Bon Temps Rouler

On Saturday 27th Feb Lille set my heart ablaze. I ended my DJ set by saying “Vous etes belles Lille! I am from London but my heart is from New Orleans” as it pounded to the pulse of hundreds of people getting down to the rhythms of New Orleans.

Straight off, I saw from the ticket price of a few euros, that this was a festival for everyone and 800 people from all walks of life packed into the Salle Des Fetes in the hip Fives area of Lille.  

No boundaries really existed, a small local lady in her 50’s led the dancefloor proceedings, stepping and damn well doing as she pleased as my Professor Longhair strolling numbers and Clifton Chenier bayou blues warmed the crowd on a bitingly cold, Northern night. There were families on a night out with children who later clambered onto the stage to get a better view of the dancers.

Not really knowing what to expect, other than hearing from the organisers that at some point a Mardi Gras Indian, resplendent in feathers and sequins would appear, the local 10-piece Opus 2 Brass Band were a fireball of energy. Mixing up their own hip-hop inflected French originals with New Orleans brass band staples ‘I Feel like Funkin’ it Up’ along with crowd pleasers like ‘Thriller’, all executed superbly, they had the crowd jumping and screaming for more. During sound check, band leader and all round good egg, Manu chatted to me, “We bring out the Big Chief. Not many young, white, French men have been to New Orleans and learnt how to make a Mardi Gras Indian costume”, as he dangled a dazzling sequinned chest piece over the DJ booth. Inspired by the flamboyance of Dr John proudly displaying New Orleans roots and culture in his Mardi Gras Indian feathered suit, Manu, far from wishing to create a spectacle wanted to highlight important parts of French and US history; escaped slaves (and in some cases the first French settlers in New Orleans) being sheltered by native Indians. Shown how to sew it piece, by beautiful piece at the Backstreet Cultural Museum, the hub of the Treme neighbourhood in New Orleans, he then recalled playing snaredrum on Jesus on the Mainline at the Candlelight Lounge and Benny Jones of the Treme Brass Band saying “You’re not a stranger no more, you from the neighbourhood”.

Boasting two charismatic front men, sax player Pierre-Yves leapt and bounced on the spot never missing a beat and James, a blues-shouter turned Mardi Gras Indian Big Chief used his deep, bluesy vocals to rile the crowd to fever pitch. Karine, the tall young, female sousaphone player was holding up the rear pumping out superb bass notes and quietly breaking down a few stereotypes too.

As I DJ-ed I caught footage of a Second Line out of the corner of my eye as the VJs ‘Machine Sauvage’ bought to life street scenes of New Orleans; the feet of steppers on a second line and bits of the gig with kaleidoscopic effects and colours were projected onto white diamonds behind me as I spun. The crowd bounced and roared to the high energy 50’s RnB, deep n dirty funk. A man held up his arm and kept shouting “DJ, DJ” until I made eye contact and he had the chance to say what I’m sure was something lovely in French.

Thanks to ATTACAFA for organising and for investing in this great event. Vive les bon temps!

Opus 2 brass:


Machine Sauvage:

Flying chickens and free spirits. Sailing with Naleia. Week 24- 250+ islands

I never thought this city girl would fall so completely in love with sailing as much as I did. Staying on a 47ft yacht called Tequila Sunrise with fellow sailors from Argentina, France, Germany and my dear old friend Marc (a skipper in waiting) has been truly phenomenal.
We quickly bonded over the first night’s electrical storm on the horizon at Biograd port. As the sky flashed pink “Have you sailed before? Where are you from?” quickly turned to jokes and stories and as the week progressed, a desire to learn from our fantastic skipper Barbara, whose sense of fun was only rivalled by her commitment to teaching us to sail. 

During the week we mixed up secluded bays with gorgeous small port towns and a larger marina. The towering, vertical cliffs at Telascica were just stunning. The second night we moored and trekked up a hill at Vrulje to watch a red sunset as the light danced on the waves creating millions of tiny diamonds, cascading them across the tens of tiny islands scattered below us.
We buoyed at three different bays- at Tribunj we had to change plans and fled an oncoming storm so the cliffs provided a dramatic backdrop as we learnt how to play an Argentinian card game on deck. At Podkacina we jumped in dinghys to a great grill restaurant that let us plug in our music and create an impromptu dance floor with great wine flowing.  Perhaps my favourite bay was Tatinje where in total seclusion, we moored the three boats together (by creating a ‘spring’ don’t you know) and woke early, jumped from the boat, spotted fish and swam in water that shone a deep blue green shade I had never seen before.

We rounded off the trip at Primosten a stunning isolated little town, only connected to the mainland by a narrow strip of land and separated by a former defence gate. We had a great pizza and sat on wooden benches drinking wine and exchanging plenty of laughs.
So many things happened aboard Tequila I can’t begin to describe the antics. We miscalculated the food and had to send a chicken (gone bad) overboard so we temporarily became the Flying Chickens (complete with flag) we even had a send-off ceremony for the poor thing. On deck we adapted drinking games that didn’t translate well but were all the more hilarious for it and further cemented us in the bonds of sailing. As someone who is surrounded by noise and concrete, I loved the way that you have to be so in tune with the elements and what’s happening around you- feeling the wind, watching the waves and responding with smooth and steady movements. We had really calm waters for a lot of the time but we practised manoeuvres and really got a feel for the boat and sailing.
I bought my love of baking aboard and challenged skipper Nico (on fellow boat Mojito) to a bake-off! “Great” he said accepting my challenge, “I’ll make a cake in a frying pan”
This bringing of our passions to the journey perfectly captures the spirit of Naleia. I had many fascinating chats with Dominik, one was on the stone pier wall on a balmy night in Primosten he said “I want people to bring themselves to this trip.” Later, on his birthday as we sailed along I asked him about his vision for Naleia and what the highlight was for him so far "I loved climbing that hill and seeing the sunset together on the first night. Also the bake off as it really was people bringing themselves and their ideas to life. I’m not a tour guide, it’s the people who come onboard who make the trip what it is. This is the chance to sail and bring ourselves to the journey”

What are you waiting for? Get your shimmy on, book for the remaining two weeks and get sailing!

Food n soul

I’ve lost track of the many hours I’ve spent talking, thinking about and consuming the amazing food of New Orleans. Sensuous is the only word that comes close to describe it. Like the music of New Orleans, the hit of flavour, texture and well, vibe, is intoxicating.

The history of Louisianan food reflects the rich and wildly interesting history of the land and the people that immigrated there. The food can be spilt (broadly) into Cajun and Creole cooking- the Cajuns, exiled out of Acadia, Canada in the 1750’s settled in the swampy West of Louisiana used the land to flavour their food- alligator, shrimp, native herbs and leaves. This fuses with more ‘Creole’ cuisine- thicker soups and stews, rice and beans reflecting the early French and Spanish settlers.
Staples are gumbo, jambalaya, red beans and rice and Po- Boys- think a massive French stick stuffed full of fried shrimp, salad and more.

In New Orleans the music, food and people and are all intertwined. Food is frequently served up at gigs and on second lines, you gorge on amazingly seasoned fried chicken to fuel up to 10 miles of shimmying.

I particularly like nights here in London that that bring together food and music, reminding me of sashaying across miles of New Orleans neighbourhoods with a huge crowd of locals to the most infectious brass band music.  Over at Bayou Soul, Camden this Saturday, I’ll be scooting from an early set at the Hospital Club to chow down on some hearty gumbo then I’ll be spinning 50’s RnB and funk grooves as hot and tasty as the spices in their fab jambalaya.

Then there’s Gumbo Galley, one of London’s best supper clubs. Hidden deep within a beautiful mews house in West London in a subterranean dining room, New Orleans born and bred chef Nataleigh Rene transports you “…on a journey to experience New Orleans French Quarter decadence. The focus is on serving up the tastiest most authentic southern dishes you have ever tried.”

Bon appetit y’all.

This Saturday 30th May- Live music from 8pm, Bayou Soul, 20 Inverness Street, NW1 7HJ  *FREE*

Gumbo Galley: Southern feasts regularly, for dates check out

Come hungry, leave soulful. Jazzfest 2014, New Orleans

You’ll know from my musings on this page that New Orleans isn’t like anywhere else in America or indeed anywhere else on Earth- bringing together European, African and Caribbean heritage, credited as the birthplace of jazz and phenomenally unique RnB syncopated sound. This is also a place where the concept of normal doesn’t really exist- you’ll be standing on a street corner and a full on brass band will parade out of nowhere complete with dancers, tambourines, colour and life. It stands then, that a festival showcasing local talent and beyond reflects this uniqueness.

 It’s also the little moments that contrast with some of the huge acts you can see and the mix of genres that blend together across 11 stages in a gumbo of sounds and styles- you can catch Bruce Springsteen on the same bill as a Cajun punk folk band or harmonies from an ageing doo-wop band in the Gospel Tent, creating a fervour that leaves you elated for hours. It’s also the quirky customs (watermelon sacrificing, papier mache porkchop suspended on a 10 ft stick?) and idiosyncratic characters you meet and the fact that despite being one of the longest running US festivals (in its 45th year), it has retained its warm, down-home atmosphere. It’s a place where you can see native American Indian dances, witness a totem pole being built, catch a second line and some parading Mardi Gras Indians and all the while fuel yourself on some of the most delicious food the South has to offer.

This is my third Jazzfest and I’d describe it as one of discovery. More so than usual- it’s commonplace to wander past one of my favourite smaller stages, the Fais Do Do showcasing folk, bluegrass and more and see something amazing. This year the stage outdid itself as I discovered The Lost Bayou Ramblers- an energised punk bayou Cajun band- singing only in Acadian French and featuring an ensemble of steel lap guitar, fiddle and bass, mixing up the traditional undulating Cajun sound with bass heavy rock that had the bass player leaping from the drum kit…in between bouncing I stopped for a free hug from the woman dispensing, well, Free Hugs as her stickers and hugs stipulate.

This Fest was particularly exciting as my long-time friend and co-founder of Mardi Gras Mambo, Dom Pipkin played numerous times throughout our trip. Firstly on a solo slot at Piano Night- the ‘Oscars’ of the New Orleans piano world; a long running celebration of the New Orleans piano tradition including acts like Jon Cleary and Marcia Ball.  It was a whirlwind of styles and approaches- originally scheduled for the Parish Room, Dom stepped in at the last minute and did an additional set in the intimate, harem-like Foundation Room. Focussing mainly on originals like the playful ‘Mi Calle, Su Calle’ with the exuberant Professor Longhair-esque ‘Smile and Get on Down’. He then made his Jazzfest debut as the closing act on the rootsy Lagniappe Stage with singer-songwriter and all-round local legend Paul Sanchez on his track

‘Foot of Canal Street’ (co-written with John Boutte, featured on the Treme soundtrack). As my friend Brian put it “It’s a tough call between Springsteen and Dom Pipkin”..we all opted for Pipkin, of course.

Bruce Springsteen fans were not disappointed as he delivered an epic 3 and a half hour set with the E-Street Band that crackled with energy. He was truly indefatigable. Not being a fan myself, I went more out of intrigue but enjoyed his hit parade delivered with verve and audacity. Springsteen and special guest John Fogerty (guitarist and lyricist of Creedence Clearwater Revival) delivered a blissful ‘Proud Mary’. In his own set Fogerty played “Proud Mary” with Allen Toussaint and amongst others the To Be Continued Brass Band, and Zydeco hero Rockin’ Dopsie.

 As a swing dancer, I adore the vibe at the Economy Hall Tent- spiritual home of trad jazz and the fest’s swing dance lovers- the average age of punters here is over 50 and they take their second lining (street parading) seriously- my kind of place. Vibrant home-made umbrellas are often found bouncing around to the infectious beats and you can find swing dancers from around the world.

Away from their spiritual home, the Economy Hall tent, an energised Preservation Hall band unleashed a mighty new sound- progressive and a marked evolution into a super, almost rock sound. They presided over the Blues tent stage with vigour that perfectly captured the spirit of New Orleans- a deeply respectful nod to the past by taking the best bits and creating an evolved, ‘bigger’ sound including two tubas.

 Arcade Fire finished up their Reflektor tour delivering their trademark bombast, marching forthrightly into the audience accompanied by the (all female) Original Pinettes Brass Band playing “Iko Iko”. A combination of sleep deprivation and the emotional outpouring of the soulful Alabama Shakes, led to more than just one tear being shed during their heartfelt on the more alternative ‘Galaxy Samsung’ stage (aka The Gentilly stage). Playing deep, gritty Southern soul and showcasing the gravelly voice and excellent rhythm guitar of front lady Brittany Howard. I love local journalist Keith Spera’s description of them as “sob-and-throb country soul to bring you to your knees”

Of course there are the performances I only caught bits of but enjoyed regardless- Chick Corea, (with a supremely talented flamenco guitarist) and Chaka Khan, Bobby Womack..

Then there are the night shows in between the two festival weekends- the city literally hums. Tough to pick highlights but experimental brass band Magnetic Ear unleashed a barrage of brass that electrified the audience (a handful of very delighted people at new venue, Gasa Gasa) mind bending grooves of originals playing with time and space and switching between flamenco, dub and street parade brass, often on the same track.

King James & The Special Men, residents at the down-home locale BJ’s, swayed the party crowd with their special take on classic Nola RnB- Professor Longhair’s Boogie becomes The Special Men Bounce as the crowd sparked up cigarettes for all kinds of sleazy fun.

Having seen their inaugural gig at Chazfest (a small spin off festival led by local washboard player Chaz), two years ago, Rory Danger and the Danger Dangers wooed a packed crowd at the leftfield Hi-Ho Lounge. Headed up by the wonderful Aurora Nealand, their strange mix of arthouse rockabilly had people moshing and swing dancing alternately. Warm-up was by The Valparaiso Men’s Chorus featuring 15 or so ne’er do-well musicians performing tongue in cheek sea shanties- blarney and fun don’t even come close to describing this band.

 It was outside this gig we discovered a van called Guideaux- I can’t quite explain it. This van, it had charisma. (How you can you have a good feeling about a van?!) One Hot Sausage and Parm Po-Boy and discussions with off duty musicians about American Vs European adaptations of the Nola sound, had me wondering why late night street food can’t be this good in London?

Talking of food, oh how we gorged. Cochon de lait po’ boy (suckling pig, slow cooked served in a bun brimming with juice), crawfish etouffee (seafood stew smothered in creole spices) served on the back of a pick-up truck that served as our table at Jaques-imo’s, or cochon, (mushroom sliced up in a salad with fried beef jerky,) fried oysters, crab stuffed shrimp. Or beignets (fried, square donuts covered in piles of icing sugar) and smoky, chicory coffee available 24hrs a day at Café Du Monde, best served with a slightly inebriated, wise cracking lovely new group of English friends at 2am.

 I mentioned those special moments like the smell of camellias on the warm breeze as it darted across our faces cycling through the boho Marigny into the beautiful sunset to Jon Cleary’s house for a post Jazzfest party. Being greeted there with plenty of music royalty who just kicked back. We were lucky to have two amazing Cajun bands- the supremely talented with Joel Savoy on fiddle taking centre stage and Jon Cleary using a fiddle as a mandolin one stage, hosting a mix of local musicians, out of towners and misfits in his tasteful Aladdin’s cave of house.

One of the happiest memories was being interviewed on WWOZ- cult radio station providing exposure to local musicians who play the genres heard in New Orleans- that means jazz, rhythm and blues, brass band, gospel, Cajun, zydeco, Latin, bluegrass and more local and streamed for the world to enjoy. This amazing volunteer-run radio station has got me out of many dark moments in London, when missing New Orleans or badly in need of spiritual sunshine, WWOZ rarely fails to provide. Interviewed by the lovely Lauren Mastro and her brother John (standing in for Mark Stone) Dom played more heady originals and we both chatted about the New Orleans scene and events we’ve helped to create here in London. The modest building belies a thriving, vibrant community preserving and celebrating local sounds.

 I arrived home, hazy, tired, my body repelling all forms of fried food, baying for broccoli but whirring in happiness, nourished in the rich musical currency that New Orleans instils in abundance.

Not mentioned but one of the best record shops in NOLA: Euclid Records

The Iko’s New Orleans Music Shop- open for good time New Orleans grooves

There’s a quiet revolution going on deep underground in a cellar bar in the centre of London and its heart beats defiantly to the rhythms of New Orleans.

Every two weeks, Dom &The Iko’s open up the door to the swampy secrets of their souls at The Alleycat, Denmark St, heading up a unique gig and jam session.  

 At the helm is by Dom Pipkin- piano virtuoso, recognised as the best New Orleans inspired piano player in London; his playing heavily influenced by Professor Longhair, the maverick genius James Booker and Jelly Roll Morton. Dom & The Iko’s bring their very special brand of intoxicating New Orleans inflected RnB, soul and blistering funk by mixing up originals, classics and obscure gems from the Crescent City. You might hear Dr Jazz followed by Dr John, ending with a Mardi Gras Indian chant that has Dom jumping into the crowd tambourine in hand exclaiming “Hooo na naaaay” as the crowd goes mad, arms and legs flailing as if possessed.

This is a picture of ‘The Iko’s New Orleans Music Shop’. To describe the atmosphere? It’s ‘like light touching various places in space…accumulating in intricate patterns until the entire rooms glows with its own being’ (Ragtime- E.L Doctorow) as my own words fail me. The beauty is we never know who’s going to turn up- tap dancers hoofing to Big Chief one week, four trombones, a smattering of saxes and a pocket trumpet making up an almighty brass section the next, crammed into the tiny space by the side of the stage (outside the ladies loo) creating beats that occupy the entire room.

 Dom and I have been running the night for two years. In between sets, I spin that vinyl I scoured New Orleans to find- y’know that vinyl I’ve been telling you about- hours in record shops, traversing the city, only stopping to use the loo. I dig deep and spin rare New Orleans RnB, jump jive and swing with a few detours into the sweaty bayous of Louisiana.

This is music to get down to, to party and ‘Second Line’ to, always full of blues, soul and life. This is music that never stands still a moment.

 Where y’at? Look out for the Mardi Gras beads scattered on the blackboard on the Soho pavement opposite 12 Bar, head down the stairs and join us for some New Orleans grooves that will make you shake and a vibe that will change your life…

Tuesday fortnightly (next up Feb 18th 2014) 

The Alley Cat: 

4 Denmark St, WC2H 2LP

Facebook: The Iko’s New Orleans Music Shop

The Day Zig Came to Town

I remember walking through a run down neighbourhood in New Orleans’ Seventh Ward during a second line- a triumphant street parade of brass bands and local people who step and dance at one with the band and music, rejoicing in a sense of community. I wondered how something that created such a visceral rush could be recreated in London; just how could that energy be captured?

This happened the day that Joseph “Zigaboo” Modeliste came to town.

 A legend in his own right, as drummer for The Meters, the biggest funk band to come out of New Orleans, Zigaboo set the beat that New Orleans grooved to for more than a decade, influencing countless others, and pollinating genres from brass to hip hop.

 At the 100 Club that night, London-based band Dom & The Ikos warmed up the crowd, delivering slices of  turn-of-the-century Creole jazz, along with some original numbers by piano supremo Dom Pipkin. The band’s high octane wailing brass and piano led grooves transported the audience to the heart of a New Orleans second line, and left them pleading for more.  

 As Dom and his Iko’s left the stage, DJ Lil’ Koko kept the vibe cooking, spinning her signature concoction of rare Rhythm n Blues on the decks.  When Zigaboo picked up his sticks, a volley of rhythm shook the crowd. Supported by his Big Chiefs, Zig dished out classics from The Meters’ Song Book with fresh sounding arrangements of well-known hits Cissy Strut, Just Kissed My Baby and Hey Pocky Way that delighted the crowd, along with some funky more recent instrumentals.

 Perplexingly, the front row stood rather still and listened politely as the band riffed and grooved, (this jazz audience behaviour is unheard of in New Orleans, where the crowd is integral to the performance). My inner second liner started prodding friends to join in, and before long the room bounced to the percussive beats and sensations of a true New Orleanian legend. I walked around in a funk-induced haze for days afterwards.

 "‘Miss Kate, it’s so nice to meet you…” said the gentle drummer, as he shook my hand thanking me for all the promotional efforts, enquiring about the brass band scene in the UK.  Approachable and welcoming,  Zigaboo later graciously posed for post-gig photos as the crowd beamed adoringly but seasoned and ever the showman, he took it all in his stride.

 “He smashed that high hat to pieces, so damn funky,” Dom Pipkin of The Ikos surmised in the green room.

 More, more, more! Dom &The Iko’s headlined Crawfish Fiesta! On Oct 12th at The New Empowering Church- Time Out Critic’s Choice y’all! Next up…we’re having a New Orleans Christmas on December 7th 2013, complete with a big band and Gumbo- bring your legs ready for shakin’!

Shrimp and Gumbo

I arrived in Cuba ever so slightly rotund- and there’s good reason for this- the food in New Orleans is some of the best around. Borrowing heavily from French cuisine Creole food is amazing thick sauces, rich meats and fish and more rustic provincial styles originating from Cajun country (spices, amazing seasoning, fried goodness) I had read reams before going so headed straight to the Central Grocery for a muffuletta - New Orleans’ signature sandwich (along with the po-boy). Think chunky ciabatta, piled high with 3 kinds of meat, olives, cheese a fist high and you get an idea of the depth of these monsters. No wonder the Italian dockworkers used these for sustenance. However, the po-boy rules supreme- French baguette stuffed with fried shrimp and salad. Sitting on the Mississippi, I sat and watched the ships roll in planning the next 2 months. This is a photo of this occasion.

A short stroll across the road and you hit Cafe Du Monde- selling a New Orleans institution- Beignets (ben-yays); flat doughnuts covered with a fine mist of icing sugar, with a cup of cafe au-lait and open 24 hours! It’s the perfect pick me up after a disco nap and before a night of dancing.

 Chicken at Coops diner with a taster portion of the rabbit Jambalaya I soon understood was legendary, as is the service- it’s the moodiest around. The height of customer relations is when they trap a cockroach in a glass that’s approaching you and your food (really happened, he flashed a kind of ‘that secures my tip’ smile)

 In New Orleans, the food, the people, the music are all intertwined in a sumptuous union where one nourishes the other. Trumpet maestro Kermit Ruffins and his band of BBQ Swingers cook up a storm of chicken and red beans and rice and serve it up to the crowd as part of the show. On one of the many second lines I went to, I remember the food as much as the music. After a night of dancing at Mimi’s in the Marigny, I dragged my tired self to the second line, promising myself just an hour, then home…3 hours later I’m still stepping as the musicians and dancers stop only for refreshment- the most luscious BBQ chicken and chunky gumbo in little plastic pots. Add in some Yakamein (a kind of Chinese style noodle broth with Cajun seasoning) and you’re ready for the next 4 miles.

At Jazzfest- the best food retailers all come out in one go- cochon-au-lait (suckling pig) competes with alligator pie, stuffed green tomatoes and delicious iced tea… or just crawfish (mud bugs as they’re playfully called) tipped out on a bar covered in newspaper and eaten to local tunes and the sounds of new friendships being made.

Even in the most run down, off the beaten track neighbourhoods, the food is divine- no room for prejudice here. At Jazzest I saw a poster that sums it up–“Come hungry, leave soulful” That’s the story of New Orleans- it’s all about a warm heart, good food and contrast- nothing is as it seems. The City has the last laugh if you dare judge only from what you see on the surface and fail to scratch and reveal the beauty below – this applies to the people you meet and the food that’s on your plate.

"Street People.."

There are many things that stick in my mind about New Orleans, none more so than the myriad of misfits, hip hippies, swing dancers and the abundance of freaky beatniks that I came across in my 3 months there.

Take Adolfo- the shadowy figure that literally rose out of the vapours one very late night as we fell out of The Apple Barrel (A.K.A The Barrel- one of the sassiest bars around, more about that later) I fumbled for my umbrella as hot rain was coming down fast at 2am, out of the corner of my eye I could see a little dot-like flare following my field of vision up and down, I realised it was a cigarette and someone was leaning against the wall cloaked in plumes of smoke. “Why don’t you just staaay?”  he drawled

“What? Are you…Spanish?”  I whispered. “I’m Adolpho and this is my place” he waved the cigarette smoke arc to the stairwell and I remembered there was a restaurant above the Barrel that I had never been to. “It’s Spanish Southern fusion. I know plenty of people who came and never went home- Irish, Germans. Find a nice boy, why don’t you just stay..?” he’d clearly seen the likes of me before, head over heels in love with the City, wafting from venue to venue trying to absorb as much music as possible, making friends with the locals along the way.

 The night I discovered the Barrel I was in New Orleans’ equivalent of Ronnie Scott’s- Snug Harbour- the ultimate jazz spot. That morning, I had started talking to an enigmatic 70 year old photographer who captured jazz greats. He and his friend Connie insisted I come with them to see Ellis Marsallis play piano (part of New Orleans music royalty, he passed his musical gifts to four of his sons who spread the New Orleans infused jazz sound far and wide) It didn’t disappoint-Ellis played some marvellous piano perfectly backed up by bass and kicking drums. Afterwards, we wandered down the magical stretch of road called Frenchmen Street that houses some of the finest music venues in the whole of the South. I heard a strange sound emanating from what appeared to be a hole in the wall- we popped our heads in and saw it was actually a tiny bar with a guy playing 3 guitars at the same time- one with his feet. I was hooked and decided to stay a while. As I ordered a drink I could see a guy and a girl looking at me from across the bar, fighting all my typical Londoner instincts to avoid eye contact, I looked at them squarely and saw they were smiling, happy folk- the boy asked “Could I give you the phone book to read? Your accent is amazing” that was my introduction to Cory – ex-Marine, owner of 3 guns, complete pussycat and all round Anglo-phile having spent some time on our shores (we would later have fights about the politics and philosophy of gun ownership and weeks later he completely floored me as we drove around the Lower Ninth Ward –where most of the hurricane damage occurred and he asked so openly “Kate, what are your dreams?”) Tara, the girl with him, was a Tennessee bred Southern belle- but with tattoos (an awe-inspiring multi-coloured gypsy wagon that covered most of her upper arm) and a free-thinking, independent spirit to boot. Something about their open, witty remarks ensured I had made some new friends I’d be seeing a lot of in the upcoming weeks. They took me under their wing and through them I met Dave- a lovely, Basquiat type character with great knowledge of music, of no fixed abode propping up the Barrel on many a night. This is a picture of my name written on a dollar bill stuck in the barrel- a way of immortalising punters they liked.

Another true gent who stands out is Steve- owner of Dauphine St books- one of the best second-hand bookstores I’ve come across in the States. He transplanted himself from California after falling in love with NOLA- gentle, worldly, with an encyclopaedic knowledge of writing and indeed the ordered chaos of the piles of books adorning his cavernous shop, spread along solid oak shelves built by him. Feeding my book addiction on any given afternoon you could find me amongst these shelves coffee in one hand, nose in Southern writing. I became such a regular fixture he showed me the house he owns attached to the store and the out-house (known as the ‘slave quarters’) where Tuba Fats lived for many years. Working with him was the exotic looking Katherine*- full of stories recounting her time ‘importing’ jewels around London and beyond or the San Franciscan mansion she lived in where ‘Interview with a Vampire’ was filmed and the multimillionaire cowboy she almost married..New Orleans, I discovered, is a beacon for those who don’t quite fit elsewhere; who can’t or won’t conform and they all either have a story to tell or one to be eked out once they hear yours.

 *name changed to protect the innocent

"I can hear music, somewhere out there"

It is notoriously difficult to describe the music of New Orleans in a way that captures the energy and makes it real for people who aren’t familiar with it to imagine it in all its vibrancy.

Music wasn’t the first thing that drew me to New Orleans, it was the sultry street sounds and poetry present in one of my most favourite plays, “A Streetcar Named Desire” by Tennessee Williams. The way the street car clattered down the historic streets (adorned with African, French, Spanish and German heritage)  the way the street vendors shouted “hot tamales” selling their wares: and the way the Polka refrain came in when the main character- the tragic Blanche Dubois-had moments of recollection as she plunged into a haze of neurosis.

Aged 17, I was sat in a classroom studying the play and as I looked out onto deepest, darkest East London a lightbulb went off and I remember thinking “there must be more to life than this”. When I first heard music from New Orleans it was in a record shop in Australia in 2003, they were playing New Orleans Funk (Vol 1)- a mixture of rhumbas, deep funk, rolling piano and I loved it. But frankly, I was confused. How did this marry up with the Polkas and street sounds from my most treasured play?

That’s the beauty of the music of New Orleans- it’s a vibrant mix of sounds, styles and instruments: street sounds, African slave chants, marching bands, brass and piano with a rich history that has shaped and moulded it. New Orleans was the only place in the US where slaves were able to practice their drumming rhythms and cultural rituals once a week on Sundays, this, combined with the proximity to the Caribbean, the songs and stories of cotton pickers, the blues of barrelhouse piano playing , and the already established tradition of marching bands and brass led directly to the development of jazz which led to a special type of Rhythm n Blues in a most fantastic evolution.

The music. The music. I’s everywhere in New Orleans. It comes out of every orifice, so to speak…and it’s all intermixed-  food, music and the poetry of the place all go hand in hand. Bands like Kermit Ruffin’s Barbecue Swingers cook up a storm, play the most amazing brass and serve the audience food! I averaged about 3 bands a night hopping around between venues like a ‘music junkie’ as a new friend put it….brass bands, blues artists, funk bands, folk quartets, ragtime 6 pieces, even young boys tooting horns in the street cos they wanna make a few bucks. Some of the venues are across the road from each other on a magical stretch of road called Frenchmen Street. Imagine a very funky Old Street circa 8 years ago (when it was cool) with a touch of al fresco Spain or Italian relaxed-ness but in a very cool bar playing jazz in New York in the 50’s…add in warm weather and easy going lovely, open people, whack them all together in a proverbial blender and you’ve got a night in New Orleans.
New Orleans historically has been a place of transient folk, people passing through and I’ve met loads of em’ like Michael, the photographer in his 70’s who photographs jazz legends and was visiting with his girlfriend and they urged me to see a living  jazz legend Ellis Marsallis at Snug Harbour-I loved it and got an education at the same time. We stuck our heads into a little bar down the street and saw a guy playing 3 guitars at once, (one with his feet), I wanted a closer look so we went into this tiny hole in the wall bar called the Apple Barrel..a new friend later introduced me to the obscure funk sounds of DJ Soul Sister at Mimi’s in the Marigny and we danced on many a table while I revelled in the fact another female DJ was spinning these amazing tunes….

One of my favourite places was DBA on Frenchmen Street, I first saw John Cleary here, superb piano player, originally from Kent, England, has now lived in New Orleans ‘most of his life’, playing the most beautiful ballads interspersed with his own funky tunes. Across the road is the more trad vibe of the Spotted Cat, where Dixie, ragtime and revival New Orleans blues reign supreme. Add to this the abundance of rough round the edges dives like The Maple Leaf where the most electrifying brass gigs take place when the Rebirth Brass Band light up their weekly residency…

Perhaps the best thing about the music, maybe even the best thing I did in New Orleans was go to a Second Line. This is a picture of a Second Line. These are basically street parades, held every Sunday by different 'Social and Pleasure Clubs’ (community groups that people belong to as a kind of local support structure) there are several brass bands and the beat of some serious drums, but it’s the people that join in behind, in front and basically next to the band dancing and having fun that give the atmosphere a kind of electricity. They are usually held in down at heel neighbourhoods and last for hours marching over several miles- the energy and vitality is something I’ve never experienced. The people who join these parades are predominantly poor. I realised afterwards that these locals cannot afford the pleasures/ nights out that I take for granted, for them the Second Line is their night out, a chance to meet friends, sit out catching a joke with neighbours, cook up a storm, have a dance and offers a chance to celebrate life. This city basically has 6 months of festivals and parades and 6 months of hurricanes, people can lose everything in a flash so chance to celebrate life is never missed. I was humbled, inspired and most definitely carried along with the beat.

All On A Mardi Gras Day

This picture evokes the spirit of Mardi Gras. I was alone living in New Orleans waiting for my volunteering to begin and enjoying the roller-coaster that is Mardi Gras- the celebration that shakes the city on it’s head and allows the good stuff to bubble to the top.

The morning of Mardi Gras day, myself and my friend Carl (over visiting from London) arose before 8am (unheard of) and groggily made our way down to the Backstreet Cultural Museum in the historical Treme neighbourhood where we heard the action was. We waited and saw people sashaying past in fancy costumes, the whole city alight with colour, reverie and masquerade. Respectable doctors becoming pirates for the day, lawyers donning bondage gear and a couple dressed as mum and dad Shrimp had dressed their 6 month old as a baby shrimp and were wheeling him along in a wheelbarrow (still to this day my favourite). The detail and sheer lengths that people had gone to reflected the passion and excitement this day represented.

We saw the bone gang on stilts dressed in black and white…a taster of the surreal to come.

Then they appeared. Feathered visions cascading down the street almost gliding….the feathers in full flume with vigour and prowess very much like peacocks but instead these were ordinary men- truck drivers, roofers and garbage men elevated to the position of representing their ‘tribe’ or community; transformed and living out a tradition that spreads back nearly 100 years. Every year donning a ‘new suit’ and meeting up with other tribes in a ‘face off’ somewhere between fighting and dancing.

The Mardi Gras Indians represent a mythical world, steeped in history and local culture. No-one is exactly sure where the tradition of dressing as Mardi Gras Indians came from, legend has it some slaves escaped, were taken in by native American Indians and so adopted some of their culture and customs. 

This is a picture of a Wild Man- a person who steps ahead of the Big Chief and checks for other gangs or signs of danger. I remember him so clearly. He paused and literally spread his wings- his arms coming up on either side of him as he basked in the sun. “Please Sir, could I trouble you for a photo?” I was trying simultaneously not to wince and also to disguise my East London accent so very out of place in this photo…

A crash of drums and clatter of the tambourine as the rest of the tribe appeared and the heralded the arrival of the Big Chief. “Oomba way tu way packy way…let’s go get em!” the dance and blending of colours, textures and tones as they began to dance for 10 minutes at a time is something that I will never forget.

Rewind 6 months and I was in London thinking, do I really want to be part of this? Isn’t it just an excuse to dress up and get loaded on your favourite poison (alcohol, drugs, vice)? A wise woman instead advised me that it’s so much more, while it is a celebration of debauched carry-on ‘it’s also a community festival, one that means you are part of a community, celebrations go on down small back streets, everyone’s welcome and the music is fantastic”

We decided to indulge the hazy headiness of Bourbon St, saw the gay ‘Jesus’ clad in very small white y-fronts with a gold trim, cowboy hat and boots and not very much else. We ran virtually screaming to take refuge from this after the Indian finery we had just seen…we wanted more and in the distance we saw a spray painted gold statue of a Roman God and he was playing the tuba, we knew were onto something and we followed him onto a street that would become the mythical Frenchmen Street…see you next time!