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American Routes Shortcuts: Cyril Neville

Cyril Neville
Cyril Neville

Cyril Neville, the youngest of the Neville fraternal order, grew up surrounded by New Orleans rhythm and blues hit makers, like James Booker, Earl King, and his brother Art, whose band the Hawketts recorded “Mardi Gras Mambo” in 1954. Cyril got an early start in music playing percussion with his uncle Jolly’s Mardi Gras Indian tribe, the Wild Tchoupitoulas. He joined Art’s funk group, the Meters, in the early ‘70s, and in 1977, Cyril and Art teamed up with Aaron and Charles to form the Neville Brothers. Cyril later founded his own group, Endangered Species, and has become a community and environmental activist, especially in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Cyril spoke of his musical beginnings some seventy years ago.

Cyril Neville: It started for me in the Calliope Project, and it just was another one of those neighborhoods in New Orleans that was like infested with talent. Next door to us was Red Tyler. Red would be practicing his horn next door, and the walls were real thin, and at times, he and Charles were practicing at the same time and would be playing harmonies with each other.

Nick Spitzer: Oh calling back and forth.

CN: Yeah.

NS: Being the youngest brother, it seems to me one of the advantages you had was both hearing all these kind of elders from another time, hearing your older brothers, but also you were able to make a bridge to the next level.

CN: Well I felt like that was basically what I was supposed to do, and I’m still doing that. It’s exactly what my Uncle Jolly did, because without Big Chief Jolly and the Wild Tchoupitoulas, there may have never been a Neville Brothers record.

NS: So it was really doing the Indian stuff that kind of puts them together in public as the Neville Brothers.

CN: That to me is what the Neville Brothers really were. First time we were ever in the studio together was to do the Wild Tchoupitoulas record. The magic about that is that’s a combination of the Neville Brothers and the Meters.

NS: Tell me about your take on Katrina. I know you got out of town, and you had very strong feelings that you published and talked in the press about.

CN: To me, Katrina ain’t the one that ate my twenty five years of tapes up and everything, it was the Army Corps of Engineers flood. To hear people saying that God had finally did what they had been trying to do for forty years didn’t really sit well with me. I know some of the people that had died, and I spoke about it. Got in trouble, but you know, I don’t bite my tongue because my soul will bleed. The root culture of the city comes from the street. The culture is being pimped in my estimation, you know. Since there’s a huge economic pie associated with the New Orleans tourism, I just feel like the root culture that we call New Orleans culture and sell to the rest of the world, should have a big piece of that economic pie.

NS: Your recent collection is called “Endangered Species” so it seems to me you’re raising the question of what do we have left, what can carry us forward.

CN: The whole thing about the name “Endangered Species,” we were the endangered species, Black culture, and we saw the culture being usurped. The most important thing to me in life is to retain ownership of that and pass it down to the next generation.

To hear the full program, tune in Saturdays at 5 and Sundays at 6 on WWNO, or listen at americanroutes.org.