What are some of the songs, styles, or even the vibe that fans can expect from this upcoming Megawatt hit at the Blue Nile on April 28th?
RJ: At last year’s 2 a.m. show at Maison, the unveiling of this project, there were a lot of unknowns musically speaking, but after we hit the first groove, the vibe was immediate. The response from the enthusiastic crowd was so good that we knew we had an ongoing thing. This year, we’re excited to expand the whole scope musically with some surprise burners I’m sure the true heads will appreciate. With more shows, there is more direction, so I’m excited to be a part of what will ultimately come to fruition this year. Also, got some exciting things in the works for the summer and beyond with some very heavy potential guests. That’s the vision of the band: to stand alone in its own right as well as to be a go-to call to back up an array of heavy reggae and hip-hop artists. Definitely keep an eye out for us at some future festival dates.
L4LM: You are one of the hardest working cats in NOLA all year round but especially during the Super Bowl that is Jazz Fest. What are some other Raja Kassis hits of note?
RJ: Another Jazz Fest show I’ll be doing is with a project that everybody’s favorite drummer, Terence Higgins, and I put together called The Wahala Boys. The musical foundation of the band is golden-era Nigerian and Ghanaian Afro-Funk—not to be confused with Afrobeat which is different—that quickly takes a life of its own. Terence and I had actually talked about doing it for about a year but it never happened due to our respective tour schedules. About a year and a half ago, it finally happened and the rest is history.
The band is an all-star, all-New Orleans lineup, which also features Ron Johnson on bass, Weedie Braimah and Luke Quaranta on percussion, Brad Walker and Jon Ramm from Grammy winner Sturgill Simpson’s band, plus trumpet ace Ricio “Music Swole Child” Fruge for the horn section and an incredible young keyboard wizard, Daniel Meinecke, on keys. It’s been well received in town because of the caliber of each and every one of these cats, and above all else, it works so well in New Orleans because at the end of the day, it’s just funky-ass music, no matter where it may be from. We’ll be performing the first Friday, April 27th, 2 a.m. (technically the morning of April 28th) at 30/90 on Frenchmen.
[Video: Red Al Eartt]
L4LM: Weedie is a force of nature. You guys have a fantastic kinetic energy onstage and off. It really translates in the music and the vibes. There is a special energy when Weedie takes the stage. What else are you up to with that cat?
Raja Kassis: Yes, indeed. I will also be performing two shows with my good friend and one of my favorite musicians on the planet, Weedie Braimah—one show will be his 4th annual birthday party with his band, The Hands Of Time, which is always a hell of a party. It also features the Soul Rebel horns. The show is on April 29th at midnight at the Blue Nile—think Cuban and West African Folklore meets funk.
Then, there will be a very special show at the Music Box Village, one of my favorite venues, on May 5th at 7 p.m. The show will be called Weedie Braimah’s “Essence of Time, A Drumming Journey through the Diaspora featuring Ghost-Note. This will really be a special one. Come through, especially if you get sick of Frenchmen Street by second Saturday. [laughs] It truly is one of the most unique venues in the country.
L4LM: I know you have a big hand in JuJu Fest with Luke Quaranta, Weedie Braimah, and a few others. That is an amazing festival embedded inside of Jazz Fest. Tell the people about this celebration of West African music.
RJ: As you know, every year Luke Quaranta, Weedie Braimah, Sam Dickey, and myself put on an annual celebration of West African music and culture that we call Juju Fest. A fest within a fest if you will, and every year it has gotten bigger and better. One of the coolest things is, it’s totally different lineups every year, covering a ton of ground.
This year, The Wahala Boys, Megawatt, both of Weedie Braimah’ projects mentioned above, Toubab Krewe, The Fufu Allstars, and the Juju Fest Allstars will all be a part. We’ll be dropping the schedule this week so keep your eyes open for that. May 3rd, 1 a.m. upstairs at the Blue Nile will be a collaborative show called the Juju Fest Allstars featuring many involved in our annual Juju Fest. This will include members of Toubab Krewe, who also just released an incredible new record and are currently on a tear throughout the U.S. Everyone will be in the house in some form, so if you’re familiar, you know anything can happen and anyone can show up.
L4LM: Word is you are playing at the Fairgrounds for Jazz Fest proper!
RJ: Finally, I’m excited to be doing two fairgrounds shows at the official Jazz Fest fairgrounds this year with an old friend, the incredible Leyla McCalla, formerly of the Carolina Chocolate Drops whose own project is just blowing up everywhere. As a Haitian American, she dives deep into the Haitian Troubador and Americana traditions, and all I can say is it’s very deep stuff. The music is diverse and sonically can be wide open and spacious, which is a welcome change from my everyday smash-’em-in-the-mouth type Jazzfest hits. She has a highly anticipated record dropping this fall that people should definitely be on the lookout for, which includes a who’s who of legendary musicians from New Orleans, Haiti, and the greater U.S.
L4LM: Word on the street is that you collaborated with Ghost Note? Is that just a rumor or do you get down with Sput, Nate Werth, and that krewe too?
RJ: I was able to record on a track for the upcoming Ghost Note record which is entitled Swagism that I’m really excited about. It dropped on 4/20, right before all the insanity begins. Tell your people to be sure to cop that one. Pre-order is available right now. It’s heavy.
L4LM: Thanks so much for your time, Raja. Last question, one I am asking all the Jazz Fest folks I’m interviewing. Please respond to the classic saying, “Do You Know What It Means To Miss New Orleans?”
Raja Kassis: Yes, I definitely do. There’s a lot to miss, but at the end of the day, it’s the music in the air, in all things and at all times, which you tend to take for granted if you are in town for a while. It becomes painfully obvious once you leave in one or two days max. And that’s the thing: It’s all about the music. Overall, there is a great respect for musicians, which you just don’t feel in most places in this country, believe it or not [laughs]. The only other places I’ve felt it on that level is in Brazil and West Africa, two of the most musical places on earth, which should tell you everything you need to know.
First thing off the plane back into New Orleans? Straight to the Maple Leaf probably. The music is always top notch and you always will run into musician friends and the pour is proper. But if I’m lucky enough to land around this time of year early afternoon on a Sunday, I’ll be cabbing it straight to the second line from the airport, best believe! Now that’s landing in style.