"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.