Postcard - New Orleans
May 2006©Nigel Spiers
Day two of our USA musical road-trip; we cross from Texas into Louisiana at a small town on the border called Deweyville. The waitress at the diner asks us “so what do-y’all think of Southern Texas?” There’s silence as no one can think of anything of note we have seen or heard in the last two days’ drive from Austin.
“We carry the widest selection of Louisiana and New Orleans
You know how you get a song stuck in your head for days on end and it’s not even a very good song. For almost a week I have been humming and tapping one of my least favourite; “The sun shines east, the sun shines west…. deep in the heart of Texas”. As we cross into Louisiana the song instantly changes to one of my favourites; “Do you know what it means to miss New Orleans”?
Visiting Louisiana is living my life-long dream and I sit in the car, as we drive through the low lands and swamps with a perpetual smile of absolute bliss. In the late afternoon we approach Baton Rouge, the capitol and largest city in Louisiana, and cross the mighty Mississippi river. There’s a drought here but you would never know it. The river is much wider and deeper than I imagined, fast flowing and large container ships and oil tankers are dwarfed by it.
Day three of the road trip and our trusty guide (Lonely Planet) tells us to avoid the city of Baton Rouge and instead take a day exploring the plantations on the banks of the Mississippi river. The first visit is to Nottoway; the largest antebellum (pre-American Civil War) plantation and mansion in Louisiana. In it’s hey day it had 57 servants and over a 1,000 slaves to look after the American owner’s family and their 7,000 acres of sugar cane. An elderly black woman, dressed in 19th century costume, guides us around the magnificent home and grounds. Despite several questions she refuses to be drawn into any discussion of her or her family’s links to the plantation and the black slaves.
Next a Creole plantation called Laura which Lonely Planet rates as “The Best Historic Tour in the USA”. Now this is more interesting! Apparently Creole is often used to mean “pertaining to New Orleans” however it’s true meaning is “people of any race or mixture of races descended from settlers in Louisiana before it became part of the US in 1803”. Ever since we crossed the Louisiana border, where we were greeted by a sign saying “Bienvenue en Louisiane”, we have been amazed at how French everything is here; the street signs, menus and the houses. It all becomes clear as a very charming and proud woman kindly shows us around even though it is getting late in the day and the rain is bucketing down. This family plantation has been run by women for over 200 years. Two hundred years ago it was illegal for a woman to run a company in the US but not in France and Louisiana was a French colony then with French laws. That slowly started to change after the Louisiana Purchase in 1803 (when Napoleon sold about 50% of what was then the United States to the US government to fund his crumbling empire). New Orleans was the jewel in the French colonial crown because he who controlled New Orleans controlled access to the Mississippi. And the Mississippi was the gateway for the vast and highly lucrative cotton and sugar trade. The US purchased 529 million acres at 3 cents an acre – a total of $15 M or around $190 M in today’s dollars. But it was not until as late as the 1990’s that the US government finally banned the speaking of French in Louisiana schools.
As we drive from west Louisiana into New Orleans we look around for signs of Hurricane Katrina damage. There is virtually none – just a scattering of older houses with blue tarpaulins on the roofs where they are undergoing repairs. Even when we reach our Hotel on the edge of the French Quarter the only evidence is a brown “high tide” mark on some of the stone buildings about 18” above the pavement. According to the Hotel concierge this is because the damage on the west side of a hurricane is always much less than on the east (this was born out in a subsequent visit to eastern New Orleans).
Day one in New Orleans is absolutely perfect; brilliant blue sky, warm and just a hint of a breeze. What a perfect day for a wander and to get acquainted with the historic and very picturesque French Quarter. First we pop into a Voodoo store to buy a Panama hat and come out with beads, boas, posters and a bottle of very hot looking sauce. We decided against the masks, monkey’s paws, skeletons and stuffed Alligators. We look up and wow there’s Tipatina’s. There’s a team of Mexican blokes furiously re-painting the front of the great Jazz and Blues club. They don’t speak English, and we can’t go in, but a sign on the door announces that tonight they are re-opening for the first time since Hurricane Katrina.
just down the road is the Louisiana Music Factory. Let’s see what it says on the door;
Music on compact disc & vinyl records in the world”.
I think I’ll just get me a little Chubby Carrier, Jon Cleary’s first and very rare CD, some Gospel and just a touch of Sunpie and The Louisiana Hotsots to wash it all down.
Around the corner is the world’s first pharmacy and what’s that they are advertising – prophylactic toothbrushes!
In the next street is William Faulkner’s (Nobel Laureate) house – where in 1925 he wrote his first novel – “Soldiers Pay”.
Lunchtime and I’ve developed a nasty little addiction to red beans, dirty rice and Andouille sausage. The food here is mostly geared to the tourists so it’s a little bland but our little bottle of hot sauce soon comes to the rescue.
In the evening and only 100 metres from our hotel we hear that unmistakable “Second Line” beat coming from the corner of Bourbon and Canal Streets. The band is rocking and passers-by are swaying and dancing in the middle of the street as the drivers honk their horns in encouragement. "Second Line" is the term now used for that distinctive New Orleans brass marching band beat. It also refers to the wild, strutting steps of the street dancers.
After the American Civil War brass band music became very popular and in the 1890's these bands began to be asked to perform at Jazz funerals. Jazz funerals were at the heart of an early African slave religious practice, of celebrating the life of a deceased person. When the church's funeral service was over, and the procession began from the church to the cemetery, the band would play slow, sad, funeral hymns, known as a "dirges". Led by a "Grand Marshal", the band and mourners would move to the burial site, with the band playing the dirge to signal the struggles, the hardships of life. On the way back, the music became more joyful. The band played high-spirited tunes such as "Didn't He Ramble" and this signaled the dismissal, and interment of the physical body, and the joyous release, of the soul.
The Family and relatives of the diseased were the “First Line” in the parade. The friends and acquaintances, usually sporting umbrellas and handkerchiefs and dancing wildly, were the “Second Line”.
“The Big Easy” has turned on an absolute cracker for day 1 of the 2006 New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival. “The Crescent City” was almost deserted yesterday but it is a different story today. The streets are full of visitors with sun hats, umbrellas, deckchairs and picnic baskets all heading in one direction. At the show-grounds there are 10 festival stages of varying sizes. Each stage is dedicated to different types of music – Modern Jazz, Trad. Jazz, Zydeco, Blues, Gospel, Heritage, Kids Tent, Modern Louisiana, Brass Band and one larger stage for the “headline” performers. We have spent many pleasurable hours poring over our extensive Jazz Festival programs and marking the acts we want to see.
However that all changes when we arrive just after 11.30 am to find huge crowds already in place in front of the main stage. After 10 minutes battling the crowds and watching Keb Mo "Uncle Tom" his way through a couple of standards we retire to an ice cream stall to review the situation. A decision is made to spend the day at the more intimate and less crowded tents and stages where we can enjoy some of the many Louisiana musicians who are never likely to tour New Zealand:
Mary Griffin is first up with a powerful soul set and a stunning set of legs and short skirt that had every man in the audience crowding the front of the stage for a better view.
Next over to the Gospel tent where the “St. Joseph The Worker Music Ministry” choir are at full throttle and working the crowd up into a lather of religious fervor.
One of the highlights of the day is Andrew Hall’s Society Brass Band playing some excruciatingly slow funeral marches. The tempo is just so slow that you think the band leader, playing the bass drum, has fallen asleep between hits and then the beautiful 7 part brass harmony begins. After the dirge the elderly "Grand Marshal" climbs down off the stage, blows his whistle, unfurls his umbrella, and while the band start a spirited rag, leads the whole audience in Second Lining around the large tent.
We finish the day at the Zydeco tent where Sunpie and The Sunspots have a large audience in the palm of their hand. The band is fronted by the commanding figure of Sunpie and flanked by his wife and little boy on washboards.
We saw a tee shirt which said “Jazz Fest Ain’t a Sprint – It’s A Marathon”. It is a great event on the World musical calendar. The sheer technical wizardry, effort and commitment necessary to stage 300 concerts at one venue over 6 days, 7 hours a day and with 10 simultaneous acts performing is mind-boggling and it all runs like clockwork.
We had also purchased tickets to the second day of the festival. While Saturday also dawned fine and warm a strong wind had blown up overnight. We couldn’t face another 7 crowded hours in a dust-bowl so we sold our tickets to the hotel concierge and consoled ourselves with a trip to Preservation Hall that night.
Our last evening in New Orleans and we decide on some take-a-ways from the all-night 7-11 on the corner. I am second in the queue at the counter with an armful of local goodies. The bloke in front of me has had six or seven margaritas too many and is trying to count out $4 in nickels and dimes for the harassed and rather feisty young Mexican woman behind the counter. After several false starts, and a few dropped coins she looses patience and tells him to pay up or get out. He starts a re-count and she throws his bag of food in the rubbish bin. Furious he grabs the pile of coins on the counter and throws them in her face from short range. She grabs the gun under the counter and points it at his forehead. Meanwhile his head has slumped on the counter and as Lynard Skynard said “I’m looking straight down the barrel of a 44”. Everyone in the shop, including me, dive for cover behind the aisles of groceries. The young woman vaults the counter and presses the gun against the poor bloke’s head, changes her mind and pistol whips him across the face all the while screaming abuse. As he staggers back with blood all over the place, further blows rain down until she finally heaves him out of the shop. She re-vaults the counter puts the pistol away and calls “Next”. Everyone looks at me and eager to please I tell her that I have the right change, drop it on the counter and run out the door.
“Do you know what it means to miss New Orleans…?” As we take off from Louis Armstrong Airport, heading for LAX and home, I have a lump in my throat. It’s been there since yesterday morning when we took a trip down to the Lower Ninth Ward to get an update on the rebuilding of New Orleans. As we passed Fats Domino’s house (and his wife’s house next door – apparently they don’t get on) it’s clear that there is no rebuilding. The 8th, 9th and 19th wards were the poorest, the lowest lying and hardest hit by the flood waters. Some streets are completely destroyed – just piles of rusting roof iron, car bodies and rotting timber. Other streets – the houses look fine – just broken windows. But there is no electricity, no sanitation and no people. Very few New Orleans people can afford the exorbitant rates for flood insurance. Worst of all there is no plan to fix it. New Orleans was a city of 550,000 people but within just a few weeks of the hurricane 300,000 people had left the city and most had left permanently to live in Texas and other surrounding States.
New Orleans is in big trouble. There are not enough people and jobs to sustain many of the businesses, the levees have been only temporarily repaired and forecasters are predicting more and possibly even larger hurricanes for this season (starting around August). The people who remain are optimistic and all thank us profusely for coming and our support.
It’s my first visit; the music is sensational and the city, people and culture are even more exotic than I imagined. As we take off from Louis Armstrong Airport, heading for LAX and home I’m already planning my next visit.
I’ll Be Back.