American Routes Shortcuts: Zigaboo Modeliste

Sep 28, 2018

Zigaboo Modeliste
Credit American Routes

In the 1970s, the Meters brought New Orleans funk to pop music, with second line and Mardi Gras Indian rhythms as spines of their songs. They even added a touch of psychedelia. Keeping the groove going for the Meters was drummer Joseph “Zigaboo” Modeliste. Nick Spitzer asked Ziggy about how he got his name.

Zigaboo Modeliste: In my neighborhood, we all had nicknames, so I was what you would call a jokester when I was a youngster. So they gave me this name, Zigaboo, and I figured I would outgrow it, but from then on, it was like I wore it like a jacket. I remember we used to go to these parties, and we’d always be there first, so what we did, we’d sit around and have refreshments, we’d put the records on the box, and we’d start playing on our legs, playing the drumbeats, and then I’d start beating on stuff around the house. Cyril Neville of the Neville Brothers, he and I, we loved the drums so much, we’d practice together. None of our peers were into music, they were all into football, basketball, you know.

Nick Spitzer: How would you describe what’s funk or funky in life?

ZM: For people that always have a lot of problems in their day-to-day lives, funk would be like a release. When I play my drums, all my tension goes away. It’s something that will make you get out of your seat; that was the whole hypnotic thing, it puts a spell on you. It kind of gets you going. You’re thinking, well if I’m dancing and having a great time, I could expel all the rest of the negative stuff that’s going down.

NS: How did you get the name the Meters? I mean is that like a water meter, an electric meter? I’ve always wondered where that name came from.

ZM: It’s got a lot to do with the timing for music, where your tempo locks at a certain pace. We were trying to come up with a name for the group, this was around ’67, ’68. It was all of the Meters: Leo Nocentelli, Art Neville, George Porter, and myself. So we all put some names on a piece of paper, put them in a hat. Somebody expressed that Allen Toussaint came up with the name because at that time, Allen Toussaint was being involved with us.

NS: When you’re an instrumental group, you almost become people’s personal soundtracks.

ZM: Yeah it’s like giving people a canvas and just saying, “Here, here’s the watercolors or whatever, you draw your own picture.”

NS: Let me ask you about some of these song titles, I mean, how about “Chicken Strut”?

ZM: When we were on the road, we all traveled in a station wagon, so all day long we were trying to think about something to make each other laugh to keep it from being so boring just riding down the highway.  So they said, “What would happen if we had a bunch of chickens that were hip enough to be into the music?” “Look-Ka Py Py” was the same way. We were just playing like playing percussion instruments with our mouths, and Leo would start saying (demonstrates mouth percussion), and while he’s saying that, he’s beating on the back seat of the car. I would come in, and I would try to say something that syncopation-wise, would match up with that, so I’d be saying (mouth percussion). And Art would start saying (mouth percussion). So we said, we gotta do something with this, we just can’t let this go, there’s too much energy, you know?

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