Wednesday, February 16, 2011

My Poppa Sent Me Down to New Orleans

I don’t remember a time when there wasn’t music in the little red house we lived in through our early years in America. My father was born with a voice that silences a room on his first note, and in memory it seems as if he sang or played the tin whistle every single day when we were very small. I realize now that his beautiful, thickly accented voice, tin whistle and bodhran (Irish drum,) were perhaps the strongest ties to Ireland for all of us, or at least the ones we loved most. As time went on, the sounds of music we heard in our little red house and the white one that came after were less often his singing and playing, and more often the radio or a cassette tape or CD – likely the result of an overworked, exhausted father finding any way to pass on his love for music to his daughters. He exposed me to every genre of music that I hold dear to my heart today, perhaps because I hold my relationship with him so dear to my heart. Every time I hear live music and watch musicians sieve themselves through guitar strings and violin bows, I think of my dear old dad.

If I remember correctly, he introduced me to jazz in the living room of that little red house with a little Louis Armstrong on a CD player the size of a microwave oven. (This was back when cell phones came in carrying cases the size of Smart cars.) I loved the sound immediately, I’m sure partly because I felt closer to my dad that way, but I think I connected with jazz because as I waded through my adolescent, teen and early adult years, it always sounded like Louis understood a lot more about life than I did. (It still feels that way.)

As I discovered different kinds of jazz and loved almost all of the sub-genres, I developed more and more of a desire to visit New Orleans. When I heard Billie Holiday I dreamt of smoky night clubs where raspy-voiced women with flowers in their hair sang to listless patrons with plantation fans slowly rotating above. I pictured handsome young men in fedoras singing Rat Pack tunes in tuxedos, their smiling faces all twisted up in southern charm and temptation. I imagined brass band music floating over dancers pausing for a little relief from the heat, high-ball glasses dripping with condensation lifted to their wrists.

After Katrina, I wondered if a visit would be worth while. I was convinced that if New Orleans had ever even somewhat resembled my daydreams, it would no longer do so. But a business trip brought B and I to the city and I quickly realized that what makes New Orleans New Orleans is something entirely indestructible, and altogether unexpected.

I knew my New Orleans experience would be different than anticipated shortly after we arrived, when we went to hear the Rebirth Brass Band at a popular place called the Howlin’ Wolf. I showed up expecting women with flowers in their hair, tuxedos and charming smiles and walked into an old warehouse where the floor was sticky with booze and covered with dancing feet. Smoke drifted up to the rafters, free of old plantation fans, adorned instead with power cords jury-rigged to all sides and laced with old worn Mardi Gras beads. Black draping hid where they kept supplies; I could have sworn the bathrooms were a trailer with one wall ripped out hitched up to the side of the building. I surprised myself by being completely inspired instead of turned off. I looked around and thought “They’ll find a way to make music everywhere, anywhere with anything.” Music is who they are. It is their lifeblood. They don’t need sexy clubs and sirens with flowers in their hair (although you can find that there too,) they just need a warehouse, some extension cords and an audience. In our time there, we noticed quickly that the most beautiful sounds often poured out of the most unsightly places in the city. And that juxtaposition, I learned, is very New Orleans.

Although parts of the Big Easy certainly looked tired and a bit battered, I came and went unsure if that appearance was a result of natural disaster or a way of life. Bourbon Street’s assaulting red and neon lights can only be rivaled by the blood shot eyes of those that walk the streets into the morning hours. At first glance, it is a hedonistic culture that collectively feeds their demons 6 days a week and repents on Sundays. But if you’re in the city long enough to see one of the church parades, you come to understand it’s the tourists that wander around at 10:00 am with yard glasses and the natives aren’t spending Sunday apologizing for anything. Instead, they dance down streets under trees dripping with Spanish moss, straight pass dumpsters overflowing with the debris of homes now just undergoing post flood repairs. Young boys and old men, teenage girls and grandmothers all march together in their Sunday best to sing praise, give thanks and above all to celebrate their lives and their city, regardless of the hand it’s dealt them over the years.

Most visitors go to New Orleans looking for charm in the French provincial colors and black wrought iron balconies of the French quarter. You read the guide books, hear a few stories and naturally gravitate towards that part of the city upon arrival. And it is wonderful, especially at night when melodies and the sweet smell of beignets pull you down gas-lamp-lit allies and horse’s hooves beat down on the cobblestone just a little bit louder than stiletto heels. But when you venture away from that area, that’s when New Orleans really comes alive. The fractured sidewalks in the Garden District are poetic - relentless roots of 150 year old oaks press through tattered bricks – something wild refusing to be contained by convention. The roots are obviously not unlike the people of New Orleans, who seem to laugh at the suggestion that remaining in a city that lies 7 feet under sea level in some areas is utterly ridiculous. To us, it makes little sense to settle back into lying in wait of another disaster. To the people of New Orleans, leaving is the only thing that makes little sense.

Every 5 feet in the Frenchman District features a different sound: a seasoned jazz trio playing sleepily, an energetic quartet begging the crowd to dance, a legend playing the piano just inside a grimy window thick with stories, a group of twenty-something vagabonds on a street corner making the most fantastic sounds of all. In one club you’ll find an ageless crooner unable to stand or sit in his chair without the help of his younger accompaniment – he’s old and tired and broken but he’s unable to let go of performing. In the next club you’ll find a young trumpet player with impossibly round inflated cheeks – the skin on his face taught, pulled back to reveal eyes full of anticipation. He’s leading a brass band of 7 other surprisingly young men and its evident they’re clinging equally as tight to their love of performing, and for wonderfully different reasons.

Everything mesmerizing about “the Big Easy” is born of paradox and impossibility. The city should not be standing, many of the buildings should not be in tact, and the people should not still be there. But after Katrina, and after all the natural disasters and conflict that came before, New Orleans is singing and dancing in the streets, their churches, their homes. The endless revelry and indulgent mentality doesn’t seem sustainable, yet they are woven into the neighborhoods, culture, and everyday life so deeply that it is hard to imagine New Orleans without either. Everything wonderful lies in places you would never think to look – places that are testaments to this untamed place being more beautiful for its wear, being perfect in its raw and wild imperfection. The traditions are in the crevices, the soul down the uprooted brick alleyways, the heart in the competing sounds of horns and stand-up basses and pianos and oboes. And the harmony is in all the incongruities and everything that we outsiders cannot understand.