Sunday, July 3, 2011

episode 21: finale

Life in New Orleans can be surreal and Treme has made it all the more so. Take the Davis character: Steve Zahn acting out Davis Rogan's life as the bandleader of All That with real band members (Kirk Joseph, Alex McMurray, Tyrus Chapman) is weird enough, but then Rogan himself is on keyboards? Add to that the fact that anyone of those musicians could be seen onstage on a given night in New Orleans, or that you could bump into Real Davis (as happened to my wife Alex twice this week) or pass Steve Zahn walking through Jazz Fest or down Frenchmen Street (as happened to me this spring) and things start getting heady. Spot David Simon out at the Sidewalk Steppers second line parade pushing a baby carriage, or pecking away on a laptop at the local coffee shop, and the separation between reality and TV-land becomes hard to maintain.

Treme has a direct impact on the lives of New Orleanians. Locals speak of a "Treme effect" when we see hoards of spectators out at the Mardi Gras Indian processional on Super Sunday. When we experience in real-life something that happened on TV - like watching a musician arrive late to a gig, in a cab, carrying an instrument without a case - we call it trémè-vu. And there is also the very practical and measurable economic impact that Treme has had on the lives of local musicians and actors who appear onscreen, along with all the revenue that filming a major production bestows on the city.

Treme is especially entangled with my own life because my job is to research the music and culture that remain at the center of the series' depiction of post-Katrina New Orleans. Because the city is the protagonist of the show, and because culture is the protagonist's raison d'etre, the Treme effects and trémè-vus pile up week after week, season after season. The first chapter of my forthcoming book follows the Rebirth Brass Band as they lead the Sidewalk Steppers second line parade through the Tremè neighborhood in the aftermath of Katrina, just as they did in the opening scene of the first episode. The book ends with the jazz funeral for drummer Dinerral Shavers of the Hot 8 Brass Band, which Treme viewers would recognize as a critical turning point midway through season 2. I experienced these events in real time and wrote about them before I ever could have known about Treme, and despite the occasional and irrational feelings of possessiveness I've mostly been excited to see these moments blown up on the little big screen.

I can't say that I've brought the same level of excitement to the weekly blog posts on soundoftreme. My strong reactions to the show are counterbalanced by an utter and total lack of enthusiasm for being a media critic. Ultimately I would rather write a book than a book review. Responding to others' creativity just doesn't give me the same kind of rush that I get from harnessing my own creativity as a writer, teacher, or musician. I'm looking forward to the Sunday dinners and screenings next season, and I'll miss being a regular contributor to an online community of others who love New Orleans culture, but it's time for me to sign off on soundoftreme. Thanks to Treme for giving me something to think about and a platform to voice my thoughts, and thanks to those of you who found me here.

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.

Monday, May 30, 2011

episode 16: taxing

In the immediate aftermath of Katrina, there was concern that New Orleans' distinctive culture might not return:

Mardi Gras Indian chiefs moved to places like Austin, threatening to relocate their tradition beyond the city limits of their hometown for the first time. (Treme: Big Chief Lambreaux stays with his kids in Houston and NYC.)

High school marching bands weren't able to march in Mardi Gras Parades because many students hadn't come home, and those that did had to replace uniforms and instruments. (Treme: Antoine and Keith Hart direct the band at the Kipp school.)

Second line parades - which Social Aid & Pleasure Clubs had led through their neighborhoods for more than a century - were nowhere to be found. The streets of New Orleans were silent for perhaps the first time in the city's history.

There were some hopeful early signs. When famed Creole chef Austin Leslie passed away after evacuating to Atlanta, his body was transported to New Orleans, where a jazz funeral led by the Hot 8 Brass Band proceeded through devastated neighborhoods piled high with debris. Soon after, the Prince of Wales Social Aid & Pleasure Club organized the first post-K second line parade through their unflooded Uptown neighborhood. By January 2006, five months after the flood, a massive "Allstar" parade was organized by dozens of marching clubs, sending a signal that local culture continued to be a priority for New Orleanians rebuilding their lives.

Though the parade was meant to be a display of unity, at the end, as the crowd was dispersing, shots broke out along the perimeter of the crowd and three people were injured. (You'll remember this from the first season of Treme.) Then two months later, a shooting took place near a jazz funeral, and a 19-year old man was killed.

As you know from this season of Treme, if the return of culture to New Orleans was something to celebrate, the return of violent crime was harrowing. Somehow the NOPD conflated the two. Police chief Warren Reily tripled the permit fees required for parading, from $1250 to $3760, and clubs like the Pigeontown Steppers that parade on holidays (Easter) were hit with a whopping $7560 bill.

This is the moment we've arrived at in Treme, when ACLU lawyer Mary Howell (the basis for the Toni Bernette character) partnered with the Social Aid & Pleasure Club Task Force and sued the city for discrimination. They argued that predicting where shootings would happen was impossible, that no one participating in a parade had ever been involved in the shootings, and that shootings occurred consistently at Mardi Gras parades and the elite krewes had never been 'taxed' for the police detail.

The result? The NOPD settled the case, agreed to a reduced parade fee of $1985, and the parade season resumed.

The return of local culture in New Orleans preceded the return of infrastructure. It sent a signal that the city was rebuilding, and it helped to lure tourists back to visit and spend their almighty dollars. And as far as their role in the community, an LSU study found that Social Aid & Pleasure Clubs were models for community participation. Many musicians and marching club members think the city should PAY them for their efforts in perpetuating local culture rather than TAX them as misdirected punishment. I would advise the optimists not to hold their breath.

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.