Monday, June 21, 2010

episode 10: renewal

For 90 minutes last night the only sound in my house was the din of the TV and the hypnotized silence of four viewers glued to the set, interrupted only by the occasional weep or gasp.

The season finale of Treme was emotionally gripping.

Frankly, draining.

Intimate stories of heartache and anger counterbalanced by lightness; visions of feathered people, stoic buildings, and abandoned vehicles emerging from shadowy hues; everpresent sounds of poignant guitars and rejoicing horns. David Simon went solo on the script for this one and he created a monumental sendoff to what has to be the most illuminating season of television about this fragile city. ("Sure was better that K-ville," was the first thing my wife said as we snapped back into the real world.)

We didn't need a cliffhanger to bring us back for more next year. The few lingering questions - Will Janette flee the Big Apple and dart back to the Big Easy? Will Creighton get his jazz funeral? Will Annie get wacked by Sonny or find comfort with Davis or both? - could easily go unresolved in order to make way for new themes, a la The Wire. But the changing of the seasons raises the question of renewal, of what directions the screenwriters will take the show in as they move it forward, and it's a testament to the show's effectiveness that so many New Orleanians have an opinion on this.

Here's mine.

The Treme team are masters of evocation. The words, the music, the cinematography are beyond captivating; they're capturing. The show is a fictional keyhole into intense realities and like all art it can condense the really real in a way that allows viewers/readers/listeners to make connections we would otherwise pass up or take for granted. The connections in season one are all about intimacy: between families, friends, strangers, the city they share, and ultimately between the creators of the show and a subject that is so clearly meaningful to them.

Treme stays close to the ground, offering such a revealing close-up of emotional connection that we walk away each Sunday evening knowing more than we ever knew about this city and its people. But there is a disconnect happening as well, and it is not at the ground level, or even at the local level, but at a much broader level.

The impact of Katrina on the lives of New Orleanians is immeasurable but the root causes and lasting effects of this impact are not. Katrina was a systemic failure of institutions before, during, and after the flood. Long before August 29, 2005, government agencies laid a pattern of neglect from lost wetlands to shoddy levees to the massive reduction of FEMA in favor of Homeland Security. Dysfunctional school systems and the insecurities of service work ensured that black New Orleanians were more vulnerable to the failed response of the flood. And do I need to even address that particular failure, or can I just point to a few anecdotes like, oh say, the fact that tens of thousands of people were stranded outside the Convention Center for five days while a military commander prepared an armed attack mission to deliver water? Or the fact that the troops and the megacorporate winners of no-bid contracts could not be effectively deployed to help Americans because they were fighting Iraqis? That the city police department is so infested with corruption that there are currently eight federal criminal investigations into officers' actions in the immediate aftermath of Katrina?

Fast forward to operation Deepwater Horizon (or are we stuck on pause?): Governmental deregulation once again leading to corporate gluttony and, go figure, another massive crisis to give those in the Gulf a sense of shared purpose through cultural and material loss.

These institutions shape the lives of New Orleanians not because we live in some isolated babylon but because we are Americans who happen to have paid the dearest for the ceaseless expansion of this dysregulation nation since 9/11.

The impact of 9/11 couldn't be portrayed only through New York's financial 'culture' or Washington's political culture because the attacks on the twin towers and the Pentagon were (intentionally) emblematic of the far reach of empire. The deregulation of Wall Street generated a financial crisis that changed all of our lives. Katrina, too, can stand as a lesson to all Americans, not only because of the possible eradication of a singular place, but because it was itself an ominous sign of trouble at home, in your home, wherever you are, whether or not you can walk down the street and order a po-boy and dance at a second line.

Of course, the Treme team has no responsibility to make these connections. And it's not as if the characters walk around in a vacuum: there are city councilmen and insurance agents and good cops and bad cops too. But this team is so abundantly capable to make this case to the American people; to harness the power of dramatic fiction that they use so effectively in intimate settings to situate these day-to-day experiences at the subterranean level of global connections without sacrificing the ground-level closeness.

Before Treme aired I read somewhere that Simon thought his story of New Orleans would resonate with audiences unfamiliar with the city because Katrina was a bellweather for the financial crisis, a foreboding sign of institutions run amuck. This piqued the interest of New Orleanians (OK, maybe just me) because part of the brilliance of The Wire was its capacity to show how institutional corruption effects the lives of policemen, politicians, dealers, dock workers, and school kids.

Now, Treme is not The Wire and it shouldn't be. There is no romance of distinction for Baltimore and that gave the creative team an almost blank-slate on which to inscribe politics at the everyday level through the lives of diverse characters. New Orleans and Katrina are too distinctive to permit that degree of interchangeability: Baltimore could maybe be your town or a town near you, and the devastating effects of bureaucratic corruption resonate everywhere, but New Orleans is not Indianapolis and Katrina is nothing but Katrina.

An unprecedented disaster and an exceptional place in the hands of great poets makes for compelling drama, but when all the 'otherness' of New Orleans creates an intoxicating fantasy world of local culture then the opportunity to challenge viewers about the state of the nation is lessened. I worry that Post-Katrina New Orleans could become just another fantastical storyscape of fundamentalist bigotry or backwoods vampirism in the eyes of viewers who might feel more connection and proximity to the characters if they saw how their lives were shaped by the same forces.

It's not a fair comparison, of course, and the surreality of black men in feathered costumes or crowds of mourners dancing in a graveyard does not have the innocuous, cartoonish, fringe quality of Mormons or bloodsuckers. But neither is New Orleans an imaginary museum of curiosities - a thing apart - because it is tied to America and the world through connections that are not readily visible. I say make more of an effort to uncover them, for the sake of New Orleans and for the sake of good drama too.

There are signs that the creative minds at Treme will complicate things in this subterranean direction. Regardless, I'm looking forward. But until then I'm signing off. I've got to write a book and that requires me to move off of the blogosphere and onto the word processor. See you in season two.

Monday, June 14, 2010

episode 9: precipitations

The heat is rising on Treme as we gear up for the season finale next week. Two plotlines that will be familiar to some are taking centerstage:

- Did professor Creighton Bernette kill himself? The trauma of Katrina was too much for some New Orleanians to bear, among them documentary filmmaker Stevenson Palfi. And Bernette's character is based on the similarly overweight and ferocious Ashley Morris, who died in the aftermath of the storm (though Morris died of a heart attack, not suicide, and he was in Florida at the time of his death in 2008, while his wife and kids were home in New Orleans).

- Is chef Janette leaving the Big Easy for the Big Apple? The topsy-turvy world of post-Katrina sent  as many diehards a-packing as it brought YURP's a-coming. But Janette's dilemma is one that predates Katrina: do those "only in New Orleans" moments make up for the city's dysfunctional infrastructure? The question is particularly cutting for those in the music and restaurant industries who prop up the local tourist economy but are essentially service workers and are the last to get paid. ("Would you rather have a funtional economy or a 4-hour lunch?" asks Davis. "Is your check from the tourism board in the mail?" Janette shoots back.)

But rather than deliberate these developments, I'm going to precipitate future ones... for next week is shaping up to feature the most alluring and mysterious topic in Treme: Indians!

As I've said before, Mardi Gras Indians are African Americans who dress in elaborate handsewn costumes and parade through the streets, singing chants and facing off against one another, on Mardi Gras day. Big Chief Albert Lambreaux of the Guardians of the Flame tribe couldn't mask on the first Mardi Gras after Katrina because he was in the lock-up for punching a cop in the face instead of bowing down to those who protect and serve.

Confrontations between police and black Indians go way back.

Mardi Gras Indians channel the fierceness of the American Indian warrior in symbolic battles ("humbugs") over suits ("who's the prettiest?") and verbal sparring matches using idiosyncratic words ("Indian talk"). But historically humbugs were not limited to the symbolic realm. Until the 1940s or so, rival tribes from the Uptown and Downtown neighborhood met at an in-between site known as "the battlefield" where there was often bloodshed. One of the fiercest chiefs, Brother Tillman, was sometimes jailed during Mardi Gras to maintain order. (Lambreaux, anyone?) The violence dissipated around mid-century, some say because of police crackdowns and many more say because chiefs decided to redirect their disputes into the symbolic realms of masking, chanting, and talking.

Tootie Montana was the most celebrated chief of this new phase of Indian warfare. Tootie was The Chief of Chiefs. And he was The Prettiest. He worked days as a lather, preparing the moldings and frames for plastering, and then he worked nights and weekends sewing the prettiest suits ever to grace the streets. He had help from his wife Joyce, daughter-in-law Sabrina, and son Darryl, who was named Big Chief of the Yellow Pocahontas tribe in the 1990s when his father threatened to retire. But Tootie masked until his death at 82 in 2005 because he was fierce and hardheaded, earning the admiration of future chiefs who would always show respect by kneeling in front on him on Mardi Gras day, even if his unbending determination caused friction at home (as shown in the film Tootie's Last Suit).

Tootie's powerful presence came from his work with a needle + thread rather than hatchet + spear. But the police continued to harass him and other tribes, breaking up Indian gatherings ostensibly for stopping traffic and parading without a permit. This was especially true on St. Joseph's Night, March 19, when Indians take to the streets again to show off the suits that rival tribes may have missed on Mardi Gras day. Large crowds of African Americans in the streets at night is not something New Orleans police receive sensitivity training about. They tend to burst on the scene in great numbers, lights flashing and sirens whirring, hands on their billy clubs. (As they may also do during a jazz funeral in the Treme, after insensitive neighbors make noise complaints.) (Davis, anyone?)

This is precisely what happened on St. Joseph's Night 2005, when cops forcibly dispersed Indians from marching as they have done for a century or more. There was community outrage, and the issue was brought before a City Council meeting, where Tootie took the pulpit and gave an impassioned speech that situated the encounter within a lifetime of police harassment that dated back to Jim Crow days. He then collapsed of a heart attack and was pronounced dead, as his family and fellow Indians gathered around him to sing the Mardi Gras Indian prayer chant Indian Red. If there is ever a need to demonstrate the power of culture and music then this moment will quell any doubts, and it is hauntingly captured in Tootie's Last Suit as well as reporter Katy Reckdahl's piece, which like so many of her other stories linked from here, is proof that she is the city's best (only?) investigative journalist.

How will Simon and his crew treat Chief Albert Lambreax's return to the mask on St. Joseph's Night for the season finale? The only hint we have is the most recent episode's meeting between Lambreaux and Lieutenant Colson, who urges Lambreaux to keep the peace:

LAMBREAUX: Tootie died on the battlefield that day.
COLSON: But Tootie wasn't looking for battle.

Will the chief punch a cop? Kill somebody with a pipe? Or take the high road, like Tootie did, and preside with willful benevolence.

Simon should know what to do with this one. After all, my friends saw him out on St. Joseph's night this year, following the Indians with some cast members and ordering up some BBQ off a grille parked in front of the Sportsman's Corner. My wife and I had just left to take our daughter to bed so we missed him, but I can tell you there was no bloodshed or police confrontations to witness, just some amazing suits + songs to go along with the beer + BBQ.

Monday, June 7, 2010

episode 8: insinuations

The calendar works differently in New Orleans. The change of seasons is usually subtle and almost always very late. Even the holidays arrive late, starting on Twelfth Night and peaking on Fat Tuesday when the rest of the country is trying to stick to their New Years resolutions. It's the most visible example of how New Orleans is as much a Caribbean as an American city, relating to its French (Catholic/indulgent) founding that distinguishes it from the rest of the Anglo (Protestant/ascetic) U.S. Even after 200 years of American rule, Mardi Gras still rules the calendar for New Orleanians, and for a few weeks the entire city bounces along to the same soundtrack: a handful of songs that are rarely heard outside the city limits but are as familiar as gumbo to everyone within them.

All on a Mardi Gras Day is one of those songs. When Dr. John released it in 1970 it went absolutely nowhere - the insider references to parade rhythms and Mardi Gras Indians singing Tu Way Pocky Way would have been lost on a national audience - and the song wasn't even included on the Dr.'s greatest hits CD. But it's inescapable in New Orleans during Mardi Gras, spilling out of barroom doors and car windows as revelers walk through the streets of the city. A book and a documentary movie took the song's name. So did this episode of Treme and we hear it in the background as creepy Sonny indulges in a scene of Mardi Gras debauchery (that includes my wife Alex and friend Chris from the Skeleton Krewe as extras!). Mardi Gras music seeps through the whole show, insinuating itself into the lives of the characters just like Mardi Gras insinuates itself into the lives of New Orleanians.

Professor Longhair is the acknowledged king of the jukebox during Carnival season and, much like his piano disciple's Mardi Gras Day, the Professor had his own Indian-themed recording that became a Carnival staple even as it failed to get notice elsewhere. Big Chief was written and sung by Earl King on a 1964 single with a startling horn arrangement by Wardell Quezergue and a finger-bending piano riff that is required learning for every New Orleans pianist. The song is incidental to a restaurant scene early on in the show, but later Longhair gets name-checked by Creighton Bernette as the family goes about their Mardi Gras morning preparations to the sound of Go to the Mardi Gras, which Mardi-Gras-flag-waving Creighton suggests "should be our national anthem." 

The tune's path from obscure relic to (localized) national anthem is long and twisted. Longhair recorded it with his band the Shuffling Hungarians at their first recording session, in 1949, as Mardi Gras in New Orleans, but the single was taken off the market because the session violated union rules. Ahmet and Neshui Ertegun "discovered" Longhair a year later playing at a house party across the river, and they released Mardi Gras in New Orleans as his first single for Atlantic Records. (Identifiable by the clave rhythm.) Surprise, surprise, it bombed. So the piano professor stripped all the local references from the lyrics and re-cut it as East St. Louis Baby, and when that didn't fly he went into his first of many musical retirements, working instead as a professional card shark.

But his Mardi Gras song kept coming around every year, so Longhair returned to the studio in 1959 and made a record under the name Go to the Mardi Gras that finally hit. (Identifiable by the parade beat on the snare drum.) This is the version that has inundated the ears of Mardi Gras revelers for 40 years, including jazz impresario George Wein, who heard the song in a neighborhood bar in the late 1960s when he was in town laying plans for the debut of the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival. "Who's that?" Wein asked his protege Quint Davis. "It’s not anybody, it’s just a song that comes on every year at Mardi Gras," responded Davis. "You find that guy," directed Wein, and Davis obliged, eventually locating Longhair at the One Stop record shop where he was sweeping the floor. Davis put Longhair onstage at the first Jazz Fest and managed his career for his last, and most successful, decade. From that point forward, Longhair became enshrined in the New Orleans canon: the city's most iconic club was named for his song Tipitina and Go to the Mardi Gras finally became recognized as more than "just a song that comes on every year."

There's beaucoup Mardi Gras songs winding in and out of this episode - Al Johnson's R&B romp Carnival Time, The Meters' slinky Hey Pocky A-Way (a funk arrangement of the Indian chant Tu Way Pocky Way) - and Janette even stumbles through a solo take on Iko, Iko, yet another Indian chant made into a Mardi Gras standard, and the only one to become a national hit as the Dixie Cups' follow-up to Chapel of Love in 1964.

All of these songs are inextricably linked to this city's identity; they're all evidence of a musical style that I've always thought we should simply call "New Orleans Music"; and they all have deep histories and associations locally if not elsewhere. I'll end with one more, Do Whatcha Wanna by the Rebirth Brass Band.

Rebirth made their first record, Here to Stay, in 1983 when founding members Kermit Ruffins, Philip Frazier and Keith Frazier were still students at Joseph S. Clark High School in the Treme neighborhood. The record put the kids on the map, allowing them to tour outside the city a bit, but locally they were just another brass band until they recorded a single in 1987.  

Do Whatcha Wanna was a radical departure from the brass band tradition. It featured Ruffins singing a solo vocal, which had no precedent in a tradition identified with instrumentals and group singing, and further, Ruffins sang about life on the street - "do whatcha wanna... hang on the corner" - in a hip-hop way that broke with the respectable themes of spirituals and light popular tunes that make up standard brass band fare. The song became an overnight sensation when it beat out the latest rap records on a local radio call in show for eight straight weeks. Rebirth inherited the mantle of top brass band from the Dirty Dozen, who by then were on the road too often to maintain a regular gig schedule in their hometown, and Do Whatcha Wanna became the latest in a long line of songs that are, to paraphrase Ernie K-Doe, "internationally famous locally." (Make sure to purchase the version of the song labeled "Part 3".)

Do Whatcha Wanna provides the soundtrack for a party that draws Janette, Davis, Annie, Delmond, and others throughout the day. We also hear pianist Tom McDermott play a Mardi Gras standard of a different sort, If Ever I Cease to Love, the theme song for Rex, the elite carnival krewe that parades on Mardi Gras day, when the royalty are recognized as the "Kings of Carnival." Since 1872, the Rex parade has stood for pomp and circumstance, and their holiday ends with a lavish ceremonial ball where an eerily masked King sits at a throne alongside a debutante cherub as the exclusive membership bow before them one-by-one. An orchestra plays ballroom dance music along the lines of If Ever I Cease to Love, which is what greets Antoine Batiste when he arrives home from his Mardi Gras exploits and finds his wife passed out on the couch while the Rex ball beams from a TV set. "That might put me to sleep too," Antoine dryly observes before hitting the sack himself.

Some of the funkier Mardi Gras music puts me to sleep too, including two songs featured prominently as bookends to this episode, Chuck Carbo's Second Line on Monday at the top and Tommy Malone's Fat Tuesday at the end. But whether their tastes run hi-brow, lo-brow, or no-brow, New Orleanians dance to their own drummer on Mardi Gras day.

Sunday, May 30, 2010


Treme is on hiatus this week and so am I.

Here's whats on all our minds:

If you don't know the original, get you some Smokey Johnson.

Monday, May 24, 2010

episode 7: gigs

One of the most representative exchanges of dialogue in Treme was back in Episode 1 when chief Albert's daughter Davina reluctantly left her father to live in the flooded remains of Poke's bar. She calls her brother Delmond for help, but the musician tries to recuse himself:

DELMOND: I’ve got gigs.
DAVINA: We all got gigs, Delmond. Life is a goddamn gig.

Everyone in Treme is doing a balancing act on a highwire: getting gigs, keeping gigs, playing gigs, and trying to finish the gig and wind down. One thing I remember about New Orleans after Katrina is that everybody seemed to be working overtime - regular work but also rebuilding, finding contractors, dealing with insurance, staying in touch with displaced friends and family, etc. - and most everybody seemed to be partying overtime also - drinking, eating, just about everything but sleeping - to counteract the work and suffering. It was zaniness that became normalcy because it was so routine, and the ensemble cast and episodic scriptwriting of Treme is ideally designed to capture the everydayness of the lunacy.

Life is a goddamn gig and Treme is all about the layers of responsibility that the gig entails:

- LaDonna searches for her brother Daymo, and when she finally locates his body she has to withhold the information from her family so as not to obliterate the joy of the first Mardi Gras season since the flood.
- When he's not teaching, Creighton holes himself up in his home office to plug away on his blog, er, I mean literary masterpiece, while his lawyer wife Toni singlehandidly saves the world.
- Annie gets an audition with the Pine Leaf Boys and then purposefully blows it, seemingly out of a sense of responsibility to her loser boyfriend/busking partner/piano man Sonny. (OK, so life is not a goddamn gig for everyone. The only thing Sonny seems to work at is his cuckoo crazy pose.)
- Janette is forced to close her restaurant and downsize to a roving BBQ trailer, selling her kitchen items to uberchef John Besh for some pocket change. (Katrina temporarily took away buildings and brought food trucks in its wake, particularly "taco trucks" operated by new Latino arrivals.)
- Even rolling stone Davis McAlery shows some determination in this episode, slinging his CDs, brokering a deal with a judge, and helping Janette get the BBQ fired up @ Bacchanal wine bar.

Albert Lambreaux is on more of a quest than a gig. He's broken into the unflooded-but-shuttered BW Cooper housing projects (aka The Calliope), occupied an apartment, notified the media and police, and ignited a community protest against HUD/HANO. There were actual protests against the blatantly racist housing policies post-K, and they were somewhat effective in getting a tiny percentage of public housing back open, though most (including The Calliope) have been demolished to make way for mixed-income housing. It's an effective dramatization to have the protest sparked by a Mardi Gras Indian chief, who is traditionally a figure of both fierceness and fraternity within the community.

And finally there's Antoine Batiste, who moves through this episode with a degree of quiet determination that we haven't seen from him yet. Antoine gets steady work in a brass band that welcomes arrivals at the New Orleans airport (yes, this gig has long been a way of promoting cultural tourism), but as usual, his success is put in perspective by his trombone nemesis Troy Andrews, who arrives with his older trumpet-playing brother James from the Portland Jazz Festival, and takes a moment to sit in with the band, make Antoine eat his trombone dust, and then have his chauffeur escort him to the limo. (James and Troy play the 1960 New Orleans R+B hit Ooh Poo Pah Do, written and sung by their grandfather Jessie Hill, with the unforgettable line: "I'm gonna create a disturbance in your mind.")

After the gig, Antoine goes to visit his mentor Danny Nelson in the hospital but finds he has passed, which leads to the inevitable jazz funeral. "You gonna second line back?" asks Nelson's daughter. Antoine responds something like "Danny would give me hell if I didn't," and the Royal Players Brass Band strikes up the old spiritual "I'll Fly Away," which is the standard choice to mark the shift between the period of mourning to the post-burial celebration of death. Even death is a goddamn gig that creates responsibilities for the living.

Monday, May 17, 2010

episode 6: light/heat

Treme doesn't have a lead actor. Its based around an ensemble cast. And Treme doesn't have a unifying plot. Its not a cop show, or a show where everybody is stranded on an island and is trying to get off. Each episode cuts back-and-forth between people from vastly different social positions in vastly different situations and what connects them together is the shared experience of being in post-Katrina New Orleans. The place and the culture are the glue.

Its a bit of an experiment in script writing, if you ask me, and since you asked I'll admit that I'm not sure how effective it is. I love this place and these people and I still find myself looking for a storyline to make me care and keep coming back, because the scriptwriters' determination to "get New Orleans right" by deluging viewers with authentic local culture and dropping localisms at every turn ("Always for Pleasure!" "There's Pride on Bourbon Street!") doesn't necessarily make for good TV. If local culture is the protagonist of Treme, than culture needs to get out more and do stuff rather than always trying on different outfits and looking at itself in the mirror, pouting when it doesn't like what it sees and smiling when it does. I find this more crucial to the show's significance that the insider/outsider authentic/inauthentic New Orleanian/non-New Orleanian debates that have ensnared Simon.

In Episode 6, its Mardi Gras, or the lead up to it, that binds the scenes together. More than Christmas and New Years, its the Carnival season (Twelfth Night to Fat Tuesday) that's the apex of the yearly calendar for New Orleanians, and this week we're smack dab in the middle of the festivities. But this is not the Bourbon Street frat-party hurricane-and-titties Mardi Gras, its those parties that constitute Mardi Gras for locals from every strata of the city: the Indian "gangs" are busily preparing their suits... the elite Mardi Gras Kewes are having a ball... and those in-between are irreverently parading in the streets.

Albert Lambreaux's Mardi Gras Indian tribe, the Guardians of the Flame, is gaining momentum on the march toward their first Mardi Gras post-Katrina. At least since Emancipation, black Indians have marched through the streets on Mardi Gras morning in elaborate handsewn costumes that honor Native Americans who “won’t bow, won’t kneel." Every year, the members of the tribe come out in a new suit that takes months to sew. Albert enlists his ladyfriend to cut fabric while he stitches beads and feathers, and the whole gang gets together to practice chants like "Shallow Water, Oh Mama" that Indians sing while they move through the city on the search for other tribes.

Its hard to imagine a group more emblematic of black working-class resistance than Mardi Gras Indians, and as you might imagine, tribe members are often at odds with law enforcement and city government. This history gets a Katrina-treatment in Treme as Albert battles to have the housing projects reopen. "My gang needs someplace to live," Albert tells his councilman's assistant after being offered a tiny FEMA trailer while the projects remain shuttered. "They're like refugees in they own country." And so it will stay, with Albert living at Poke's bar while his second chief sews patches for his costume in a van parked outside.

If Katrina, and especially the governmental response to it, have created obstacles for Albert's tribe, surprising opportunities have arisen for others. With the eyes of the world on New Orleans and its distinctive traditions, any New Orleanian who can claim to be a "culture-bearer" has the potential to step into the spotlight. Albert's son Delmond is touring the U.S. with Donald Harrison Jr.'s modern jazz band in a kind of "New Orleans Revue" with the banjo-toting trad jazzman Don Vappie. Onscreen and in real life, Harrison bridges the traditional and modern, comfortable playing contemporary bebop or singing Indian chants he learned from his father, Big Chief Donald Harrison Sr. of the (actual) Guardians of the Flame. (Or mixing all of the above on his startling CD Indian Blues.)  But Delmond is younger and hasn't struck a balance yet. Tradition all smacks of pandering. He wants to stake out new territory, and for him that means cutting his New Orleans roots.

Before a show, Harrison suggests they "give the people of Arizona what they want to hear" by closing with Iko, Iko, Mardi Gras Mambo, or (gasp) Saints, all local standards that Harrison has reinterpreted throughout his career. Delmond protests and wins the battle but loses the war: the next night in Houston the band encores with Iko and by the time the tour hits Snug Harbor in New Orleans Delmond is thoroughly conflicted. His dad socializes at the bar while the band plays a lot of notes and only seems to take interest when talking with Harrison chief-to-chief. Later, Delmond stops by Indian practice and allows himself to tap his foot to the beat and sing along before jetting back to NYC.

The Katrina spotlight is also shining on Tulane English prof Creighton Bernette, whose incendiary YouTube rants about the governmental drowning of his beloved city have made him a cause-celebre and renewed his publisher's interest in his long-dormant novel. Creighton begrudgingly promises his agent that he'll get back to work, but he'd rather be marching through the French Quarter to the sounds of the Panorama and the Stooges brass bands at the Krewe du Vieux parade that kicks off the Mardi Gras parade season.

But Katrina was not an equal-opportunity employer, and trombonist Antoine Batiste has found himself left out in the rain. Or hung out to dry. Missing the boat? Anyway, he can't get a gig, even a spot on a Dr. John tour that was handed to him by Philip Frazier of the Rebirth Brass Band but went to the younger, hipper Troy "Trombone Shorty" Andrews instead. (Shorty, needless to say, would never show up to a black-tie affair in a suit because his old stained tux got shrunk in the washing machine.) When Kermit Ruffins throws Antoine his scraps - subbing in a big-band at a Mardi Gras ball - Antoine is grateful but deflated. Playing charts of swing standards is not Antoine's idea of creative expression (i.e. its not authentically "New Orleans"), and though his spontaneous solo on the warhorse Take the A Train earns him a smattering of applause from the polite dancers, the glare shot by the bandleader will surely have more of an effect on Antoine's fumbling quest for a steady paycheck.

Like a lot of the music in this episode, this performance seems designed to leave us cold. The lighting, the cinematography, and the sound of the modern jazz and big-band scenes are muted in comparison to the vibrant practice session at the Indian bar. For those viewers in search of locating where authenticity begins and ends, the look and sound are a kind of thermometer for gauging the way Simon and his team assign value. But for those in search of an intimate, cohesive story, Treme may be giving off more light than heat.

Monday, May 10, 2010

episode 5: humanizing

Episode 5 is stitched together by a massive parade that brings virtually all of the characters out to march, dance, and play. Like much in Treme, the scene is based on an actual event: the All-Star Second Line Parade, which brought together multiple brass bands and Social Aid & Pleasure Clubs and was likely the largest community parade in this city's history. It was also one of the first parades post-Katrina and was meant to be a catalyst to bring back New Orleanians, if only for an afternoon, for a joyous reunion and peaceful display of unity. (As has been discussed elsewhere, this was not actually the 1st post-K parade.) And that's exactly what it was until the march ended, shots were fired, and the parade became a catalyst for something else entirely: a moral panic over the return of violent crime to the city and an aggressive police response.

Journalist and Treme resident Lolis Elie wrote a masterful script that shows how parades create a very real sense of community among participants but that this unity is fragile because people - cops, thugs, musicians, second liners, blacks and whites - aren't going to necessarily get along just because they're all marching to the same drum. As always, the underlying subtext of the show is that black culture is a kind of meeting-ground where diverse New Orleanians can get together in the name of pleasure but without escaping the pain: urban violence, interracial conflict, and civic institutions that rely upon local culture to prop up the local economy with tourist dollars but consistently marginalize and punish the actual culture-bearers.

Outside City Hall, Big Chief Lambreaux runs into two Social Aid & Pleasure Club presidents who are fighting the NOPD over the permit fee for the parade. This is a reference to a major showdown over the price of parading, which in real-life began AFTER the shootings at the All-Star parade when police tripled the parade fee from $1250 to $3760. A coalition of clubs banded together as the Social Aid & Pleasure Club Task Force and partnered with the ACLU to file a lawsuit claiming that the violence had occurred away from the parade routes and after the parade had disbanded and that the fees for Mardi Gras parades (which require exponentially more police) remained at $750 despite occasional shootings along the parade route. Eventually, attorney Mary Howell (the basis for character Toni Bernette) forced the city to settle the suit and lower the parade fee to $1985.

Onscreen, actual Task Force president Tamara Jackson explains to Lambreuax that the NOPD wanted to "cancel our permit and try to shut our parade down," even through the purpose of the parade was to draw African American residents back to the city, if only temporarily, as housing was scarce in no small part because virtually all public housing in the city remained shuttered. This is surely the most telling example of racial exclusion post-Katrina; while Mayor Nagin campaigned on a platform to return evacuees and make New Orleans a "chocolate city" once again, he was taking directions from the Forty Thieves to mount obstacles for the return of the black poor. Again, the city cannot function without local culture but ideally - in an imaginary utopian New Orleans - those who create it would be somehow excluded.

Fortunately the momentum of the parade was too powerful to stop, and by Sunday afternoon the streets were filled with sights and sounds. In the aftermath of the flood, second line parades became sites for those displaced from their neighborhoods to reconnect with friends, family, and neighbors. ("Lemme guess - you came all the way from Houston for the big second line?" the Big Chief asks his daughter when she appears on his doorstep unannounced.) Second line parades are always about participation through music and dance, and the disruption of Katrina only intensified these shared emotions (the subject of a great article by Rachel Breunlin and Helen Regis.)

We hear the Free Agents Brass Band playing their post-K anthem Made It Through That Water and see all kinda second line regulars strutting their stuff: drummer and dancer Jerry Anderson, the ubiquitous BBQ maestro Biddles with the Vittles, and the real Davis (who made an earlier appearance playing piano for the fake Davis' campaign song.) The diversity is notable: the three white couples (Davis + chef Janette, buskers Annie + Sonny, and the Bernettes) represent the many sides of white New Orleans and the black characters (down-and-out Antoine Batiste and his ex Ladonna w/her respectable dentist hubby Larry) do the same for black New Orleans. The music and dancing work their magic to unite everyone together.

But unity always masks underlying differences, making TV and real-life more interesting. The shooting mars the positive images the parade was intended to project, allowing the media to stoke fears that displaced criminals are returning to the city. But it ain't just hype: everyone seems conflicted about the thugs' "right to return." A tipsy Davis laments "Niggas will fuck up a wet dream," prompting a black stranger to get up from his barstool and punch him in the face. When Davis comes to, he's been rescued by his gentrifying neighbors that he detests, and he glumly faces up to the reality that full acceptance by the black community is as much of a wet dream as a full disassociation from his white neighbors. Everyone is human, and in this episode of Treme, everyone is humanized. As a sequel to last week's post, the relationships in Treme don't conform to the protagonist-antagonist mold so much as they place everyone on an even playing field and track them as they stumble and scheme.

This is clearest in the scene where lawyer Toni Bernette chastises her contact at NOPD for cops aggressive policing and gets an earful in return about the plight of cops who try to maintain order while struggling to keep their lives together. Even the corrupt criminal justice system is humanized.

"It's all coming back isn't it?" asks Bernette. "For a moment the storm took it away: no dope, no guns, no bodies...."

The parade provides New Orleanians with a sense of community, but that community is populated by people with very different perspectives on what New Orleans is and should be.

Monday, May 3, 2010

episode 4: antagony

The pace of Treme moves in almost real-time, inter-cutting back-and-forth between simultaneous episodes in character's lives: dinners, appointments, drinks, sex. This kind of day-in-the-life scripting highlights the everyday nature of culture in New Orleans: music is not only central to those moments set aside for staged performance because it also insinuates itself into the mundane and the routine...

... Antoine Batiste casually improvises a lament to the tune of the New Orleans standard St. James Infirmary while waiting to fix his busted lip at the only emergency room in New Orleans. (fyi, check out this Preservation Hall remix.) Steve Earle leads an impromptu old-timey jam session at the Apple Barrell, a tiny bar in the Frenchmen Street entertainment district. Recordings by local rapper 5th Ward Weebie's are on in the background in two key scenes (including his post-K throwdown Fuck Katrina.)...

There's nothing exceptional about music here - its just always there. But then again, its not merely a soundtrack because music accomplishes things - it creates connections between characters, suturing their lives to one another.

There is a simmering tension in these scenes as we watch the characters piece their lives back together (or fail trying) and the music is nearly always a counterpoint to this tension. Its an outlet for expression, a consolation, a cathartic release. New Orleans music is so often upbeat ("Feel good music, I've been told. Good for your body, and it's good for your soul") and this allows the Treme writers to pepper their scripts with foot-tapping scenes. Glen David Andrews belts out Who Dat Called Da Police with the New Birth Brass Band. John Boutte also joins the band to sing At the Foot of Canal Street, which is re-arranged from his CD version to neatly recreate the progression of a traditional New Orleans jazz funeral: beginning with a slow dirge and then transitioning to an upbeat finale.

The message: music can restore the characters' faith in New Orleans. Or, as the John Goodman character Creighton Bernette puts it in his YouTube rant, "One of our neighborhoods has more culture than all of your pathetic cookie-cutter suburbs laid end to end." (poached from Ashley Morris' actual blog entry 11/27/05.)

But from my perspective, the abundance of feel-good music has so far created a problem for the scriptwriters: What is the source of conflict in Treme? If music is the show's protagonist, the antagonist has yet to fully take shape, and the leading contenders are slightly worrisome. The dysfunctional institutions that frustrate characters (hospital emergency rooms, insurance offices, FEMA)? Straw men. Sonny the off-kilter busker? The rumor around town is that the character may be based on Zackery Bowen, who killed and dismembered his girlfriend and then jumped to his death from the roof of a French Quarter hotel a year after Katrina. This would inevitably ruffle some feathers in New Orleans, since Bowen was a bartender (not a musician) and an Iraqi war vet, but more importantly the murder-suicide was just too bizarre to be representative of New Orleanians' experiences post-Katrina.

The leading contender for the antagonist may be the janus-face of the protagonist: music. The tension that recurs in every episode is trumpeter Delmond Lambreaux's internal struggle over where exactly he stands as a musician. His roots in the streets of his hometown bestow him with notoriety but his ambition is to break from tradition in the progressive jazz clubs of New York City and beyond. With the spotlight on New Orleans, Delmond's agent wants him to exploit his New Orleans roots by recasting himself as a homeboy-done-good and taking his act on the road with a final homecoming concert. But Delmond prefers so see himself as a metropolitan mover-and-shaker rather than a tradition-bearer. When his high-styling girlfriend escorts him to a party full of the NYC jazz elite (McCoy Tyner, Stanley Crouch, etc.), Delmond is awestruck but also worried of how he'll be received.

"You been in New York for a few years?"one musicians asks. "Nah," replies Delmond, only half joking, "I'm from the country."

Sure enough, back in the country, tradition rules. In the Spotted Cat on Frenchmen, violinist Annie sits in with the Jazz Vipers playing jazz noir from the 20s. And of course, Delmond's pop Big Chief Albert is holding it down at the Mardi Gras Indian rehearsal in the bar he's restoring. The Indians chanting the traditional Shoo Fly (Don't Bother Me) lures a curious young neighborhood kid into the bar, and we get a sense not only of the everyday nature of musical traditions in New Orleans but also how those traditions are perpetuated by every new generation.

But the jury's still out about whether this storyline is going to take precedence and, if it does, whether it can sustain the kind of edge-of-the-seat tension that fans of David Simon's The Wire, Homicide, etc. are expecting.

Hate to leave on an open quesion, but I've got a house full of guests who helped me celebrate my debut at Jazz Fest yesterday... and now I've got to chauffer them to Cafe du Monde for some beignets. Culture in New Orleans w/o a script.

Monday, April 26, 2010

episode 3: represent

If Episode 1 cooked along at breakneck speed and Episode 2 moved slowly and deliberately, Episode 3 finally manages to capture the tempo of New Orleans. The story unfolds at the pace of a parade: the rhythms are syncopated and lazy but there's constant momentum. A stream of melodic riffs unfolds on top of the beat - disconnected snippets, isolated scenes - and if everyone is singing their own tune, they're all grooving along to a shared theme, and for me that theme is representation.

New Orleans is a distinctive place with unique cultural traditions - jazz funerals, brass bands, Mardi Gras Indians, Creole cuisine - that provide Treme with its backbone. The characters are human, and ideally we can all identify with their day-to-day experiences, but above everything else they are New Orleanians with a strong pride of place. They represent for the city, even if their pride is offset by a profound distrust in the city's infrastructure: a debilitating criminal justice system, corrupt city government, failed public schools, imbalanced local economy, and on and on.

The particular predicament for many musicians, Mardi Gras Indians, chefs and others who create the culture of New Orleans is that the city relies upon them for the economy to function but the return is slight. They represent more than their share but the lion's share of money and respect doesn't trickle down to them. Trombonist Antoine Batiste represents New Orleans by playing his horn and where does that get him? Working in a strip club on Bourbon Street, singing with the buskers peddling music for tips in Jackson Square, and getting his face punched in and his horn kicked into the gutter by some aggressive cops.

The representation/reparation dilemma is at the heart of a conversation at a rehearsal session in New York City before a Katrina benefit concert at Lincoln Center, where Dr. John and his Lower 911 band are joined by a horn section that includes Trombone Shorty, saxophonist Alonzo Bowens and Delmond Lambreaux. While on break, Delmond tries to convince Shorty to follow his lead and leave New Orleans to take advantage of the opportunities that exist elsewhere, in "places where they actually respect musicians":

SHORTY: You don't miss home?
DELMOND: New Orleans - they hype the music but they don't love the musicians. Look at how guys gotta leave to get they're due. Pops. Prima. Wynton. I mean, the tradition is there but this city will grind you down if you let it.
ALONZO: Look man, we done been around the world, we done played every type of gig you can think of, but there's no place like New Orleans.

David Simon and his co-writer David Mills (R.I.P.) manage to faithfully capture musicians' standard backstage talk, which often references the ever-growing list of musicians who soak up that indefinable essence of New Orleans-ness and then import it to distant lands where the dollar might be more plentiful and the musician more respected but the "culture" is poorer. Or perhaps cultural poverty elsewhere is a direct result of infrastructural stability. Regardless, the musicians know that their careers are built on that shaky foundation of New Orleans-ness and - stay or leave - they all can rehearse the "no place like New Orleans" argument at the drop of a dime, whether that dime clanks on the bottom of an empty tip jar or propels them to the stage of Lincoln Center (where one expat raised $100M to create the world's first concert hall purpose-built for jazz.)

New Orleans' riches were on full display in the rehearsal performance of Indian Red , a traditional Mardi Gras Indian chant that arranger extraordinaire Wardell Quezergue blew up to a full band arrangement for Dr. John's Goin' Back to New Orleans. (In the Treme version, the horn section adds another layer by scooping the opening riff from a local 50s' R&B gem: Lee Allen's Rockin at Cosmo's.)

Indian Red holds a special place in the canon of Indian songs, and in order to situate it I'm going to finally open up the discussion on Indian culture that I've been putting off. Understanding this obscure tradition takes some explaining, so skip down a few paras if you just want to continue on the thread of representation.

Clarke Peters plays Albert Lambreaux, an African American New Orleanian who is a "chief" of an Indian "tribe" made up of members with specific names and roles (the spy boy, the wild man...). The Mardi Gras Indian tradition dates back to at least the late 1800s, with black men dressing up in elaborate hand-sewn costumes and taking to the streets to meet rival "gangs" on Mardi Gras day. Its complicated. There's more info here and here if you need it.

Lambreaux is the chief of the Guardians of the Flame tribe, a real tribe led by the late great Donald Harrison Sr. and continued by his children Cherice Harrison Nelson and Donald Harrison Jr. Its DH Jr. that you see playing saxophone in the NYC nightclub in Episode 1, and he's also a script advisor to Treme, so we can assume Peters' character is a Harrison-composite. (A new biography of DH Sr. is out and I can't wait to read it.)

Peters is my favorite actor in the show, but he has his job cut out for him. Chiefs are famous for their shouting and singing in impenetrable language that is coded to be understood primarily by other Indians and insiders. Word on the street is that the consultants to Treme didn't share much in the way of street chants with the script writers, perhaps trying to guard what is historically a secretive community practice. This made the closing scene of Episode 1 a bit hard on the eyes and ears: when Peters appears in total darkness wearing his beaded-and-feathered Indian finest, he chants a tune so wrong, with words so profoundly made-up, that it takes a potentially gorgeous surreal scene into la-la land. And a feathered tambourine? Goodness no.

But Peters' smoldering demeanor and wiry body language - the way he shook that horrifying tambourine with fierce determination - was a sign that he was onto something and he's since come to inhabit the figure of the Indian chief. Near the end of this episode, we see him comfortably leading a chant along with several true Mardi Gras Indians, including Big Queen Cherice Harrison Nelson of the (actual) Guardians of the Flame tribe, chief Monk Boudreaux of the Golden Eagles, and Fred Johnson, former Spy Boy for the chief Tootie Montana and the Yellow Pocahontas. They've gathered to pay homage to Lambreaux's wild man, whose decomposed body was discovered by the chief.

The Indians start off with Tu Way Pocky Way, a chant that dates back at least to the 19th century and has been rearranged by The Meters, the Wild Tchoupitoulas w/the Neville Brothers, and many other New Orleans bands. But here we get the traditional call-and-response chant, acoustic, in the street, and with only sparse tambourine accompaniment. Then we hear Indian Red for the second time this episode, but now with all instrumentation stripped away.

Indian Red is a ceremonial chant that typically begins and ends Mardi Gras Indian gatherings and is nearly always sung when Indians memorialize a fallen chief. The most poignant memory of this for many New Orleanians was on June 27, 2005, when Tootie Montana - revered as the elder "chief of chiefs" - stood before the City Council to protest the harassment of Indians by police and then collapsed to his death. Indians gathered together and silenced the chambers with a rendition of Indian Red.

In Treme, the austerity and dignity of performing Indian Red during an Indian memorial is interrupted when a tour bus operator pulls up with apparent glee at the prospect of turning a spontaneous moment of authentic culture into a voyeuristic exhibition. Disaster tourism is the most polarizing example of the "representing New Orleans" dilemma; locals are acutely aware that tourism is the basis for the local economy, that tourists come looking for a New Orleans experience, and that post-Katina this includes a "devastation tour," but what is representation and what is reality when a back-a-town neighborhood becomes the set for Disaster Disneyland? For the bus passengers, stumbling into an informal performance of the most elusive local cultural tradition is a bonus of epic proportions. But for the Indians, this is an intrusion into a community whose culture is always under siege at one level or another, be it from aggressive police, expectant audiences, or disagreements among eachother.

Everyone is theoretically welcome to join in the parade - in Episode 1 we see a diverse crowd jumping to the brass band beat - but there is an insider/outsider (or at least authentic/inauthentic) categorization happening and the split is between those who participate in culture and those who passively consume it.

At episode's end, the Indians angrily send the bus away and then stand silently in the street, gawking at the gawkers. The flame has been guarded, if only for a fleeting moment.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

episode 2: keepin it real

This was the first episode of Treme filmed after the pilot was given the thumbs-up by HBO, and top dogs David Simon and Eric Overmeyer charged themselves with laying a foundation for the season to build on. So while Episode 1 cruised through technicolor parades and moody New Orleans nights at a full-tilt boogie, Episode 2 slowed down enough to get a good look at the characters and the place they live in.

This one was all about staking out territory - drawing borders around the REAL New Orleans and the REAL New Orleanians - something that the writers have basically admitted to being obsessed with, and rightly so, since just about everyone whose ever tapped their foot in Preservation Hall or ordered their po-boy "dressed" seems to have an opinion on what's Naturally N'Awlins.

But trying to 'keep it real' in New Orleans is a slippery slope. What's authentic folklore to you might be pure fakelore to me, and for the most part Simon and Overmeyer are onto the notion that what the REAL New Orleans looks like depends on where you're standing.

Early on we're introduced to Sonny and Sonia, white buskers who scratch out a living playing for tips in the French Quarter. They're playing the lesser-known standard Careless Love with 100% moxy and 10% melody for an appreciative trio of tourists in town to gut flooded houses in the Ninth Ward. Sonny is bitter about volunteers showing up to rebuild New Orleans with no idea what the city was like before the flood, and his sarcasm spills over into anger when he offers to play the tiresome warhorse When the Saints Go Marching In if the do-gooders tip them 20 bucks.

This is musicians' insider/outsider talk: tourists want musicians to meet their expectations of what the REAL New Orleans is, and musicians oblige with the same ol' same ol'. If the money's right.

As the old sign in Preservation Hall reads:
Traditional Request $2.00
Others $5.00
"The Saints" $10.00

Later in the episode, the search for authentic music gets all jumbled up with the search for authentic people and places. Davis McAlry, fired from his DJ job, takes a gig as a desk clerk at a Bourbon Street hotel and promptly directs the trio out of the tourist zone and into the 'hood to see Kermit Ruffins play at Bullet's Bar deep in the Seventh Ward. In "real"-life, Kermit's Tuesday night gig at Bullet's for a predominantly black audience is the counterpoint to his Thursday night gig at Vaughan's for a predominantly white audience, and sure enough, in "Treme"-life the do-gooders take a walk on the wild side, dancing and drinking and who-knows-what-else with REAL (i.e. black) New Orleanians.

The next morning, when the trio doesn't show up at the volunteer site, Davis gets fired yet again, this time for endangering the lives of America's great-white-hope by showing them the back door out of the French Quarter. He runs into the still-drunk trio on his way home and they offer him a gushing thanks for "showing us the REAL New Orleans."

Trombonist Antoine Batiste is also working overtime to keep on the real side, hustling gigs anywhere he can; anywhere, that is, except Bourbon Street if he can afford to avoid it. "There's PRIDE on Bourbon Street!" every musician in town reassures him with a pat on the back and a smirk, but Antoine knows that New Orleans is a sliding-scale of authenticity, with Bullet's bar at the top, a gig on Frenchmen Street with the white funk band Galactic somewhere in the middle, and the sadsack bars on Bourbon Street at the bottom. As Antoine tries to make his way up the musical ladder, we get cameos from local luminaries Galactic, Big Sam, Matt Perrine, and Trombone Shorty.

One good payday that Antoine misses out on is the recording session for Elvis Costello & Allen Toussaint's The River in Reverse, the first major recording made in post-Katrina New Orleans. Toussaint is overseeing an overdub session with an all-star horn section - Big Sam, Joe Foxx (ex-Chocolate Milk), and Rob Brown, the trumpeter/actor who plays the part of Delmond Lambreaux, son of Mardi Gras Indian chief Albert Lambreaux - and making sure the musicians keep it funky w/o too many notes.

At session's end, Big Sam tries to convince Elvis to come out to see him play with Galactic, but the connoisseur is skeptical, saying something along the lines of "isn't that a funk band like The Meters except a bunch of white guys?" Elvis passes.

The scenes with Delmond show another side of the authenticity debates in New Orleans. Before the session, Delmond tells his dad he'd rather be playing the modern jazz circuit in Donald Harrison's band than be limited to local grooves. Pop wonders aloud if modern jazz has lost the connection to dance and entertainment that keep black music rooted in New Orleans:

DELMOND: You don’t think I can play straight-up New Orleans R&B in my sleep?
ALBERT: But can you swing? Not all you modern cats can.

Debates along these lines go back at least to the 1950s, when the AFO Executives and other renegade bebop musicians in New Orleans tried to make room for progressive jazz amidst the surplus of traditional dance music.

The episode ends with Mardi Gras Indian chief Albert Lambreaux holding his first Indian "practice" at the back-a-town bar he's been gutting. Indian music is all about call-and-response, and you can't have call-and-response with just a lone call, so the chief's most faithful tribe member shows up at the last minute to sing and bang a tambourine to the traditional chant Shallow Water.

A duo giving a concert to an audience of none in an empty flooded bar without electricity? The authenticity meter has spiked. With nothing left to prove and nowhere better to go, the camera leads us up and out and the credits roll.

With apologies to the Big Chief, I'm holding off for now on a more in-depth discussion of the Mardi Gras Indian tradition. I'm still trying to figure out Treme's take on that Hoombah.

episode 1: opener

I'm mesmerized by the show Treme - the poetic dialogue, the cinematic scenes that linger on New Orleans characters and cityscapes - and apparently you are too. Just a day after the premier of Season 1, HBO greenlighted Season 2. I must not be the only one who ponied up for HBO just for this show.

So far the only major reservation posed by critics: will those outside the city limits be put off by all the New Orleans-isms? Treme is filled with obscure colloquialisms ("how yamamaanddem?"), insider references ("I ain't takin a bus all the way from the parish line"), and a near total immersion in the distinctive culture of the city (jazz funerals, second line parades, Mardi Gras Indians, nightclubs). This blog is about the latter: that "only in New Orleans" music that has drawn creator David Simon to the city for decades. The sound of Treme.

Episode 1 starts with the Rebirth Brass Band playing the first second line parade after Katrina. I'm sold. The flooded bar without electricity and the sun streaming in the windows; the haggling between Keith Frazier of Rebirth (alright Bass Drum Shorty!!!) and the Sidewalk Steppers Social Aid & Pleasure Club over the band fee; trombonist Antoine Batiste showing up late for the parade while Rebirth marches to their local anthem Feel Like Funkin' It Up. It's all so true.

Fans of The Wire will recognize this opening sequence as quintessential Simon... the viewer has little idea what the characters are saying and no idea what they're doing. So for the uninitiated: second lines are community parades sponsored by organizations called Social Aid & Pleasure Clubs that march and dance through their neighborhood on Sunday afternoons to the beat of the brass band. (Still lost? Here's an encyclopedia entry.)

The scene culminates with Rebirth leading the parade under the Interstate 10 overpass and the club members and second liners dancing ecstatically to (I Used to Lover Her, But) It's All Over Now, a 60s Bobby Womack song that's been a brass band standard at least since the Dirty Dozen Brass Band started playing it in the streets ca. 1977. Again, Simon is onto something here: marching "under the bridge" is always the apex of a parade in the Treme neighborhood. In an article based on my discussions with members of Rebirth and the Sidewalk Steppers club, I suggested that the intensity of the sound and the dancing has something to do with the history of "the bridge," a city planning project that ripped the Treme neighborhood in half in the late 60s and turned a vibrant tree-lined thoroughfare into a concrete jungle.

By the time the opening credits start I realize I'm sitting upright on the edge of my couch, leaning wide-eyed too close to the TV set. Little things like the glances shot back-and-forth between the band members: it's real. (Wendell Pierce as Antoine Batiste is the only actor in the band. I think he's pantomiming parts recorded by Rebirth trombonist Stafford Agee. The rest of the music is recorded live on the set, a policy of music supervisor Blake Leyh.).

John Boutte's Treme Song as the show's theme? I'll go on record with an official "meh"...

The show has such an improvised "street" feel - horns, marching drums, tambourines - and Boutte's recording is all suffocating studio tricknology. It ain't (The Wire's theme song) Down in the Hole, that's for sure. And Treme (the show) is chock full of New Orleans references... do we really need a song ABOUT Treme (the neighborhood) for the theme? But below I'll bore you with some musicology geekery to explain one thing I like about the choice.

Yes, DJ Davis McAlary (Steve Zahn) is based on a real New Orleanian, and yes Zahn's high-octane stoner is faithful to the source. Davis Rogan is a musician (locally known for his 90s brass band-funk hybrid All That) who I run into at second line parades constantly and who was a DJ on community radio station WWOZ until 2003, when he was fired for violating the station's (wack) anti-hip-hop policy by playing local rappers UNLV and Joe Blakk on the air. It's probably the coolest thing he ever did. Zahn's running pardners on the parade route include several actual second line regulars, including Henry Griffin (long curly red hair) and LJ Goldstein (beard and sunglasses). And to squelch the inevitable questions of authenticity: yes, there are white people who attend parades. Some call us culture vultures, and that seems about right.

On the topic of race: the real Davis lives in the real Treme neighborhood, and the scene where he blasts local rapper Mystikal's Bouncin' Back with the express intent of disturbing neighbors is telling: the Treme is perhaps the oldest black neighborhood in the United States, and is historically the hub of local traditions such as brass bands and parades, but the neighborhood has been gentrifying and whitening since the 1980s. Do Davis' flower-pruning neighbors - a gay couple? - represent the gentrifiers? (But not Davis?) I'd like to see this plot line develop. (That article I wrote runs down the noise ordinances and other policies that have made the Treme a much whiter, quieter, and more boring place than Simon will let on (so far). There have also been reports by New Orleans' best investigative reporter Katy Reckdahl.)

I'll admit that seeing people I know acting alongside Zahn, Pierce, and Hollywood icon (and longtime-sometime New Orleanian) John Goodman can give me the heebie-geebies. But nothing tops the scene at Vaughan's bar where trumpeter Kermit Ruffins holds down his weekly Thursday night gig. In a flash of an instant, the fake Davis walks past the real Davis (look for the goatee) while hounding Elvis Costello and demanding drinks from real Davis' real friend Henry. If everything in Treme seems suspended and surreal, this scene is like the fourth dimension or something.

This is also the part where we get to see Kermit in all his glory: playing the song Skokiaan made famous by Kermit's archetype, Louis Armstrong, with Kermit's band the BBQ Swingers. Kermit is probably the most convincing non-actor in the show, and the exchange with Zahn about Kermit's lack of interest in meeting Costello is spot-on.

ZAHN: “All you want to do is get high, play some trumpet and barbecue in New Orleans your whole damn life?”
KERMIT: “That’ll work.”

But its the music that gets me here. And now for the musicology I warned you about.

First, back to the opening theme Treme Song. The backing music is lifted from the Rebirth Brass Band original Do Whatcha Wanna. (The tuba line from Rebirth becomes the bass line for Boutte.) Kermit was the singer and trumpet player with Rebirth when they recorded Do Watcha Wanna back in the 80s. The version of Skokiaan we hear at Vaughan's recycles the tuba line from Do Watcha Wanna and simply plops Armstrong's melodies and vocals on top.

But there's more: the bass line appears again in the closing theme by (Katrina-displaced singer) Little Queenie, My Dawlin New Orleans. But different. And this is where is gets more complicated.

See, Rebirth's tuba line was a rewrite of the Professor Longhair's piano part in the classic Mardi Gras In New Orleans, but they made the chords move faster. Little Queenie doesn't bother to change Longhair's chord progression for My Dawlin New Orleans, she just changes the vocal melody and the words. In musicological terms, the bass part that threads these songs together is the three notes of a triad played in the Latiny/New Orleansy rhythm called the tresillo. The takeaway: someone on the Treme staff - I'm assuming Blake Leyh - has a good ear for musical continuity.

Enough shop talk. I'm going to hold off on the Mardi Gras Indians until Episode 2.