NOLA Street Musicians

Update on Current Research: Topics, Trajectories, and Obstacles

I just blinked my eyes a couple of times and realized it’s been over a month since I’ve posted here. I know, I know – you’ve been utterly distraught about it and just couldn’t imagine your virtual life without me in it, right? 😉  Well – you’re in luck. Here I go:

Flag of New Orleans

Image via Wikipedia

It’s odd how ethnomusicological projects seem to grow organically – they very quickly consume everything in their way. It can be exhilarating! It’s been a while since I’ve stepped back and taken inventory of my projects in progress, so I’m going to save us all some time and give you a list of bullets rather than a narrative. In order of current importance and time consumption:

  1. Street Musicians in New Orleans. My thesis topic. Through the lens of R. Murray Schafer‘s 1977 concept of the soundmark, I’m mapping street musicians in two New Orleans neighborhoods and simultaneously telling the story of their experiences. If I were to tag this project with key words it would be: street musicians, migrant street kids, NOLA, urban studies, tourist mapping, ethnography, oral history, and French Quarter fixtures. Where am I now? Fieldwork is done. Prospectus is done. Writing in progress.
  2. Black, Queer, and Bouncing in New Orleans. I’m researching the phenomenon of Sissy Bounce, which refers to a group of queer-identified hip-hop artists in New Orleans (notably most of them hate the term so I will not use it to define the genre which should just be under the umbrella of ‘Bounce’, simply the artists themselves and their identities).  I’ve been officially doing fieldwork for this project for about fifteen months, however it will be ongoing for quite a while. Issues of access and identity continue to arise. A couple of months ago, I presented a paper called, ““Is that thug wearing heels?” The Negotation of Identity in Sissy Bounce” at the 2011 Southern Graduate Music Research Symposium as part of a panel on liminality (what the hell does it mean to “negotiate identity” anyway?! I’ve since slapped myself for using this title per my advisor who made me [and others] realize it was an idiotic and empty phrase). I recently submitted an abstract to the Society of Ethnomusicology‘s Southeast and Caribbean regional chapter (SEMSEC) called “Big Freedia “the Queer Diva”: Black, Queer, and Bouncing out of New Orleans”. I’m keeping my fingers crossed that it gets accepted so I can present the paper at SEMSEC’s annual meeting, which is being held this year in the Dominican Republic (kudos to whomever had that brilliant idea!).  The first presentation was my attempt to introduce the Sissy Bounce phenomenon to the musicological community, and also my first attempt at a conference presentation! I was happy with both my paper and my presentation of it, though of course looking back there are a few things I would have added/modified. In this second presentation, I’ll be narrowing my topic to a case study of one particular artist, Big Freedia “the Queen Diva.” There are obstacles here as well. Once a local artist performing in dive clubs around town, Freedia’s popularity has shot through the roof and she’s now on an international touring circuit with looming rumors of a reality TV show. Access, access, access.  As a whole, I’m not sure what the trajectory of this project will be.  If there were tags for this one, they would be: gender, bounce, new orleans, black and queer, sexuality studies, Judith Butler, queer hip-hop, and reflexivity.
  3. THE MUHS PROJECT. And now for something completely different, sort of –  I’ve been working on a biographical archiving project since early this past summer. My subject is Marietta Muhs, an opera diva that grew up and out of New Orleans who landed in the NYC opera scene in the early-20th century. Obviously, this project leans towards the historical realm. I’m expecting this to take up quite a bit of time over the next several years. It’s a side project, but one that is allowing me to utilize the skills and resources I’m learning in my historical coursework. Tags here would include: New Orleans, New Orleans opera scene, Loyola U., NYC opera scene, and women in the 1950’s.
  4. Global hip-hop. Also a side project, it seems like for every regional topic class I take which requires a massive term paper/presentation at the end, I’m drawn not just to popular music, but to hip-hop. I’m currently researching hip-hop in South Africa and will be presenting on it sometime in the next few weeks in class. I’ve also delved into Indonesian and Indian hip-hop, and guest lectured a few times on Indonesian hip-hop over the past year. I’m also interested in hip-hop artist refugees coming out of various African war zones (e.g. Emmanual Jal). These things are constantly evolving, so I’m finding that social networking allows me to stay up-to-date with artists and genres without having to actively search them out after I’ve done the initial research.  Anyway, I just added this bullet because it seems to be a recurring theme in my life at the moment, and  I have a feeling that something will come out of it eventually. Of course it also links to the research I’m doing on hip-hop in NOLA.

Next year’s SEM/AMS/SMT mega conference is in New Orleans and I have a few pertinent topics, above, that I could attempt a paper submission for (though acceptance of the younger grad student papers is rare). I think that even though my thesis research is on street musicians, I’m eyeing NOLA Bounce as the topic I’d like to present on at SEM (though my abstract would likely be trashed at first sight).  Anyway – my thesis includes sonic mapping of street musicians, and I could come up with a great “field trip”  handout for people to go and see these soundmarks live since the presentation would be in New Orleans… much to think about. Not a lot of time to do it in.

Lastly, if you’ve followed this blog at all in the past few years, you probably know that my eventual dissertation topic will be  music in the Tibetan community of Dharamsala, India. Most folks who study Tibetan music tend to lean towards music for Buddhist ritual and traditional genres. My goal (big shock here) will be popular music – perhaps working with Lobsang Wangyal who organizes the Tibetan music awards from McLeod Ganj. With that said, I’ve also been peeking at the music of Bhutan and Nepal. Obstacles = language, money, accessibility, government regulations. Working on that.

Prayer Wheels at Tsuglagkhang Temple, McLeod Ganj.

Anyway – that’s my list of current projects and their potential trajectories. As for the day-to-day, it currently involves a giant stack of grading, 2-3 books to read per week, and as usual, hanging with the most fabulous musicologist-friends on the planet.  By Saturday, I hope to make another post  that illustrates how absolutely awesome the SEM conference was in Philadelphia last week.

Til then, Cheers!

“Sidewalk Saints” by Jim Flynn

(sorry for the post bombardment today, y’all!)

This weekend I finally picked up a copy of Sidewalk Saints, a newly published book by Jim Flynn that paints the life portraits of street performers in New Orleans.  Otis had a few copies. The author, a Manhattan native, spent a year documenting the performers’ lives, eventually taking to the streets himself on guitar.

The book itself comes with a companion website (click on the link above) which allows you to make your own New Orleans street performer compilation and view high resolution versions of the photos in the book. If you’re reading this, you’re probably aware that I’m in the throes of a similar project which concentrates on different aspects, and takes quite a different angle. Jim’s book gives us exactly what the cover states – life portraits of the performers… not only musicians, but magicians, balloon artists, human statues, card readers, puppeteers, and more.

I’m looking forward to reading the text, and writing questions/comments in the margins. We’re working with several of the same “fixture” musicians (at first glance of his text, many of the performers Jim covered have since “moved on” – so many of them are migrant, so this is expected). Anyway – more to come soon…stay tuned. 

fall fieldwork weekend in nola

I’m just returning from a productive weekend of fieldwork in New Orleans. I have several of these short weekends planned in the next few months – an unfortunate necessity that would be much better served if I could just spend a week straight on the streets. Shocker here – I can’t.  The ten years I did spend walking them is certainly an advantage, and I’m now realizing how much access and information I have that’s allowing me to complete this project – I’m grateful.

Saturday was highly productive. My partner and I systematically roamed throughout the quarter for several hours so I could make recordings, take photos, and note locations on my map.  I won’t write too much here (you’ll have to read the thesis to find out more), but suffice it to say that I’m surprised at how stationary these musicians are. The busking locations never deviate. It’s as if there are fifteen designated spots for these musicians to plant their feet and they come back to these spots, day after day (often switching between them) – of course, a lot of it is based on foot traffic.

Sunday was less productive, but I learned a lesson. It’s an odd thing to return to the city you call home and think of it as a research project. I never noticed before that during a Saints [football] game, the streets are empty – probably because I was always on a bar stool during the games. A game started at noon yesterday, so by eleven the streets were clearing out. For street musicians this means less foot traffic, less money, and less overall exposure. There’s no reason for them to be out there. As I was seeking them out, they were packing up to find a bar stool in front of a TV. The musicians that were out and about (such as Doreen’s band) were plastered in Saints regalia. My lesson? For future fieldwork trips, I need to consider game times (or at least talk about the game time phenomenon in my work).

In place of hanging with the musicians, I went down to the Louisiana Music Factory and Beckham’s bookshop on Decatur and spent a stupid amount of money on books and albums related to my work. I was slightly disappointed at the response from LA Music Factory when I asked “Do y’all carry any Bounce titles?” (The answer was no)…

Below are some photos from the weekend. I spent the majority of my time with two specific groups of musicians, as is evident in the photos:

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Doing Visual Ethnography in New Orleans

This past week, I had to read this book for a Field & Lab class. The text proved to be advantageous as an approach that manipulates one’s ethnographic mindset into thinking visually rather than textually. While it’s not a how-to manual for visual ethnography, it does represent a particular enlightening approach that many novice researchers could benefit from reading.  It is primarily for ethnographers who wish to incorporate visual facets into their work, and in that it achieves its goal.

Although it seems a rather simple concept, training the mind to consider various media as potential representations of knowledge (Pink) has rerouted my thinking much as though learning right-hand piano on the left hand would do. In my limited experience, I’ve generally used video and photography whenever possible, however not with the deliberation as a means to create and represent knowledge – instead, more as a supplement to fieldnotes, or simply a way to remember those intricate details of settings or outfits that my mind would let slip away (as a means to “inform ethnography”). Both certainly are beneficial.

Of particular relevance is that Pink spent a great deal of time discussing how important [and different] it can be to work closely and for extended periods of time with your subjects in order to access the personal happenings in their daily lives and to eventually record histories and narratives. While this is one of the chief standards of ethnographic research, Pink notes that doing so within the framework of visual ethnography would allow one to get more intensely personal photographs and video. Again, this seems blindingly obvious, however it creates a certain mindset for the ethnographers to center themselves within.

The first couple chapters situate themselves in this idea of mindset. How do we train ourselves to become visual ethnographers? The endless premeditated reflexivity of our own research is one possible answer that seems to recur regardless of what we’re attempting to progress towards, and certainly a recurring theme of our disciplines’ ideology.  The text piqued my curiosity in consideration of an anthropological approach to consumption: of material possessions, and perhaps of visual media itself. What will the photographs I include in my work conjure thoughts of for those who read/view it? Pink briefly discusses how visual images and technology are woven into the culture of those we study as well as the academic culture in which we work. If there were a credo to visual ethnography, these points would unquestionably be bulleted.

A couple weeks ago in New Orleans, I found myself sitting on an elevated sidewalk in the French Quarter listening to a band of street musicians. The members were all homeless street kids, those I would consider “gutter punks”. Moments after sitting, I realized I had sat next to a couple who also fell into this category and after making small talk about how we both enjoyed the group, without being prompted the female began talking with me about their transient lifestyle, her own musical experiences as a street artist, and the relationship dynamics between those in their community. Although I wasn’t expecting it (nor was I prepared), I asked her if she would let me record our conversation. Two hours later, it ended up being the most productive unstructured interview I’ve concluded. This taught me several things about preparation, which Pink discusses throughout her text. I had two pieces of equipment with me at the time – an iPhone, and a 14 megapixel digital camera which does not record audio or video. Luckily, I had already downloaded several recording applications to my iPhone and was able to swiftly place it between us in an unobtrusive way. This allowed me to record the entirety of it. It also allowed me to take various video clips of the band as I was recording our conversation with the same piece of “equipment”. Towards the end of our time together, I was able to use my digital camera to take photos of them, and of the couples’ fantastic [and significant] tattoos.  In this way, visual research unexpectedly became part of my project.

Pink discusses visual media in many cultures as being an understood and “un-taboo” practice. In this New Orleans instance, various ethical issues arose that also came up in this text. Towards the end of the week, I found myself seeking out this gutter punk community, especially after my interview with a particular woman (above) where she clued me in on where they typically hang out, and where they sleep (I found this to be privileged information). For the first couple days, I found myself paying them for photos (anywhere from $1 for a photo to $20 for an interview, which I always offered and they never specifically asked for). Towards the end, I felt as though I were “stalking” them, taking high-resolution photos from several yards away using zoom, and at one point sneaking next to one sitting on the steps of the river and pretending to take a photo of the river when in fact I was interested in him, in his particular location, in his particular moment. Is this  part of fieldwork? As an aside, my purpose for this is that I’m documenting their locations in order to create a mapped delineation of their community – using visual representations to create knowledge. Ethical issues arose from the gutters themselves…

…as Pink states in this text, often ethical decisions cannot be made until you’re standing in the field. This is a continuous process.

Sunday Gras

Yesterday (Sunday) was amazing! Before I second-line out of the house and head toward the quarter this morning, I wanted to make sure I wrote a few things down. Yesterday was my first full day, and ethnographically speaking, it was unbelievable. Even though I came back to my teuxdeux list this morning and had absolutely nothing crossed off from it, I feel like I fit in a month’s worth of fieldwork into one day. Way to raise the bar for myself. Saturday we got here later than expected, walked to Mardi Gras Zone (grocery store/pizza place/mardi gras supply shop) to pick up some fresh mozzarella, bagel bites, a slice of pizza, and a Big Shot. Within five minutes we saw eight people we knew (including our cashier, whose son was a student of mine), and so our chatting lasted long enough for our King-Cake-flavored gelato to melt before we paid for it.

The next morning we started at Schiro’s where I had the obligatory mimosa accompanied by shrimp and grits. Schiro’s is my favorite neighborhood bar/laundromat/guest-house/grocery/Creole-American/Indian restaurant – complete with an aquarium, bamboo divider wall, and video poker room. Some tourists from Canada sat at the bar next to our table.  I handed them our menus as were through with them (though we never really needed them), and a 50-ish-year-old blonde – business-woman-by-day-mom-of-four-by-night type of lady –  asked, “Do ya come here often?”

“As often as possible”, was our almost-simultaneous response.  She asked what was good: shrimp and grits, pain purdue. You can’t go wrong with a three-dollar mimosa. So, of course she ordered none of that and we had to spend our breakfast hour listening to a table full of spring breakers on our left discussing all of the “crazy” things they’d seen on Bourbon St. (honey, y’all ain’t seen nothin’ yet) – the Canadians at the bar who thought we were just bizarre for ordering alcohol before 2pm (it was 8:30 a.m. and I got a Bloody Mary to go after that, thank you very much). Needless to say, our small neighborhood bar/laundromat/guest-house/grocery/restaurant had been infiltrated. Our residential gayborhood had been infiltrated. An hour later we were walking down Frenchman Street (best live music in the city – all day – every day) and saw empty, trampled-over hand grenade containers (a mysterious concoction of everclear, Mountain Dew, and crack – $12 a piece) in the gutter next to the sidewalk. Those. Just. Don’t. Belong. There. Again – infiltrated by tourists. It happens.

We walked down Decatur to see an ex-coworker, and ask her if she wanted a cocktail.  On the way, we saw one street musician – a beautiful collegiate-looking black girl with tight dreads, an open case, and a saxophone.  She was good, but her music was too contemporary for the soul of lower Decatur Street. It was post-Parker – it just didn’t jive. My old boss and her husband walked in the shop, so that chat lasted longer than expected. Her husband was telling me about a busking stage they had set up in the French Market yesterday – anyone could sign up to hop on stage and play for tips. If you were betting I wished I hadn’t missed that, you’d be right. As it was, we walked down that way and found Rebirth Brass Band walking on stage.

After waiting fifteen minutes for their drummer to arrive, bass drum on his shoulder, they began their set. We watched the entirety of it from the dance area directly in front of the stage. I recorded several video clips of the band, and took about fifty photos of the eclectic audience – mixed fixtures and locals, including service industry folk waiting for their shifts to start, and a healthy helping of tourists. My favorite moments were when a man from Senegal jumped on stage with his drum and began jamming with them. This is Rebirth, y’all – not your typical street band. They glared at him with a “boy, what the hell you doin’ on my stage?” look for about a second and a half, shook his hand, asked his name (through the mic), and showed him the beat. He played the rest of the set with them. I also caught a fabulous moment of a [black] homeless second-liner (I’ve seen him around for ages, never asked his name) dancing his heart out with a chubby [white] ten-year-old local girl and an old straw kitchen broom, while her parents watched and clapped to the beat. These are “I love New Orleans” moments.

From there we walked by the old Mint toward Café Envie, grabbed a small peppermint schnapps Mocha, charged our phones while reading the Gambit, and decided to head toward the square. Amzie walked by with two paintings under his arm. In the square we caught a small brass band playing in front of the Cathedral, and watched them get into a territorial tiff with a man in a giant carnie-gorilla costume (he was stealing their spotlight).  Then we wandered to Royal Street. Jackpot. I’m not going to say too much here because I want it to be a separate upcoming post, but I found myself interviewing a gutter punk musician for an hour and a half as I was listening to a street band – washboard with homemade toys attached, banjo, percussion, and guitars – various instrumentation at different points – people kept joining and disappearing from the corner – a few of them were in an actual band from which the pre-composed songs came, and they had a CD for sale, wrapped in lined notebook paper and scotch tape – of course I bought one). Anyway – from that interview, so many new doors opened, so many new questions. I handed her a $20 for her time, and walked away with her phone number (she has a prepaid phone to call her daughter once a day), enough material to write a good article, several contacts, video, an hour’s worth of audio to transcribe, plenty of photos, and a standing invite to “camp” and “hop freight trains” around the country with them. I learned to always, always, always have a recording device on hand – even if it’s an iPhone with a vintage recorder app.

Two blocks away, I found a man playing a percussion trap set he had built out of a guitar shell. The neck and its fret rivets had become a washboard. He had forks, a martini strainer (which almost sounded like an orchestral ratchet), and a sheet-metal cymbal attached. Video of that will pop up on here soon. By this time it was about 1pm and we walked up to catch a friend bartending – stopping to take photos and video of several street musicians along the way – including Dorise and Tanya, who now have business cards – that was nice to see.

A few hours later we walked back toward the French Market and caught a set of Bo Dollis Jr. and the Wild Magnolias, saw some friends (and another ex-boss, who happens to manage the group), and watched a few hundred tourists get their first glimpse of Mardi Gras Indians singing about smoking their peace pipe.  Once again, beautiful shots, great video clips, and excellent memories to share.

After their set, we walked to 13 (one of my favorite restaurants), grabbed a pull pork sandwich and spinach salad to go, and headed back to the house for a nap. The nap didn’t happen.

As we crashed (about 8pm), I received a text from a trumpet-player friend who told me to grab an axe (instrument), head toward Marigny & Decatur, and jump into the Krewe of Eris parade. Two hours later I was still main-lining behind eight sousaphones in front of a crowd of hundreds of twenty-something’s with flasks in homemade costumes (yes, I made sure to dress appropriately) and the streets can only be described as chaos and anarchy – which is of course, the purpose of the entire spectacle. There were queens in high heels, cats, and octopi dancing fervently to our music on the roofs of the cars and trucks that lined the streets. One woman, who had become a cat for the evening, climbed every tree on the parade route to cradle in its branches like a lanky panther. I was able to snap a few photos, but this was a “stay-in-the-moment-and-take-off-your-ethnographer-cap” kind of event. My partner took photos as I marched. Eventually we landed on Frenchman Street, the musical hub of our neighborhood.  They disbanded into a giant street party, which I’m sure lasted until dawn. We held back, caught up with a friend who just got off a 12-hr bartending shift, and walked home. I wasn’t feeling hot and my partner had to leave to head back to Florida so she could be in the office at 8am. I’m hoping the next two days are as lovely…

As I’m sitting here writing this, I’m listening to a 3-year old (my favorite one in the world) wake up singing “oh oh oh, it’s Magic.. you knoowwwww” at the top of her lungs…