Culture Gulf: January 2007 Archives
Another second-line march passed through my Central City neighborhood on Sunday, lending a semblance of safety to the act simply walking around said hood. The area is infamous for its absurdly high murder rate of late, and so idly strolling around isn't much of an option, even on the sunniest of afternoons. But there's safety in numbers, and just being able to walk around surrounded by hundreds of others went a long way toward erasing, even if only briefly, that palpable sense of menace that's pretty much become a permanent part of life in the city.
I was reminded of the first time my old friend, a longtime New Orleans resident, brought me to this neighborhood almost five years ago, for the St. Joseph's Day parade. He decided it was something I needed to see - and only now do I realize what a service he did me by not attempting to explain what it was I was about to witness. Not that there was any context for it - none that I would have recognized anyway.
But had he tried, it might have gone something like this: We are going to drive straight into the heart of the ghetto, just across the street from the Magnolia projects, and once we're there, we're going to park -- probably right in front of someone's house, which we won't worry about too much because they most likely don't have a car and won't mind. And then we're going to get out of the car and maybe buy a pork sandwich from the guy selling them off his front porch, and then we'll make our way to join the hundreds of mostly black locals in what may at first seem like a lot of aimless milling about, but is in fact a "living manifestation of an age-old ritual," as John Sinclair characterized the appearance of Mardi Gras Indians in an article he wrote for the Detroit Sun in 1976, which still serves as a pretty good primer on the history of Mardi Gras itself and the role of the Indians in particular. Somehow the unfamiliarity of that first St. Joseph's night had me so delightfully disoriented that I never once worried that perhaps I was somewhere I shouldn't be. I wish I still felt that way sometimes.
Neal Walker, a prominent local civil rights attorney, passed away of a heart attack last week, leaving many people here in the legal aid community despondent. Walker was the director of the Louisiana Capital Assistance Center, and was evidently responsible for freeing thousands of uncharged inmates who were being held illegally, some up to six months and more, after Katrina.
This being a small town now, chances are that when something like this happens, it has a profound affect on lots of people you know. So much so that a simple thing like a good mood is a mighty precarious thing these days.
So the sun finally came out today after a five-day, weather-enforced mourning period
over the Saints' loss last weekend. I may have mentioned this in a previous post, but I am not a football fan -- far from it, in fact -- but the pain felt across the city this week was palpable. Man, that smarted.
I'd watched the first part of the game at home with a couple of friends -- we heard horns playing just before the end of the first quarter and for a second thought it was coming from the television, but it turned out to be a second-line parade happening just outside. A crowd of 40-50 people, 98.2 percent of them dressed in Saints paraphernalia, had stopped to dance to the 8- or 9-piece brass band. A few horse-mounted policemen were there to protect them from the traffic -- or maybe to protect the traffic from them, since they were headed the wrong way down a one-way street. The band was playing a particularly funky version of Gnarls Barkley's "Crazy" -- how they made that one sound knew, I have no idea -- and as I thought about the lyrics, it seemed like such an appropriate theme song for the City that Care Forgot:
"And when you're out there
Yeah, I was out of touch But it wasn't because I didn't know enough I just knew too much Does that make me crazy? ... Probably..."
We went to watch the rest of the game at Ray's Boom Boom Room, one of a smattering of upscale(ish) black-owned music clubs to have opened since Katrina. (Jin Jeans is another.) Trumpeter Kermit Ruffins was there without his horn, emceeing the event and DJing during commercials. The long oyster bar that lines the wall opposite the long liquor bar wasn't open during the game - jello shots were being served instead -- but it was easy to imagine spending an evening ping-ponging between the two.
When New Orleans scored for the second time, strangers started hugging each other. More than a few people started crying. Had anyone happened by Ray's at half-time, they might have reasonably assumed that the Saints were winning. They were still down 16-14, but it didn't matter. All that mattered was that they were still in the game.
By the fourth quarter, of course, another look around the bar exposed some serious hang-dog, hopeless looks, but then Kermit stepped in, grabbed the mike, and started the rallying cry: "Who dat say they gonna beat dem Saints" -- inserting a loud shout of "NEXT YEAR" in between each round. And suddenly everyone brightened a little, remembering, Oh yeah -- next year.
I was reminded of watching the TV during Katrina and seeing a woman get plucked from the water like a wet rat and being brought to high ground by a rescue team. Stumbling out of the fishing boat -- clearly a little horrified that this was to be her 15 minutes of fame, and here she was wearing flip-flops and a white, see-through tank top -- the woman made a sort of perfunctory attempt to smooth her hair back and said to no one I particular, "I tell you what, man -- NEXT hurricane, I am OUTTA here."
Next hurricane. Next Season. In spite of everything, New Orleans is still in the game.
"...Maybe we're crazy?... Probably..."
Check out this Special! Free! Bonus! Sneak Peak! MP3 Download! of former New Orleans resident Michelle Shocked performing with Trombone Shorty: "Hardcore Hornography"
New Orleans natives Harrick Connick Jr. and Branford Marsalis were in town recently checking in on the Musicians' Village, the high-profile, low-income housing complex they founded post-Katrina in partnership with Habitat for Humanity. The project has come under fire recently for turning away many musicians because of poor credit, and apparently many musicians haven't even bothered to apply for residence because they expect to be denied. As Katy Reckdahl reported in her "Sour Note" story in the Times-Picayune, only one-fourth of those approved for residence in the Musicians' Village so far are actually musicians:
"The bass drummer for the Lazy Six, Terence Andrews, got a rejection letter on the same day as his trombonist cousin. "Everybody I know got denied," he said. That includes first cousin Glen Joseph Andrews, trumpeter for the Lazy Six and for the Rebirth Brass Band, whom bandmates call "the poster child for the Musicians Village," because -- despite the rejection -- he's pictured playing his horn next to Habitat's online donation form for the project."
Connick and Marsalis attempted to do some damage control in a recent Gambit Weekly interview -- but not without a heaping of tough love. In a story titled, "Change that Tune," Marsalis offered the following:
Musicians have to understand that if you want to live a
cash-and-carry existence and hide in the system, the system
allows for that. We've all done it -- get paid in cash -- I
personally remember times when I was a younger man,
25 or 30 years ago, if you got paid in cash you just put it
in your pocket. But I didn't own a home. I didn't have a family.
I didn't have a job. I didn't have an extended career. The system
allowed me to do that. But the moment you own a home, you
are now in the system ... and if you don't understand that there
has to be a change in mentality, you won't own the home very long."
No doubt the task of organizing jazz musicians is a herculean one. Last spring, while working with Preservation Hall's New Orleans Musicians Hurricane Reflief Fund, I came to appreciate just how far outside "the system" most musicians lived -- many of them didn't even know their own social security number by heart, let alone have a savings account. So I share the sentiments of the "Sour Note" story -- I'm not sure you can expect a musician to restrict their skills of improvisation to the stage.
Five friends announced to me in the last week that they would be leaving town soon. Five friends. Two couples and a spare. That's a lot of friends to have, and don't think I don't feel lucky for knowing each of them, but it's a lot of friends to lose in one week. Add that to the nearly dozen more people I love who've moved away over the last year and a half, and maybe you can understand why I was nearly ecstatic when I first heard
the news about Brad and Angelina moving to New Orleans. I thought, "Well, thank God, that's at least two cool people still in town." And then I thought, "Wait a second ... "
One of the best things about New Orleans has always been that there are so many genuinely interesting people here who seem so painfully unhip -- it's almost as though they have to make an effort to be so fashion backward. And then you get to know them a little and realize they either a)don't care or b) really can't help it, both of which make them seem all that much cooler. You might be standing next to a jowly old man at a club, say, and he might be wearing a faux silk shirt with brightly colored patterns of state drivers licenses on it, and you might be disinclined to engage this fellow -- but chances are that later you'd discover that you'd just been standing next to one of the greatest living record producers ever to work in New Orleans. Or you might seem some skinny old guy with embarassingly big hair (especially for a man his age) limping around at your gym, and he's walking with a cane because some street thug put a bullet through his leg, and you probably wouldn't immediately assume it was Ray Davies until the the story in the paper confirmed it the next day. But that kind of stuff used to happen here all the time.
Now, I'm guessing, there'll be lots of stories about how "sweet" Angelina was while waiting in line for her coffee at CCs, and about how Brad was just "a regular guy" working out at the New Orleans Athletic Club. I thought New Orleans needed weirdly interesting people to keep moving here, in part because it's one of the few places where they'll feel normal. I'm not sure it needs normal celebrities moving here because it reminds them of Namibia.
Just in the time since I started this post and went back to check the name of the film Pitt is currently shooting (it's "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button"), the story has already been picked up in a dozen more places. So I suppose if New Orleans is kept on the media radar because of this, certainly there are worse things that could happen.
That said, Cate Blanchett is also here, working on the same film. I'd be really psyched if she stayed.
Perhaps more than most, New Orleans Times-Picayune columnist Chris Rose was changed by Katrina. Prior to the storm, he wrote a fluffy celebrity-sighting column that could often be sort of unbearably entertaining. After Katrina, his intensely personal columns became the most reliable barometer of the overall mental health of the new New Orleans. As courageous as they are hilarious, those columns earned him a Pulitzer Prize nomination and have been published as a collection -
1 dead in attic - the film rights of which are rumored to have been acquired by Paramount.
I mention all this both to establish both his prominence as a post-K cultural phenomenon, and also to justify my linking to his
Saints column today as shorthand for explaining the cultural significance of yesterday's win.
One of the good things about living here post-Katrina -- and I suppose this was true to a lesser extent even prior to the storm -- is that all kinds of interesting people with all kinds of good intentions come here to experience the strange land that is New Orleans. And unlike if you were living in, say, San Francisco or New York, these visitors are generally inclined to try and understand the place through the eyes of local residents.
I must admit, when I first heard about this project, I thought "Great, already we're a cartoon." And in less capable hands, this concept might well have come across as crass and cartoonish. But Smith and Neufeld are clearly both enamored of the Gulf South -- after Katrina Neufeld worked with the Red Cross for three weeks in Biloxi, and wrote it about it in his blog "Katrina Came Calling" -- and both are clearly committed to the people who will appear as "characters" in the AD webcomic.
The night I met with them, both wore that telltale "Apres le Deluge" expression that comes from taking what I call the "high-low" tour and seeing signs of survival despite the massive destruction -- it leaves you feeling utterly exhausted and yet fully engaged. I'm so thrilled that these guys have found a new way of telling this story, of reengaging an audience that is understandably exhausted by it. I've just read the first installment, but I can't wait to see more.
Welcome to CultureGulf, "a digest of arts and cultural journalism related to the rebuilding of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast."
Some of you may already be thinking, Hmm, good idea -- but why now?
For about a year after Katrina, most of my conversations with people outside of Louisiana began with the question: "What's it like there?" Although I always tried to explain, it was almost impossible -- there was no short answer (although "manic-depression" came close), and most people, no matter how genuine their concern, didn't have time for the long answer.
But I've noticed in the last six months or so that people have stopped asking the question altogether. And yet it feels more important then ever to try and provide an answer -- to try and explain the extreme highs and lows that come with living here and watching everyone around you struggle, and yet still be able to eat too much at a fantastic new restauarant, or listen too long to a 12-piece brass band at a favorite old haunt, or stroll through the open galleries of many local artists who have determined that's there is no other place they'd rather be. As challenging and as frustrating as it is to be here sometimes, the process by which *an entire region* is rebuilding itself -- not just physically, but spiritually and culturally as well -- is a fascinating one to witness.
Although I won't hesitate to highlight the bad news here -- and believe me, there's always more of it -- I'll also consider it my duty to commit occasional acts optimism here, even if it sometimes defies rational thinking. As Bob Dylan wrote in his memoir, "I like a lot of places, but I like New Orleans better." Enough said. For now.
The last week was rough for everyone here. The
murder of a much-loved local filmmaker Helen Hill, has cast a pall over the entire city, especially the arts community. Everywhere you go, if people aren't talking about it, it's because they're actively attempting not to. The whole city is on edge.
Presumably Hill and her husband Paul Gailiunas would have thrived anywhere, but they chose to be here in New Orleans, one of the few places in America where a young couple could live as artfully as they did - not just as artists, but as parents, musicians and activists -- with one of them keeping a medical career going on the sideall the while (Paul is a physician). It seemed like they had found the perfect place where those roles were effortlessly integrated, but now this, along with last week's brutal slaying of Dinerral Shavers, has left even the most diehard Rebuild New Orleans bohemians feeling divided about this broken city.
Last Thursday, Dinerral Shavers, the 25-year-old snare drummer in New Orleans' hometown Hot 8 Brass Band, was shot in the back of his head as he sat at the wheel of his car, his wife in the passenger seat next to him. Although this kind of violence is once again so commonplace now in New Orleans that it has almost lost its shock value, this one still sent waves of sadness throughout the city.
As Times-Picayune music writer Keith Spera observed,
"He is another statistic, one of the final murders of 2006. Even as he celebrated all that is good about the city, he fell victim to all that is bad. Despite Dinerral's position on the front lines of New Orleans culture, he was not isolated from the city's violence. Ultimately, none of us is." Read the full story here.
Last summer, Rob Walker -- the New York Times Magazine columnist and author of "Letters from New Orleans" -- wrote about the Hot 8 on his N.O. Notes blog. The blog covers both the documentary that was made about the band in 1999 as well as Walker's own impressions of the band formed during the years he lived here. In light of Shavers' death, it's even more chilling now to consider his conclusions:
"Some kids who grow up in the ghetto figure they can get out by becoming rap stars. Others focus on sports. Some end up dealing drugs. All that was true in New Orleans when we lived there, but what was amazing was that even at the turn of the 21st century, another way out was the trumpet (or other brass instrument, or drums, etc). As I've said elsewhere, I didn't really expect that to be true when we moved to New Orleans. But it most certainly was (is).
So the Hot 8 holds my interest in part because within the collective identity of this sizzling brass band burning up a club or moving a parade crowd, are the stories of these individuals overcoming adversity -- or failing to overcome it."
Do you know what it means...to have your favorite photos destroyed? There's an interesting photo recovery project currently underway in New Orleans thanks to the Do You Know What it Means? people.
From their site:
"Do You Know What it Means places an emphasis on what has been lost - from the objects that connect people between generations to the cultural and social fabric of everyday life - as a way of documenting and sharing the unique culture of New Orleans. Most important, the project and digital archive enable those whose lives were affected by this disaster to be proactive in rebuilding, preserving and sharing their family histories." Worth checking out.
The New York Times' Kim Severson weighed in recently on the vitriol New Orleanians spew when they hear the name Alan Richman. "In a city with postal service so spotty that delivery of a magazine is cause for a party, a magazine writer from New York has moved to the top of the New Orleans hate list," she wrote
A lot of people have been talking about GQ food columnist Alan Richman's recent obnoxious evisceration of the New Orleans restaurant scene. Many restaurants here have recovered admirably from Katrina's ravages -- no doubt they'll sustain Richman's hackwork as well.
But Times-Picayune food critic Brett Anderson (like Richman, he too is a James Beard Award winner for his writings) admirably offered his retort here.
"Richman climbs on a high horse to imply that a glitch in the wine service -- they brought him the right wine, but the wrong vintage -- at Restaurant August ("I tried not to be too distressed") is somehow relevant to the "tough decision" to spend "Iraq-magnitude money" rebuilding New Orleans," writes Anderson. "I'm not making this up. Has Richman's self-involvement morphed into brain damage? Did it spread to his editors? That is like saying Americans need to consider the soured sautéed skate I was served at Balthazar before supporting the redevelopment of the World Trade Center site."
Cynthia Joyce is a freelance writer, editor, and web producer. She has written for several local and national publications including Newsday, the Washington Post, Legal Affairs magazine, and still contributes regularly to Salon.com, where she was a founding A&E editor. She moved to New Orleans in 2002 and has since met more doctors, lawyers and Indian Chiefs than she ever thought possible in one lifetime.
Jazz critic Howard Reich spent some time with the St. Augustine high school marching band and wrote a great story about their struggles to perform up to pre-storm standards.
The story can be found here .
Before the storm, the locally celebrated band -- once the training field of players like Terence Blanchard -- could play Stevie Wonder tunes in what seemed like 36-part harmony. Now, they have half as many members and have been forced to accept new players with far fewer skills. But like with so many rebuilding New Orleans stories, their motivation to persevere is equal parts symbolism and painful practicality.
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Terry Teachout on the arts in New York City
Andrew Taylor on the business of arts & culture
rock culture approximately
Rebuilding Gulf Culture after Katrina
Richard Kessler on arts education
Douglas McLennan's blog
Art from the American Outback
For immediate release: the arts are marketable
No genre is the new genre
David Jays on theatre and dance
John Rockwell on the arts
Jan Herman - arts, media & culture with 'tude
Apollinaire Scherr talks about dance
Tobi Tobias on dance et al...
Howard Mandel's freelance Urban Improvisation
Focus on New Orleans. Jazz and Other Sounds
Doug Ramsey on Jazz and other matters...
Jeff Weinstein's Cultural Mixology
Martha Bayles on Film...
Greg Sandow performs a book-in-progress
Exploring Orchestras w/ Henry Fogel
Harvey Sachs on music, and various digressions
Kyle Gann on music after the fact
Greg Sandow on the future of Classical Music
Norman Lebrecht on Shifting Sound Worlds
Jerome Weeks on Books
Scott McLemee on books, ideas & trash-culture ephemera
Wendy Rosenfield: covering drama, onstage and off
Chloe Veltman on how culture will save the world
Elizabeth Zimmer on time-based art forms
Public Art, Public Space
John Perreault's art diary
Lee Rosenbaum's Cultural Commentary
Tyler Green's modern & contemporary art blog