MO’ MOJO’S JOURNEY began more than 20 years ago when a tall East Texan with a Cajun step-daddy came to Akron as a carny and Rolling Acres Mall kiosker. (Can’t help but wonder how many bands get to start their story this way.) That man was Scott “Tex” Gann and when he brought zydeco music in the shape of a C/G single row accordion to northeast Ohio, he left a permanent mark on the area’s music scene. A band was formed, gigs were gotten, and the community dancing and camaraderie began …
When the band suffered the devastating loss of Gann to lung cancer in 2002, two founding members, Jen Maurer and Rod Lubline, kept the zydeco dance party going with many faces and musical stylings crossing their stage. It wasn’t easy at first. Says Maurer:
When I was onstage with Scott and we had a fun crowd, I didn’t recognize a separation between the band and audience. We were just “one,” experiencing a night of magic together and we were all contributors. I used to call it ‘my musical samadhi’—a point where you reach unity with the divine. It was a spiritual thing. It was awesome. After Scott’s passing, it took two to three years to get that back and even then, it was sporadic. But it’s hard to keep zydeco’s power of fun down, so we got through it.
Over the years, the band has included such musical heavyweights as Mike Lenz (a co-founder of the band), Joe Golden (guitar phenom and pedal/amp genius), Sarah and Jayson Benn (Shivering Timbers), and Tracey Nguma (Umojah Nation). The list of talents is many. Maurer, originally a singer and bass player, took over the accordions, lead vocals, and leadership role while Lubline continued his stellar foundational work of blending his world rhythm sensibility with straight-ahead zydeco drumming. Maurer, in particular, has seemed tireless in her efforts to make the show happen, and that included finding pinch hitters for various gigs and for keeping the band going as people moved on. “It seems like half of Akron’s musical community has been part of this band,” says Maurer’s husband, Sam Rettman, who sometimes plays harmonica and sax with the band. “Whether they come as subs for this or that gig, or as full-time players, we’ve had some fantastic people and personalities add to the Mojo. I think I quit counting after 30. It certainly creates a community and unique tie among us.”
Mo’ Mojo’s big break, says Maurer, came when Mike Owen gave the band a monthly slot at the Akron club, the Northside (currently Jilly’s Music Room, next to Luigi’s). “Having a regular monthly slot turned the tide. We could tell people, ‘Hey, come see us next month!’ And they did. It made all the difference in the world. Pay attention to that, bar owners,” she says with a smile. Couple that with Rod Lubline’s booking skills and the band started to play throughout Ohio and somewhat into neighboring states like Pennsylvania and West Virginia, performing for festivals, conventions, private parties, and clubs.
Today, Mo’ Mojo continues to shift, grow, and build. Its current line-up features Maurer’s always-dynamic vocals, accordion skills, and high energy backed by the impeccable electric guitar, fiddle, and bluesy vocal work of Anthony Papaleo. They share a soulmate-like affinity for various musics such as old-time, ragtime, old blues, Cajun music, and swing/jazz. The band’s sound has always been rich with zydeco, americana, funk, and reggae, but now listeners might now also detect currents of those roots, too.
Continuing with the lineup today, Leigh Ann Wise adds rubboard, triangle, rhythm guitar, and trumpet. Most importantly, she gives the band a rare sound for the area with her spot on vocals harmonies—not many local bands feature two female singers. Bill Lestock—once labeled “The Great Enhancer” by Martin Jurdine (RIP), the founder of the Barking Spider legacy in Cleveland—adds fiddle, mando, and acoustic guitar when he’s not saving people from burning buildings as a firefighter. Lenny Paul and Toussaint English share bad-ass bass duties. And Rod Lubline, who retired after 18 years with the band, took two years off only to return. When busy with his and his wife’s band, the Calypso Gypsies, you might find area drum-stars Erik Diaz or Anthony Taddeo behind the kit.
The band does have its own sound. While recently attending the Grassroots Festival of Music and Dance in Trumansburg, New York, a Buffalo dance teacher said, “I like your band! No … you don’t understand. I normally prefer a more traditional sound. But I like you guys!” Part of that sound comes from their originals. Mo’ Mojo’s first CD, titled Finally!, was released in 2010, 15 years after the band started. (Alright, the secret just may be that there was once a CD titled Hold My Accordion While I Dance With Your Date, but that was a long time ago under a different name with a very limited pressing, and if you find it, take it to Antiques Roadshow.) Finally! has 11 songs, six of which are original. One of those is My Jolie, a classic sounding waltz and the only song that Gann wrote for the band before his death, and that in conjunction with two band members at the time, Maurer and Kip Amore.
Mo’ Mojo has three other full-length recordings. Together in Love We Drown (2012) features 14 originals. Mom’s Birthday Album, (2014) was recorded live at the G.A.R Hall in Peninsula with a packed house celebrating not only the recording itself, but also Maurer’s mother’s birthday. The latest, We All Got The Same, (2015) has 12 songs: 9 originals; two zydeco standards meant to pay homage to the musical tradition, and one two-parts cover/one-part original medley based on Bob Marley’s, Stir It Up.
Mo’ Mojo’s influences are diverse. As far as zydeco and other Louisiana artists go, there are the regular big wigs: Gann was a huge fan of Clifton Chenier and Zachary Richard. Maurer loves Sean Ardoin, Horace Trahan, and Sunpie Barnes. Rettman will drive hours out of the way in Louisiana to catch Geno Delafose and dance all night to Preston Frank. Wise loves the Lost Bayou Ramblers and Preston’s son, Keith Frank. Papaleo gives another vote to Chenier and adds the Balfa Brothers. English loves Buckwheat Zydeco, Preston, and Beau Jacque. Paul mentioned John Delafose and three of the artists listed above (Chenier , Geno, and BJ). And Lubline loves the New Orleans sounds of the Meters, the Neville Brothers, and Professor Longhair, in addition to Terrance Simien. (Note the lack of women listed. Zydeco is very male dominated music; something that Mo’ Mojo attempts to balance out.) Maurer was inspired by really every artist she played on her one-hour weekly radio show (in Akron on WAPS), “The Zydeco House Party.” She started the show with Gann and finished with Rettman. It ran for 16 years until they dropped specialty music programming. Additionally, many band members are inspired by the live bands (both American and International) that they see at festivals like Grassroots and Festival International. (Donna the Buffalo and the Horseflies being two US Bands. Lo’ Jo, Tinariwen, Bombino, Sunny Duval, Oztara, Dengue Fever, The World Culture Band being some of the International ones.)
With its sonic hybrid, Mo’ Mojo has now shared their brand of zydeco in eight different countries over the past two years. Through the U.S. Department of State’s American Music Abroad program, the band traveled as music ambassadors to Belize, Panama, Mexico, Barbados, and Colombia, performing community concerts and educational programs. The affiliation also led to tours in Haiti, Dominican Republic, and Tajikistan. Says Wise, “Being selected for that program turned out to be an even greater gift than I had ever imagined. It was so much more than just traveling to other countries to play zydeco. It was experiencing these cultures firsthand, and mainly through kids … young people. They’re so open and accepting and willing. Like the kids at the orphanage in Tajikistan. At first they were a little shy, but as soon as Sam went to dance with a couple of them, it took on a life of its own, and a really beautiful one at that.”
Mo’ Mojo hopes to continue this globe-trotting trend, and they have a couple of ideas in mind (Ireland tops the list.). In the meantime, they plan to keep touring the states. Since 2012, they have traveled the Midwest, the upper South, the East Coast, and most recently, a bit of the West, playing at festivals, zydeco dances, conferences, and clubs in the following states: Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York, Delaware, Rhode Island, Maryland, The District of Columbia, Michigan, Illinois, West Virginia, Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee, Kentucky, and Colorado. While they have no current tours planned (although Maurer and Papaleo are headed back to Colombia in August to play the Cali Blues Fest), they are writing songs for the next album, which they hope to record before the end of the year.
During its more than two decades of existence, Mo’ Mojo has weathered: three name changes, its leader’s death, a couple of romantic break-ups, a divorce, and the changing of the front guard with many gifted musicians flowing in and out and sometimes in again. And yet, the music keeps on, the smiles stay wide, and the feet keep movin'. Just like the good life should.
Anthony Papaleo, Jen Maurer and Leigh Ann
Jen Maurer with students in Barbados
Rod Lubline, Jon Mosey, Kip Amore, Scott Gann, and Jen Maurer
Leigh Ann with children from the orphanage in Tajikistan
Zydeco: Popular music of southern Louisiana that combines tunes of French origin with elements of Caribbean music and the blues and that features guitar, washboard, and accordion. Or in the words of northeast Ohio drummer and Mo’ Mojo alum, Will Douglas, “the most fun music I’ve ever played!”
Scott “Tex” Gann