Monday, May 2, 2011

episode 12: infrastructures

In last week's episode, the premier of Season 2, the scriptwriters were tasked with updating us on returning characters and introducing new ones, and I found it slow and clunky, like a little tugboat trying to pull a big steamship up the Mississippi. There are a LOT of storylines in this show, but thankfully this week everything cruised along at a nice clip, and - most significantly - the camera is taking a step back from the close-up of individuals' experiences to give us a more panoramic 'wide-shot' of what happened post-Katrina. Yes, there is a new face on Treme, with the lovely name of 'infrastructure', and we get to see her in all her glory: Failed criminal justice! Political corruption! Corporate greed! And more!...

... Lieutenant Terry Colson bristles as the police department comes under fire for corruption and misconduct, including the police killing of two men, one mentally disabled, on the Danziger Bridge in the days after the flood...

... Desiree runs into a fellow school teacher who is reapplying for the job she lost when the state took advantage of the tumult to dissolve the teacher's union and takeover the school system...

... Big Chief Albert Lambreaux's insurance company pays him a sum total of $495 "and no cents" for his flooded home, and he can expect to wait a long, long time to get whatever the state's "Road Home" program decides to give him...

... Meanwhile, two new characters, smarmy developer Nelson Hidalgo and his good-ol-boy banker, discover there's money in them thar flooded neighborhoods and start scheming on how to capitalize on disaster. In fact, ALL of the new characters on Treme - including two local politicians eventually convicted of corruption, Bill Jefferson and Oliver Thomas - have been added to give viewers a sense of the fraught politics and economics of recovery...

Which brings me to the debut of the Hot 8 Brass Band as a new kind of 'group character' that will appear throughout Season 2, which covers the 'long winter' of 2006-2007 when the Hot 8's snare drummer Dinerral Shavers was shot and killed. And there we see Dinerral standing at the bar next to his bandleader, tuba player Bennie Pete, both bemoaning the violence in their hometown, which has re-emerged with a vengeance after a period of relative quiet when the city was de-populated. "You're from New Orleans, act like you're from New Orleans," says the actor playing Dinerral of the violent thugs (a line that Richard Barber, who is directing the documentary The Whole Gritty City and was editor of a 48 Hours special about Dinerral, says Dinerral actually spoke in an interview with CBS months before his death.) But viewers are also made aware that interpersonal violence stems from more pervasive problems when Bennie refers to Hot 8 trombonist Joseph Williams, who was shot and killed by police officers about a year before the storm, in 2004. Tragedy struck the band more randomly when trumpeter Terrell 'Burger' Batiste, who had evacuated to Atlanta after Katrina, was struck by a car in the breakdown lane of the Interstate and lost both his legs. (We see Terrell in an earlier scene being courted by Antoine to join his new band.)

It's a bit bracing for me to see these stories play out on Treme, since they feature prominently in a book I'm writing about New Orleans brass bands, but Bennie and others featured in the show (including Dinerral's sister Nakita) applaud they way the show has handled them. I'll post the excerpt from my book about the police killing of Joseph "Shotgun Joe" Williams here for those looking for more info.

Snare drummer Dinerral Shavers with Hot 8 bandleader Bennie Pete on tuba.

Another story that A) I'm writing about, B) is also woven into this episode of Treme, and C) is true, is the firing of DJ Davis from radio station WWOZ. The 'real' Davis was let go in 2003 for what station director Dwayne Breashears referred to as "tardiness, erratic and sometimes disruptive behavior and non-adherance to the music that should be played on the Nerw Orleans Music Show". As on Treme, what got Davis fired in real life (besides acting like Davis) was playing hip-hop, specifically a regional form of hip-hop known as 'bounce'. There's a lot of great material on the web about this local style of rap - including this exhibit at the Ogden Museum, this documentary film, and this blog - so I'll just make a quick point related to the show:

Bounce was a homegrown style that became identified with its own rhythms (the 'Triggerman' and 'Brown' beats), dance moves (i.e. the saltshaker), and group chants (especially shout outs to neighborhoods, wards, and housing projects). All of these musical characteristics point to the community aspect of bounce as a social music that audiences sing and dance to together at nightclubs or in DJ parties in project yards. That describes a few centuries of music in New Orleans, and yet the controversy surrounding hip-hop as a youth music that foregrounds explicit lyrics and images has made it a tough fit for those traditionalists who police the boundaries of New Orleans culture, such as the 'guardians of the groove' over at WWOZ. As part of the bigger question, "What is New Orleans Music?", it has forced those of us progressives on the other side to argue on behalf of hip-hop's place in the history of New Orleans Music.

It's a messy debate, and one of the things I like about this episode of Treme was its portrayal of the tension that permeates daily life, in something as minute as the controversy over a style of music or as colossal as violence at both interpersonal and structural levels.


  1. While New Orleans is a unique and magical place that I love, it is important to give credit to other places that contributed to its gumbo. The "Triggerman" beat is not a New Orleans creation. Rather it was a song known as "Drag Rap" by the Show Boys that was a crew from New York but only became popular because it hit and was reinvented along with an accompanying dance style in Memphis, that other musical giant of the South.

    Please look up DJ Spanish Fly and others. Too often, people outside of the South don't understand the full history of its widespread musicality. Let's celebrate New Orleans but not to historical detriment of its sister cities.

  2. Right-o sb4life. And the 'brown' beat also comes from elsewhere, Derek B's 'Rock the Beat.' I glossed this over in trying to make the point that they have become associated with New Orleans bounce. Just like the Latin rhythms that Jelly Roll Morton called the 'tinges of Spanish' necessary for jazz.

    Then there's the flipside: the James Browns and Berry Gordys and Jerry Wexlers that lifted beats from New Orleans musicians!

  3. Although I know less about it, the origin of "bounce" would probably be disputed as well. When I went to college in Atlanta in the early 90s, I was introduced to the Jam Pony Express and other groups out of South Florida, who were already doing the call and response. Of course at the same time out of New Orleans, you had "P-poppin" and dances that went along with it.

    All of this to say, as I hear "bounce" I am unsure if there is anything uniquely New Orleans about it other than the artist. Especially, Big Freedia and Katey Red and others. I am unsure that they could have successfully started in Atlanta, Miami or places that had similiar "bounce" type rap scenes.

    As to the lifting of beats and styles, we are fortunate that so much cross-pollination of artists and styles has occurred. It helps create really good music. Unfortunately, America likes it simple so we try to simplify the story. Thus, we hear about the greatness of Motown, but there is no discussion of Stax and the other great labels. I can go on and on but I will leave it there.