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.