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.


  1. Oh Man! What a Great Score You!
    I been having a little trouble with Creme, but you are covering those bases.
    We got you hangin'5X5 on da'Ladder.
    Editilla~New Orleans Ladder

  2. Thanks Editilla! I'm following New Orleans Ladder now and I'll keep an eye out for Creme.

  3. Looking forward to your next post after tonight's episode, the best yet, I thought.

    Nothing like watching the admiration in the Japanese guy's face as he watched Antoine blow his horn in the dingy courtyard of his temporary digs. That scene brought out the paradox of jazz music in this country in a heartbreaking way. Antoine deserved all the cash the Japanese guy pressed at him, but he wasn't even going to get his instrument back from the local cops.

    Curious if the shooting during the second line was based on an actual event.

  4. Thanks Lucia... the new post explains how the second line was based on an actual event.

  5. With regard to the final scene of episode three, do you think the writers were pointing to what they consider themselves to be doing in New Orleans? One of the things that has struck me hardest about Treme is the casual inclusion of Katrina footage in the intro; when juxtaposed against the title song, it's especially unsettling. With the lack (so far) of a central plot, and characters' being relatively unfamiliar to the viewer, the show is full of a lot of "Look at this idiosyncratic New Orleans thing!" moments which are awkward for someone who's lived with those idiosyncratic things his entire life.

    I'm sure once things really get rolling, there will be less of that (there was already less in Ep. 3 and 4 than in the first two), but I bet the show's staff realizes how much they have in common with that bus driver.

    Your blog is amazing, btw. HBO should pay you for this level of quality commentary. Subscribed.

  6. Yeah, I hear you about the reliance on culture-as-eye-candy in the show. Usual narrative devices - such as a plot or conflict - take a back seat to all things unique to the city. This only worries me b/c viewers need to understand that New Orleans while is an exotic city, it remains an American city, with all the problems of urban violence, aggressive policing, gentrification etc. that define America's inner-cities. I don't want viewers in the sticks to think that because local culture is 'naturally new orleans' that dysfunctional infrastructure is as well.

    As for me + HBO... no dice!