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Losing NOLA: Donna’s

New Orleans is my holy city. The soundscape of it is a spiritual practice, a place to reflect, to create, and to commune.  Each musical venue – perhaps a sidewalk, a bar, a stoop, the length of a street, a high school band room, under a bridge, or the stage of a jazz club – has earned its story of veneration. When a musical site fades, New Orleanians grieve.

Today we’re grieving for Donna’s Bar & Grill, the last live music club on North Rampart Street.  It faces Armstrong Park, the site of Congo Square. For those of you into television, Rampart divides the French Quarter from the Treme neighborhood, where the HBO show Treme is based.

Offbeat, New Orleans’ music news resource, has just published an article about the closing of Donna’s. Read it here.

On her site, Donna gives us a farewell notice as seen below. You can click on the image through to her website:

I am very saddened by this. Donna’s was the first place I saw Mardi Gras Indians perform.  It was also the first place I had REAL red beans and rice (which I always thought was appropriately across from Louis Armstrong Park). It was a place I saw so many friends have their first ‘real’ gigs, especially after my favorite dive closed down (The Funky Butt – which closed right before Katrina).

As an aside… when things like this happen, as they do so often these days, it only reinforces what I want to do after I have that PhD under my belt. Someone needs to step in and create a cultural space to disseminate grants to keep these places alive, a place to archive the stories, objects, and traditions and to foster tourist expectations, a place to sell the music, to offer tours of our sacred musical spaces,  and to teach a new generation of New Orleans musicians. So many of the above organizations exist as separate entities, and none of them work together to become a strong enough voice on a National level.  If someone gets to putting it together before I do, I’ll raise a glass to them.  In the meantime, I’d wager that a jazz funeral for Donna’s is in the midst…

What compels us?

What is it that compels some of us to pick up an instrument when we’re young, and never put it down?

I find myself wondering if the path I’ve taken as a musician is something I’ve done just out of habit? Out of familiarity? When I was seven, I wanted to be an author. Before that, I wanted to be a vet. Yet on the first day of 3rd grade, I walked into music class and the teacher handed me a recorder. A bunch of time went by and I remember playing a recorder duet with my best friend on stage in the cafeteria. Ode to Joy (shocked?). That’s my first musical memory.

What’s yours?

Sacred vs. Profane

A professor of mine, Dr. Guy Beck, addresses the topic of sacred vs. profane in the context of religion. If you’ve never really thought about it, you should. I’ll probably talk about it again. The distinction is crucial when talking about ethnomusicology. There’s never really a gray area.

It’s crucial because music, whether sacred or profane, gives [part of our] identity to culture. Aside from it, people can share similar or identical religious beliefs while at the same time associating with different cultures and performing music. So we should give some definition to each one:

Sacred means timeless, ineffable, vertical, spiritual, perhaps extraordinary. It harbors depth. It is hard for Western minds (not that I’m Eastern) to grasp the idea of sacred without immediately thinking of the Christian God. It is important to note that the concept of sacred I mean here is not limited to the Christian God, nor any other. It’s definition stays attached to the listed words above.

On the other hand, the concept of profanity has, in contemporary culture, earned a negative stigma. Yet, the term is temporal, prosaic, ordinary, pedestrian, horizontal. Examples of profanity in our context here could include such mundane things such as doing laundry or paying bills.

(Sacred and profane love – Titian, Borghese Gallery, Rome)

The term comes from ‘profanis’, which translates to “outside the gates of the tabernacle”. This references the tabernacle (a place of worship as directed by God in Numbers & Leviticus) containing the Ark of the Covenant. However, no musical instruments or singing were connected with the tabernacle services. Outside of the buildings, the Levites held the position of playing the shofar (ram’s horn) for ceremonious sacrifices).Therefore, profane simply means the opposite of sacred.

It’s important to distinguish between the two when speaking of music in a cultural context. Music is just that – either sacred or profane. Either it is written for the purpose of sanctity or is simply ordinary. Bach certainly knew the difference. This, culturally speaking, is the first distinction we’ll make of cultures and their ‘musicking‘ (a term coined by MENC member and music educator Christopher Small that I use ALL the time so get used to it!)

Classical musicians can relate to these two ideas by thinking of absolute vs. program music, whereas absolute music refers to music that is not explicitly about anything per se, and program music is a form of art music intended to provoke ‘extra-musical’ ideas – religious ones perhaps, or a story being told (think Opera). These terms however, are generally strictly applied to European classical music. Hopefully the correlation makes sacred vs. profane a bit more accessable.

Now some examples:

Sacred Music:
Bach’s Organ Works (Lutheran)
Tibetan Chant
Judaic recitation
Gregorian Chant

Profane Music:
Can you think of any music that is ‘ordinary’?

There are those that would argue that rock and roll is sacred, along with the hip-hop genre and even street music. American pop music for sure (no, not all of it), Sousa marches, aleatoric music…etc etc etc

(For more reading on sacred vs. profane, pick up a copy of “the Sacred and the Profane” by Mercia Eliade [1907-1986], a Romanian scholar.