The first week in New Orleans has gone already. I’ll already be home 5 weeks yesterday! It’s playing in the back of my mind, and along with worrying about being shot at any minute and missing Japan, it kind of stitched me up for the week really. But, I’ve done tonnes of stuff and I do like it here. There’s music and life everywhere, people will always say hello to you, and I’ve met some very cool people indeed.
It’s taken me until now to stop being knackered and even then I’m not quite right. I think it’s a bit more than a simple body clock adjustment and I do think there’s importance in the ‘coming to the end’ thing. I’ve always been rubbish with endings, even extending to finding it difficult saying goodbye to people in the pub or whatever. I find it really difficult. So often in my life I’ve seen an ending of something and deliberately not ended it in the way it was intended – personal relationships, projects – it’s always suffered from this bizarre need to destruct something before it finishes. It’s easier to retain control and break something, or at least change it, rather than let it naturally come to a close. It’s a strange psychological conundrum rooted in fear I think. So that’s been moseying around my mind, as the finishing line to the best time of my life approaches.
I also miss Japan a lot, and really did totally fall in love with the place. It has felt like my soul has been pining since I left. I’m not consciously thinking ‘I wish I was in Japan’ because that would inhibit this part of the trip, but it is naturally going on in there somewhere. There’s a Japanese restaurant here that does all 3 types of Ramen, but I’m yet to give in and try it.
As ever, travels means meeting all sorts of people. I met a girl in a bar that has a huge interest in old warships and even went to Portsmouth to see the Victory and the Warrior. In my hostel, I’ve met a fella who grew up in the same place as Elvis and he has the coolest accent and another guy from Salt Lake City who really loves sailing and Sir Robin Knox Johnson, as well as a lad from Michigan who is moving to Chiswick next week. I’ve also met Kathryn, hugely talented singer-songwriter, musician and music therapist, who is just the most amazing company, and is connected here with everybody musically.
I’ll try and piece together everything I have done so far. Twice in my first 4 days in New Orleans I went for an afternoon nap at 4pm and accidently slept through until midnight, thus having to stay awake most of the night. I spent so much time asleep that a Mexican girl called Eliana in the hostel thought I was dead. I think I’m just about re-aligned now though.
My first impression of the city, walking around for miles and miles discovering the place (I reckon I’m on 110 miles now in 8 days) is how segregated it is. People here say that this is one of the least segregated cities in the States, and seeing heat maps of this and other cities (especially Detroit which has the white area one side of the 8 Mile road and the black area the other), it’s a bit like the one eyed man being king of the blind.
New Orleans lost 1 quarter of its population in 2005 when Hurricane Katrina hit, much of which was African-American. The following decisions and rules on re-housing returnees is covered in stark detail here: http://fusion.net/story/137351/how-racist-housing-laws-are-keeping-new-orleans-white/
Louisiana is named after King Louis XIV, and means ‘place of Louis’. The French Quarter is the original city on the crescent bend of the Mississippi River, giving the area its name ‘Crescent City’. It’s the main tourist bit and home to the French and Spanish colonial buildings. In a way it reminds me of the Pelourinho in Salvador. The buildings are similar, there is music everywhere, and in parts it smells of food and piss. But the French Quarter is very white. The Pelourinho is this incredible African part of South America, and now that I have been to West Africa, it could easily be West Africa. The colonial buildings there line the streets but the Africans own them. I suppose that is what I was expecting to see here. I was expecting old Jazz boys on street corners, 50 years since they first picked up the trumpet, serenading the crowds. I was expecting to see a prominent Africanisation and embracing of African heritage. I was expecting to see statues of Louis Armstrong and bars playing nothing but black New Orleans music. Whilst it’s not exactly as if this doesn’t exist, it’s on a very small scale. To me black people seem to be a bit of a touristic curiosity and are absolutely treated like 2nd class citizens.
It’s difficult for me to put in to words without potentially sounding completely off the mark. The music I play, love and listen to, vast amounts of it is black music. I spent 3 months in Africa. Walking around the French Quarter and seeing all this Blues and Jazz being played by almost exclusively white bands came as a bit of a shock. It shouldn’t have done – this is the U.S.A after all, who have had civil rights for black people for less than 50 years – and it was wrong of me to assume what the place would be like. Plus I’m a white person that plays black music too, just the same as them. I wince when I see the numerous information boards here, historical information and museum notes, referring to ‘people of color’. Aren’t we all a colour? I’m pink. It’s just such white language to me. Seyi and Ojo said it in Nigeria, that the way I took to the place was like I had ‘returned home’. They gave me a Yoruba name, Wale, which means that very thing. I could be seen to be bordering on Rachel Dolezal territory here so I’ll move on.
There’s loads of museums here. After my jaunt in Jamaica from Friday, I come back and Olivia joins me here, so I’m trying not to do all of them before she arrives. Chatting to museum volunteers is an interesting thing. They seem very well versed in the art of sugar coating slavery. Europe and America was built on the barbaric treatment of Africans, and many families and businesses still possess wealth accumulated through it. After the abolition, slave owners were compensated, but no slave made 1 single penny. A colonial mentality still persists every day, from everyone thinking I’m rich in Africa to the deep rooted systemic racism in the U.S. I don’t know how we can change it.
The Louisiana State Museum was probably the most balanced of them all so far because it did include a fair amount about slavery. The other historical museums concentrate on the European merchants and colonialists. I’ve heard that only 1 plantation tour, out of the many that there are, covers slavery. Only 1. The others are about the owners of the plantations. It’s very interesting, learning about the French and Spanish colonialists and their constant battles fighting natives and the British, and seeing it presented in this white way.
The French occupation ended and in the 18th century for 40 years Louisiana was Spanish. Fires burnt a lot of the French buildings, so they were re-built in a Spanish style. Italians and Germans also came here, meaning you have a melting pot of European influences, before it became part of the United States in the early 19th century. Slavery is seldom mentioned, but when it is a lot of emphasis is put on the fact that it was ‘less strict’ here and slaves and ‘free people of color’ (eugh) were allowed Sundays off. Under the French ‘Code Noir’, slaves could purchase their freedom, but that freedom was heavily restricted in the French Empire. These free men and women were often well educated and made up a good portion of the population in Louisiana. It was illegal to not be a Catholic in New Orleans, so nobody worked on Sundays.
Originally, native American tribes met on Sundays in a place to the north of the French Quarter. This area then became the legal area for enslaved and free Africans to set up markets, play music, dance, and congregate with each other. Africans and native Americans, as marginalised, oppressed minorities, congregated together. With the new 18th century African influence, the space was give the name Congo Square, and once Louisiana ceased being a French/Spanish colony and became part of the United States, these traditions continued, becoming entirely African as the native Americans were marginalised even further. It became a famous area nationwide as people travelled to congregate and express themselves because they couldn’t in their own state. The Haitian Revolution saw more Africans emigrate to Louisiana, as well as Creoles, bringing with them Vodoun (Voodoo), the Haitian version of the West African religion that became Candomble and Santeria in South America.
People still gather in Congo Square on Sundays, run by the Congo Square Preservation Society. They run a small market and a drum circle, with Djembes and DunDuns creating hypnotic rhythms, singing songs in Yoruba and people taking it in turns to dance. I went and joined them last Sunday, playing a Djembe, and felt totally blessed. This very custom of Africans, natives and Creoles meeting and playing in Congo Square on Sundays is the reason why we have Jazz. What a gift to the world.
Bourbon Street is probably the most famous street in New Orleans but it’s bloody horrible and to be avoided. It’s full of tourists and at night is like a zoo where all the animals have been let out and fed narcotics. Frenchman Street on the other hand is the other side of the French Quarter and where all the locals are. Now that’s a very cool area. Almost every bar has music of some sort on, most of it native to New Orleans, and these bands have been doing it for years. This street alone is why so many people from other parts of the U.S.A have moved to New Orleans for music. At 30/90 bar on Monday nights they have a ‘Super Jam’, set up in the wake of Katrina to give musicians a chance to play and meet people again. It’s a good thing and run by a fella called Gene, but because musicians here all play for tips, it’s basically a bit like begging to a Funk beat. It only took him 2 songs to start threatening the audience and going round with the bucket. It’s populated by people that can really play but I’ve never had dollar signs in my eyes. Eliana from the hostel kindly took a video of the time I got up and played, which was with this Australian fella who only knew 3 chords.
I’ve hung out with Kathryn a couple of times. That’s one very, very cool person, totally enthralled and obsessed with music and incredibly talented. I saw her play in House of Blues first, where she rocked out American classics and her own material. There was no difference. Her penultimate song made me go completely cold for 2 and a half minutes. She said ‘this one is from New Orleans’ and played a B chord. I thought ‘no, she can’t be’. The she went down to A and off the goosebumps went. It was Ruler of my Heart. I’m still buzzing off it now and that was Friday. She nailed it. When she got off stage we went off to see Louis Prima’s daughter Lena in Hotel Monteleone. She was tops and her band were great. As we chatted over my first New Orleans cocktail (loads of cocktails were invented here), Lena launched in to her Dad’s tune Just A Gigolo. Within an hour of each other I’d heard two of my favourite songs from this area live. This is why we come to these places. It may only have been a combined 5 minutes but when you’re as obsessed with music as me, that’s all you need.
Kathryn told me about music therapy and the incredible work and impact it has on people with special needs, disability and dementia, amongst others. I often cite it but on the way back from Brasil once I saw a documentary called ‘My Music Brain’. In it they were working with an elderly lady with very advanced dementia. She didn’t know her children, husband, herself, or where she was. They played her a song from her childhood – and she remembered every single word. They also played a melody from the same period but changed 1 note – and only 1 – from major to minor. As the melody progressed, she sang along and clocked it, saying ‘that is not right’. Through this simple test they found more evidence that the part of the brain for music is one of the last things to go. Kathryn was telling me about a man she works with who has a degenerative brain condition that means he has lost the ability to speak, until they play music with him. The relationships in his brain reignite and he speaks perfectly for around 45 minutes, before returning to mute once they finish. It’s so powerful.
Before I saw her again for the Superbowl on Sunday, which we didn’t really watch because everybody knows American Football is crap, she told me about a Second Line parade in Treme, the black district, that happens on Sunday mornings. Man! I’d really arrived in New Orleans now. This was so cool.
There are about 45 brass bands in New Orleans and I think all of the Second Line bands are high school kids. Second Line means a parading band of dancers, brass and drums. When they do Pop songs, trumpets often take the vocal melodies. It’s the coolest thing you can do here, and it is seriously cool. When it’s too hot for a month in the summer, the parades stop, but each band gets a weekend each and is joined by floats and other brass bands. The noise is intoxicating and the music is absolutely fabulous. It’s like carnival every single Sunday. One band ripped through a storming version of Inner City Blues, which is possibly my favourite Marvin song.
These kids can seriously play. It made me so excited to see more of them. You can do anything with brass. I was walking around on Monday and I walked past a large school playing field where one school band had divided themselves up and taken a corner each to practice. The noise of the drums and cymbals and brass all doing something separately clattering off the buildings and echoing round was great. The brass band then launched in to a song and as I had slowed right down to watch, I recognised the song. ‘No!’, I went, automatically. It was Everything She Wants by Wham. I don’t need to say I got goosebumps do I? It sounded incredible and they were only practicing. Seriously though – my favourite Wham song done by a high school brass band just when I’m wandering about? The luck of this trip.
Yesterday I played a parade with BateBunda (‘spank the booty’ in Portuguese) who are a local Afro-Brasilian band. They’re so good. They do all sorts of African rhythms, from Benin, Angola, Bahia, Pernambuco, amongst others. I dipped out before the finished so I could take a video of their Samba Reggae tune.
A couple more days here before my week in Jamaica from Friday. Blessed.