Why New Orleans Matters

Cover of "Why New Orleans Matters"

Cover of Why New Orleans Matters

I have just discovered that I can put my plastic camelback bottle in the microwave to make tea without an explosion. Now that I have, I’m sitting on the office couch with a blankie reading Tom Piazza’s “Why New Orleans Matters“. Obviously it’s Friday morning. If you must know, I am reading it for a combination of work and pleasure. I’ve read through it several times, and anyone who has knows that it’s chock full of amazing quotes that help explain to folks, well, why New Orleans matters. If I remember correctly, there are a few that would slip ever-so-nicely into the cracks of my thesis – hence the work aspect… and it’s a nice relaxing way to spend Friday morning in the office, right? Now my tea is getting cold…

Here are a few good quotes from the current pages I’m flipping through:

“New Orleans is the most religious place I have ever been, even though much of the population is profoundly profane, pagan, and steeped in the seven deadly sins and some others not even listed.

“Mac Rebennack, better known as Dr. John, once told me that when a brass band plays at a small club back up in one of the neighborhoods, it’s as if the audience – dancing, singing to the refrains, laughing – is part of the band. They are two parts of the same thing. The dancers interpret, or it might be better to say literally embody, the sounds of the band, answering the instruments. Since everyone is listening to different parts of the music – she to the trumpet melody, he to the bass drum, she to the trombone – the audience is a working model in three dimensions of the music, a synesthesic transformation of materials. And of course the band is also watching the dances, and getting ideas from the dancers’ gestures. The relationship between band and audience is in that sense like the relationship between two lovers making love, where cause and effect becomes very hard to see, even impossible to call by its right name…”

Of jazz funerals… “In the real old times they would continue this way (in a dirge) all the way to the graveyard before the next stage  of the funeral ritual took place, but even New Orleans isn’t totally immune to the Worldwide Attention Deficit, and today this part of the procession will last for a block or two at most before the band stops playing the dirge…and the snare drum beats out a familiar sharp tattoo, the band launches into a jubilant, life-affirming stomp, and the entire crowd explodes into dance.” 

“It amounts to a kind of cultural synesthesia in which music is food, and food is a kind of choreography, and dance is a way of dramatizing the fact that you are still alive for another year, another funeral, another Mardi Gras.”


Cheers [to hurricane season]

I just realized it’s hurricane season. In NOLA, it’s a time when folks dig out MRE’s, axes, & candles, and they start the squirelesque process of ‘stocking up’ on non-perishables. There are some who make a ritual out of the 1st day of the season – trips to the hardware store (I know because I used to work there), the occasional shot of bourbon in between reminiscent tears and making sure your important documents are enclosed in Ziploc bags (a great travel tip, by the way).  Of course there are an equal number of people who, like me, just sigh, try to remember you need to buy a few candles on your next trip to the grocery, and go about their day.  Now that I live in a land-locked safe zone, I don’t have much to worry about, but my insides still buzz at the thought of it. Nature humbles me (though the Army corps of engineers just angers me).

It’s hard to forget, and I don’t want to (hence the newest ink). Though it was an unbelievable tragedy, losing everything led to some great changes for me. It landed me on this trajectory after all, and I’ll always be reminded that I can live happily with just the clothes on my back and the support of friends and family. I think that’s a good thing to remember sometimes… That’s all for now. Sorry for the mush 🙂

Small Archiving Project [Pt 1]

As many of you know, last year I inherited a small archiving project of and relating to New Orleans opera in the mid-1900’s. As of two days ago, this “project”, which has consisted of a giant box of mildew-scented newspaper clippings, has come to life. (Immediately I feel a rush of “GAH!” as I realize I have no clue where to start.) I have yet to take an archiving course, although I hope to at some point, even if it has to be a DIS. Regardless, I need to invest in some texts or friendly conversation with those “in the know” regarding the methodology.  So… I have a giant box of old newspaper clippings. Now what?

I suppose I should talk about the clippings for a moment. I inherited the box from a music library in New Orleans which didn’t harbor the means/resources to give it the time of day. It had been given to the library as part of an estate and I can only assume this is because the owner was getting on in years or perhaps passed away. So here I am.

…no clue who the “owner” was (i.e. who assembled the box of clippings), or their relationship to the articles they clipped. The articles themselves range from 1930-1984, and they discuss two particular opera stars from New Orleans who rose through the ranks toward the Met, then came back home  [to New Orleans] during their final years (from what I can see thus far). It’s not simply a survey of opera in New Orleans via media clips. It’s an intimate portrait of two particular people, as if a mother was saving every newspaper clipping of her rising star children.

This is going be like the board game “Clue” for the next few weeks.  Step one was to pull them out of the box and glance them over. I’m about halfway done with this step (there’s a few hundred articles and they’re frail – give me a break!), and I have been taking notes as I peruse them: particular questions I’ll need to answer, people/places/dates that keep popping up, etc. Once I’m done with this, I suppose I’ll continue picking through and asking questions as I put them together chronologically.  Then it gets tricky. I can further split them up via location, musician, opera, role, or even critic. After that I’m not quite sure which direction to take. I know there’s a story to tell here. I just have to unravel it.

Of course these clippings can likely all be found in digital  [or other] archives, and perhaps I won’t come to any conclusions at all with this small project of mine, but it gives me something to do for the next month and I need to brush up on the 20th century opera scene in New Orleans anyway. For now, back to playing Clue

Four Weeks Left

The semester is coming to a close, and it feels like it just started. Thanks to a professor who has been out of town for a conference, I was able to sleep in for four days in a row. I am unbelievably grateful!

As you know, I use TeuxDeux to organize my life. It’s simple and quick enough for me to just compile everything in one spot, plus it’s got a handy-dandy iPhone app that syncs up to my mac in a lovely way.  While I appreciate that if you don’t complete something on a due date the item rolls over to the next day, right now that list is quite long and quite frankly, irritating. As long as I get one or two items crossed off per day, I’ll stay happy. Okay – I guess I’ll stop rambling.

I realized this morning that I hate humidity and I’ll be happy if I can spend the entirety of the summer somewhere without it. I’m not sure how I lived in New Orleans for so long and avoided making that statement. I just don’t like it. I hate walking outside and feeling like I’m breathing underwater. It feels the same here in Florida. It just makes me feel – dirty.

Speaking of summer, I’ve completely avoided making plans for it because every time I think about it, my head spins. I was offered two awesome volunteer positions overseas, but I’m worried about finances. I’m also not sure it would be entirely fruitful as I’ve decided that my thesis will be on the music of New Orleans.  I don’t want to spend the summer in New Orleans because most of the street musicians (at least those I’m working with) go north for the summer, there aren’t many tourists, and musically not a whole lot happens in NOLA after fest-season (until Satchmo Fest in August) – BUT I have a cool internship opportunity there, so we’ll see.  I don’t want to spend it with family because I spent over a week with them in December, and really, that’ll do for the year (just my mother in particular, really).  I also don’t want to spend the summer pent up in my home office in front of my mac. I’d get cabin fever after a day or so. Anyway, you get the point. My goal is that by the end of this week, I have a tentative summer schedule down.  Sorry I’m complaining so much  – its more of a venting process than anything. Two things I’m sure of: Bonnaroo to help lead Stan’s drum workshop (500 drums built in four days!), and Falcon Ridge Folk Fest with my sisters (which will also include some drum-building).  It’s a start!

Physically I’m doing much better, thanks to a curious doctor and a couple of prescriptions (that I’m hoping I can be done with soon, but it’s doubtful)…  my physical anxiety is about 80% better than it was a few weeks ago.

This week I’m focusing on the beginning phases of two research papers, one for Indonesia, and one for India. I haven’t narrowed down the topics completely yet, so that’s step one. My photo essay is finished and I’m a little disappointed that the copy center wants $75 to print one copy of my presentation – so needless to say, it will be digital. I have a concert tomorrow night with African and Gamelan, and several recording clips to catch this week for our Field & Lab video project. I have to keep my prospectus in mind as its due next month (not the official one, but close enough – 2nd lit review due this week), and I have a TON of papers to grade.  Add an IRB application, a grant application, two exams, four books to read, a book review, a thesis presentation,  and a transcription project and that about sums up my next four weeks (minus all the TA stuff, rehearsals, and actual classes).

I’m raising my glass to grad school about now…

(a show and tell will be coming up soon)

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…