Saturday, April 17, 2010

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.


  1. Matt, this is a great idea. Thanks for the post.

  2. Yes, thanks for this! The one thing about the Treme Song, though, it's a preternaturally catchy number!! Looking forward to further "musicology geekery" as you say.

  3. "Treme Song" gets stuck in my head too! Its really not a bad song by any stretch. And John Boutte is one of the great voices of New Orleans.

  4. Cool. We got to stay one semester in Treme in 1999 and get back every so often. The music seems so on. Folks following your blog around the world.

  5. Great blog, Matt! For me, I think the biggest problem with "Treme Song" is the over-the-top guitar noodling, but yeah, it does get stuck in my head.

  6. I like the song, but the "jammin' and havin' fun" closing line seems out of key with the program, seeming more appropriate to a comedy. Nobody's having fun exactly, in this story. There ought to be a little more drama. But the rest of the words are good, flashes of New Orleans life, like the sistahs moaning in a blessed tone... now who would think to put that in a song about New Orleans who ain't actually from here? TV viewers have not been trained to think of this as sacred ground.

  7. wow, three years later I'm just seeing this... Do Watcha Wanna is I-IV and Dawlin New Orleans is I-V, Fess is a classic I-IV-I-V-I. yes major triads but a wee bit different. nitpicking, love the blog, sorry I didnt notice it sooner...

  8. Hi,
    I'm in Sydney Australia and I just got turned on to Treme by a man I met sitting next to me in a Steve Earle concert here about a month ago. I've always liked New Orleans music which I identified as being charxterized by the triplets. Fats Domino was big over here also Dr John by hippies But I never understood him - all that Indian stuff - the Wild Chapitchoulas etc. doesn't make sense over here. I like the show a lot. It doesn't matter about the specific language and cultural things. These days anybody can look up the Net and find out everything. I looked up Second Line and some other things. I found your blog by putting in to Google - 'who Is Davis' friend with the red curly hair' I am up to s2 ep 6 and what's interesting to me is that there is no racism between Black & White and also no sexual relationships (I know one happens after as I mistakenly read something online). In a society (New Orleans culture) which seems so accepting I find it strange that there are not more visible couples.
    As for the language I couldn't understand a lot of The Wire and I miss some of Treme but it is better as Black people speak a lot clearer in this. Australians are used to watching US TV as we are a cultural colony of the US. Our accent is sometimes hard for Americans to understand. I think its v good that this society is being shown what I have read is so authentically, as its v different from what we see in most US TV which doesn't show these parts of the US. New Orleans culture is so special I hope it can survive. Of course the show will encourage millions of fans from all over the world to come and experience it. That will bring money into the community. I think I'll come there myself next time I come to the US, so I'm looking forward to it.