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.