The Soul Project NOLA Frees Itself

Band leader Jon Cristian Duque, guitarist and vocalist of The Soul Project NOLA, is in the dressing room of Tipitina’s in uptown New Orleans getting ready to do what he does every night: play soul music.

By this I don’t mean the genre known for its poignant blend of rhythm and blues, gospel and passionate vocal delivery as defined by greats such as Sam Cooke, Otis Redding and Aretha Franklin, but rather music emanating from the soul: spiritual, immaterial, animated and immortal.

“It’s my favorite word in the English language,” says Duque. “It’s about letting your body relax enough to let your soul out. Sometimes the body does too good of a job. Let it out, man. Don’t worry about getting hurt or laughed at or the hang ups. Let yourself learn. You can’t learn if you don’t go there.”

Aug. 29 | 5 p.m.
Truckee Thursdays | Truckee
Aug. 29 | 9 p.m.
Philosophy | Truckee
Aug. 30 | 4 p.m.
Incline Beach Barefoot Bar | Incline Village, Nev.
Aug. 30 | 8:30 p.m.
Alibi Ale Works | Incline Village, Nev.
Aug. 31 | 8:30 p.m.
Alibi Ale Works | Truckee
Sept. 3 | 5:30 p.m.
PJ’s Bar & Grill | Truckee

Duque’s parents, a Chilean and an American, worked at the massive Chuquicamata copper mine in northern Chile when he was born. In 1973, when dictator Augusto Pinochet rose to power in a coup d’état, the family fled to New Jersey where he grew up. Although the family listened to Chilean folk music, Duque’s first true musical love was The Beatles.

“I was one of those Beatles guys people hated,” he says. “I knew everything down to what guitar they played on each track. When I got down to New Orleans, it all changed.”

Tired of begging his friends to come to his shows on the Jersey Shore, Duque arrived in Louisiana on New Year’s Day 2000 with little more than a guitar in a case and a shirt on his back. Eventually, he landed a regular Monday gig by Café Negril just outside of the French Quarter.

“A bunch of cats came in,” he says, including members of Paul McCartney’s touring band.

The Crescent City, a treasure trove of musical history, is known worldwide for its preservation of the lost arts of blues, jazz and soul music. As Duque delved into the scene, he began to realize from whence his Liverpudlian heroes had taken their inspiration for the music that changed the world.

“I found out what they were listening to,” he says. “Everything they were doing came from the people before them. All I can hear now is the New Orleans in them.”

After getting his feet wet in the local scene, Duque spent two years traveling the country on Greyhound buses from gig to gig in what he calls the best time of his life.

“I had pennies in my pocket and lived solely on my ability to connect with people,” he says. “I was searching, man.”

After volunteering to drive the band van from New Orleans to Southern California, Duque was asked to go on the road with Walter “Wolfman” Washington.

“I call him boss man,” says the hardworking dreamer. “When I came to New Orleans, I knew nothing. I’d never talked to the man before and he made me a roadmaster. Then he taught me how to go out and do my thing.”

On what keeps Big Easy the leading music destination in the country, Duque points to three things. Number 1 is tradition: “It’s the music that has survived that has been passed on,” he says. “Nobody is trying to reinvent the wheel. We’re trying to continue the greatness of what already is. We get out of the way and make the music right.”

Number 2, he says, is access to the masters: “You can walk in anywhere and if you’re willing to listen and learn, they’ll show you. They come to your level.”

Number 3 is joy. New Orleans itself is a city of soul, says Duque: “Some people walk around and only see poverty. I see joy. People call it a third-world country, but I see people smiling, dancing, creating beauty and being nice to each other.”

On stage as in life, it’s all about letting go, being yourself, and allowing your true essence to shine for everyone around you to see.

“When you immerse yourself in it, when it washes everything away, when the music is happening, nothing else matters, everything feels good,” says Duque. “Even those sad keys always sound hopeful and happy. Everybody’s got it rough. They come in here, listen to the music and leave feeling better about themselves.” | soulprojectnola.com