Monday, June 27, 2011

episode 20: ubiquity

One thing Treme gets right in representing New Orleans is the ubiquity and accessibility of music. There is nothing exceptional about experiencing live music in New Orleans; music is not only associated with special occasions like concerts or weddings, it spills out of houses and corner bars and collides with brass band parades and Mardi Gras Indian ceremonies in the streets.

Robert, the curious trumpeter getting his start in marching band, tells his teacher Antoine Batiste that he and his fellow bandmates "want to play on the street like the Baby Boyz." The Baby Boyz is the youngest of a new generation of local brass bands to join the ranks of tradition. Band leader Glen Hall III, who grew up in a musical family in the Tremé neighborhood, put the band together with the top members of the McDonogh 35 High School marching band. The kids started out playing for tips in the French Quarter, graduating to playing funerals, parades, and club gigs, just like the Rebirth Brass Band had done 25 years earlier when they were students at nearby Joseph S. Clark High School. (And not too differently from Louis Armstrong at the Colored Waifs' Home for Boys about a century ago.) Robert (played by Jaron Williams) is pinning his hopes on Antoine to get him started playing in the streets.

Because the city's identity is so wrapped up with music, New Orleanians learn from a young age of the potential for reward in pursuing a career in music. Rebirth, like the Dirty Dozen before them, have taken street parade music to stages around the globe. For Mardi Gras Indians, music offers them the only possibility for a career: tribes like the Wild Magnolias and Wild Tchoupitoulas married traditional Indian chanting with funk, and now Magnolias chief Bo Dollis is being honored as a Heritage Fellow by the National Endowment for the Arts. This week on Treme, chief Lambreaux brought his chants off the streets and into the studio with an all-star jazz group modeled after Donald Harrison Jr.'s album Indian Blues.

Some musicians make a living in this city never setting foot onstage or in the studio. In the French Quarter, alongside the local brass bands like TBC, musicians play just about every style of music in Jackson Square and all along Royal Street. David & Roselyn claim to have put their daughter through college playing folk and blues for tips; this week they were onscreen singing "Will the Circle Be Unbroken" in a graveside ceremony for Harley (Steve Earle), a street musician (or "busker") who was killed in last week's show.

Busking has a long history in the tourist districts but since Katrina there has been a huge influx of street musicians settling in the city. Alynda Lee Segarra ran away from home in the Bronx and landed in New Orleans, playing banjo in the streets and eventually forming Hurray for the Riff Raff. She now tours everywhere playing her original songs and hillbilly covers and is the most visible member of an informal scene centered in the downtown neighborhoods of the Marigny, Bywater, and Ninth Ward. Hanging out in coffee shops like Satsuma (where Sofia is now a barista) and bars like the Spotted Cat (where we caught a glimpse of the Riff Raff playing outside in this week's show). Sometimes she plays with the bass player from my band, Dan Cutler, who also has played with street kings Meschiya Lake and her Little Big Horns and the Loose Marbles. The trumpeter from my band, Jack Pritchett, is probably playing on Royal Street right now with the Smoking Time Jazz Club.

As the DJ's on WWOZ say at the top of every odd hour: "Now go out and here some LIVE local music..."

Monday, June 20, 2011

episode 19: feelgood

This week's Treme opens with Davis and his rap discovery Lil Calliope plugging their CD on WWOZ: "We're taking New Orleans music to a place it's never been before," says Davis. "Political insurrection." And with that, the DJ previews the track "Road Home," which sets politicized rap about post-Katrina dysfunctional and corruption on top of a a brassy hip-hop track.

There's a neat little summary about the politics of New Orleans music nestled in this scene and threaded throughout this episode that flips dramatically and schizophrenically between the good (Antoine and Kermit's battle royal), the bad (Hidalgo's greedy land grab), and the pure evil (Harley's bullet in the head). Throughout the show, and throughout the history of New Orleans, music is an antidote to suffering. A line from The Meters "Hey Pocky Way" sums it up:

Feel good music
I've been told 
It's good for your body
And good for your soul

Feel good music is the backbone of New Orleans and there is a bottomless reserve of the stuff for the hard-knock characters on Treme: Wanda Rouzan and Antoine's Soul Apostles break out "Mr. Big Stuff", the laid-back funk standard by New Orleanians' Jean Knight and Wardell Quezergue. Kermit does his "What is New Orleans?", a musical list of his hometown pleasures that's as long as his arm. Pleasure is the emotional register we seek when we seek out New Orleans music.

New Orleans music is very rarely a music of social commentary and this has posed a conundrum for any musician looking to bend New Orleans music towards political insurrection: if you want to reach audiences then keep their feet moving and don't let 'em stop to think. It's not like there aren't any protest songs in the New Orleans canon - we could go all the way back to Louis Armstrong's version of "(What Did I Do to Be So) Black and Blue" and The Meters themselves had "Message from the Meters" and "Africa" - it's just that they are way outnumbered. So while Davis wants to capitalize on post-Katrina anger to by having Lil Calliope craft a protest song, it's Calliope's piece of "club banger" fluff "The Truth" that gets all the play (from real-life DJ Wild Wayne on hip-hop station Q93).

Another way to come at this issue is to ask whether the politics of music are only located in the lyrics. Historically, when slaves were dancing the ring shout in Congo Square, it's not like white listeners understood the words but they did understand that they were witnessing a spectacular show of musical mastery. In a society that bought and sold people as bodily labor, what did it mean for those people to show off their bodies in displays of pleasure? Dancing to “good-time music,” as the African American cultural critic Albert Murray would have it, “is the direct opposite of resignation, retreat, or defeat."

There's a lot of twisted history that separates antebellum and contemporary black music and then there's also a consistent regeneration of good-time music in jazz, R&B, soul, funk, and hip-hop. There are examples of message songs throughout this history but more prominently there is an endless source of political power in the music, even the club bangerz.

Take, as a final example, the Mardi Gras Indian chant "Ho Na Nae" that Chief Lambreaux is (begrudgingly) singing in the studio with his son and an all-star band. The chant, roughly translated as "get out the way," is not necessarily understood by all and the chief's lyrics rehash the two dominant Mardi Gras Indian themes: fierceness and boasting. But the music is trance-like and danceable, both in the Africanized percussion version heard on the streets and in the 70s funk arrangements by the Wild Magnolias. Music is not just an empty vessel that carries the message of the lyrics because there are messages in the notes and in the rhythms that get people moving. Feel good music is not apolitical, it's politics in a different key.

Monday, June 13, 2011

episode 18: dynastic

One of the many things about New Orleans music that keeps it distinct is the long lineage of family dynasties - the Marsalises, the Lasties, the Andrews, the Nevilles - that perpetuate tradition with each new generation. Music is a family business for an elite group of New Orleanians, including the Batistes, with brothers David and Paul, sons Russell, Jonathan, and Jamal, and distant family ties to clarinetist Alvin and saxophonist Harold. There was a great scene in this week's Treme, when the aptly named Antoine Batiste confesses to Desiree that he "failed" his sons by not teaching them music and passing on the family legacy.

The other cultural dynasty on Treme is the Lambreauxs: Mardi Gras Indian chief Albert and his trumpet toting son Delmond. Their characters are loosely based on the Harrison family: chief Donald Sr. and son Donald Jr,  and also including wife Herreast, daughter Cherice Harrison Nelson, and grandsons Christian Scott and Brian Nelson. There is an amazing family biography that focuses on the patriarch, Big Chief Harrison and the Mardi Gras Indians, who was chief of the Guardians of the Flame tribe in the Downtown district. His son followed in the tradition as a child but Donald Jr. ultimately decided to pursue his father's other passion, modern jazz, picking up the saxophone and enrolling in New Orleans Center for Creative Arts (NOCCA) high school before launching a career in New York.

Donald Jr. and trumpeter Terence Blanchard made up the second round of Young Lions from New Orleans to make a splash in NYC , the first being from that other dynasty, the Marsalis brothers Branford and Wynton. Like Wynton, Donald was first spotted by Art Blakey and invited to join his Jazz Messengers, and he quickly established himself as a leading modern jazz saxophonist. But he kept feeling the pull of his hometown traditions, and in 1991 he recorded the masterpiece Indian Blues, an attempt to bridge the worlds he inhabited, combining a kicking jazz band (w/Cyrus Chestnut on piano, and Carl Allen on drums) with special guests including Dr. John, Mardi Gras Indian and percussionist Smiley Ricks, and, of course, Donald Sr. (Dr. John, who always had a foot in the Mardi Gras Indian tradition with songs like "Mama Roux", simply tears up the Indian chant "Ja-Ki-Mo-Fi-Na-Hay" on piano and vocals.)

Indian Blues is a whole lot like the CD project Delmond dreamed up on last night's episode. In one of those "only in New Orleans, only on Treme" moments of surrealism, Del sits at a bar with (the real) Donald Jr. and explains his idea of assembling a modern jazz combo to back his dad and his Mardi Gras Indian tribe singing chants. And Donald just sits there, taking it in as if his friend just invented sliced bread, never letting on that he had this idea 20 years ago!

The plot thickens when Del presents the idea to the chief, who gruffly surmises that the CD would be better if a Mardi Gras Indian were in charge:

Chief: "You're not part of the tradition... You haven't masked since you were 15."
Son: "Then I'll have to just get another chief to do the calls. Big Walter [Cook] or Monk Boudreaux.
Chief: "They're from Uptown... It won't sound right."

Nicely played Treme. I'm looking forward to next week, when the Chief heads into a NYC recording studio with his son, Dr. John, Ron Carter on bass, and others.

These were two of the plot lines from last night's show that jived with one another, providing the viewer with a sense of unity and coherence. The rest of this show - with its large ensemble cast made up of little scenes in little silos that only meet up at the occasional second line parade - seems very fragmented. I wonder if it has something to do with the rotating cast of screenwriters who parachute in to write a single episode. (By my count, 9 writers for 9 shows in Season 2).  The laundry list of plot lines these writers are handed at the start of their mission must be very, very long, and often the show seems to strain under the burden of so much heavy lifting. As the curtain draws, my family and friends have gotten into the habit of dreaming up which characters should be killed off first to lighten the load.

Monday, June 6, 2011

episode 17: francophonic

Its Carnival Time on Treme this week and we get an eyeful of New Orleans delights. There are the massive parades thrown by Mardi Gras krewes, such as Rex, the exclusive club with elite members along the lines of Davis' dad; Zulu, the historically black krewe that let Senor Hidalgo in to throw a few coconuts; and Muses, the all-female krewe with the glorious heels. These parades are moved along by the school marching bands, such as the St. Augustine "Marching 100" and the mighty O. Perry Walker Chargers. And on Mardi Gras day, the parades are sometimes interrupted by rogue Mardi Gras Indian tribes: African Americans dressed in American Indian-themed "suits" who march through the city streets, singing chants and confronting other tribes.

These are local traditions with deep roots, some with precedents in Africa and the Caribbean and others that originated with Louisiana's French founders. Carnival is a European Catholic tradition that marks the arrival of Spring and is associated with harvest and fertility. Mardi Gras in New Orleans (and Mobile, AL) developed it's own identity as an urban New World variant, and Louisiana has another distinct variant out in Cajun country - courir de Mardi Gras - that Annie checked out ona roadt trip with her musical muse Harley (Steve Earle).

Though the Cajuns descended from the French as well, they came to Louisiana through a more circuitous route, having been exiled from Acadia in the Canadian maritime provinces. So they have their Mardi Gras, too, but it's very different: there are no spectacular parade floats or black men running around in feathered suits, instead there are Cajuns wearing pointy hats, riding through the country on horses and flatbed trucks, collecting ingredients for a communal gumbo. (Hence the live chickens.) They might drink a little, too, so it's not like a its world apart from New Orleans Mardi Gras.

The music is VERY different from New Orleans. Cajun music is all fiddles and accordions and in the 20th century became heavily influenced by country music. Tradition dances such as the waltz and two-step, sung in French, were carried forward by the likes of Dennis McGee, who was treated to a graveside serenade by the new-school torch-bearers in the Pine Leaf Boys. Black Creole musicians in Southwest Louisiana also have their own traditional music, called Zydeco, that retains the accordion and the French language but otherwise goes off into the funkier directions of R&B and (more recently) hip-hop.

All these French folks spread out across South Louisiana with their own musical, Mardi Gras, and culinary traditions - it gets confusing. I, myself, don't know much about Cajun history that's not included in the song 'Acadian Driftwood' by The Band. And New Orleanians get territorial when tourists come to town looking for cajun music or blackened redfish, since the urban and rural traditions were mostly separate until cajuns started migrating to the city a couple generations ago. They brought crawfish with them - thank you kindly! - but, otherwise, things remain pretty much distinct, so it makes sense that Annie and her fiddle and Harley with his acoustic guitar would feel at home out in the country.