Monday, May 23, 2011

episode 15: surreality

The weeks surrounding New Years 2007 were positively gut wrenching. New Orleanians who had suffered the trauma of the flood, navigated through systemic failure of the government response, and summoned the emotional resiliency needed to rebuild, now saw violence return to the city with a  vengeance.

Dinerral Shavers, the snare drummer for the Hot 8 Brass Band and marching band director at L.E. Rabouin High School, was shot and killed on December 28, 2006. As the story unfolded, we learned that Dinerral was not the target of the shooting: his stepson had become entangled in a 'turf war' after being transferred to a new high school post-Kartina, and police believe another student fired as his classmate and hit Dinerral instead. What made Dinerral's loss so tragic was that he was an innocent victim who was determined to make an impact on his community. Bandleader Bennie Pete told me a few days after the murder:

“If you look at the news and you just read the paper every day, you would be in the mind frame to think that everybody in that age bracket is into killing and crime, and [Dinerral] was just the opposite, you know. He was really striving to be a complete grown man and a musician and just a positive role model, a positive person.”

You can hear Dinerral's message (and his soulful singing voice) in his song "Get Up," with the prophetic line “my people keep the peace / strike this murder rate down.”

Dinerral's death taught me that for every murder reported in an endless stream of sensationalized media coverage, there is a victim who was loved and who touched the lives of people in some way. Dinerral's mother Yolanda had worked all her life, purchased her own home in the Lower Ninth Ward, and put three daughters through college. The youngest, Nakita, was driven by the loss of her brother to call for a reform of the police department and the District Attorney's office.

Dinerral Shavers, in baseball hat, parading with Hot 8 Brass Band a few weeks before he was killed.

As Nakita and others were bringing attention to Dinerral's murder, the city learned of Helen Hill, a filmmaker who was attacked in her home by an intruder and killed as her husband protected their child. In a week of 8 murders, the headlines were again filled with a story of an exceptionally caring person lost to violence, but this killing was noteworthy in another way as well. Helen Hill was white, and in a city where at least 80% of murder victims are black men and 50% are under the age of 30, Helen's murder not only stood out, it reached people who might be desensitized to the news of another black man killed in the murder capital of the country. 

Baty Landis, who runs the Sound Cafe, knew both Helen Hill and Dinerral Shavers, and she joined forces with Nakita and others to launch Silence is Violence. They organized a march to City Hall that was a success in bringing together black and white New Orleanians in a demonstration that culminated in a series of speeches in front of mayor Nagin, police chief Riley, and other politicians. 

The jazz funeral for Dinerral Shavers and the march to City Hall frame this week's episode of Treme. I was at both of these events and if you are one of those armchair critics who are concerned with Treme's representation of real events, then i can point out several discrepancies. Nakita did not speak at the funeral service (that was left to pastor Macolm Collins, who played himself in the scene); the Hot 8 did not lead the procession out of the church (jazz funerals begin with the dirge outside); and the musicians did not raise their instruments in silence (they raised them as the others played "Just A Closer Walk With Thee"). As for the march: it was an explicitly silent march, without music and with very little chanting. And, as far as I know, there was no great white cop trying to handle the case properly. 

But I am not an armchair critic and I could care less if Treme the TV show portrays real life accurately. What these two scenes accomplished was to give viewers a sense of the emotional intensity of a jazz funeral and the invigorating possibility of a protest march, and that is no small feat.
Jazz Funeral for Dinerral Shavers, Fifth African Baptist Church, January 6, 2007

Sandwiched in between these two scenes was a whole lot of other stuff that, for the most part, did not measure up. Here's one kvetch: For a show that claims to be centered around New Orleans music, why is so much airtime being given to actors playing music onscreen? Annie is a great violinist, but her song was indeed terrible, both times we had to sit through it. Delmond's singing is a travesty and the whole onstage scene with him warning his band "follow me or die trying" and then launching into one of the oldest, easiest jazz standards - "Milneburg Joys" - was an insult to the talent sharing the stage with him. And then there's Antoine and the Soul Apostles, which - OK, that storyline is actually cool with me. (Dang, Bunk can sing!). But hearing all the amateur music and then seeing Rebirth Brass Band flit by onscreen for a nanosecond is cruel.

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