Mardy at Mardi

I don’t know if it’s me or if it’s the place, but I haven’t clicked with New Orleans in the way that I have with everywhere else. It became a bit of a gag that I said I was comfortable enough to live everywhere I’ve been. Well not here. There is just something missing and I’m trying to formulate it in to words without sounding very ranty or preachy. In theory, this was an amazing place to come – a city built on slavery, the home of the birthplace of Jazz, colonial architecture and home to so, so much music I love. I imagined it being nothing like the rest of America and this unique city in the south of the country that was forward thinking and liberal. I couldn’t wait to see it all.

But I can’t wait to leave. There’s just something missing and I can’t quite pinpoint it yet. Americans are very intense aren’t they? I find talking to them comes with great difficulty sometimes. And the soul I expected to see, I haven’t found it yet.

We had one last day in Jamaica and a bit of night time Jazz and grub in a nearby posh bar. It was so lovely to have a week with Lauren, Paule and Poushali but I haven’t been the same since Japan. I was in a bit of a grump for half the week and I have actually been like it since I left Tokyo. It didn’t help that people in Jamaica don’t really listen, which irked me a bit. Poushali’s flight was 2 hours before ours so she left the flat earlier than us and told the taxi driver to come back at 5.30am, which we’d agreed with him the previous night. He never turned up so we got the night porter to phone him, except he didn’t listen to me and phoned a different taxi driver, meaning he had to make 3 phone calls to cancel and re-book another. When our taxi arrived, the driver said “oh I thought it was 6.30” after we’d told him 5.30 at least twice. I said to him “you probably weren’t listening” to which he joyfully replied “ha, yes!”, probably having not listened. We then spent most of the day at the airport because all the flights were delayed. But I was alright by that point, having filled my face with coffee and breakfast.

Once eventually in New Orleans 7 hours later than scheduled, I watched the Chewbacchus parade that night and it was alright. The theme was Sci Fi which has never interested me. I can’t really remember anything about it though. There were some floats and stuff, or something.

Peg arrived on Monday which was cracking. It’s been great to be rounding off this trip by sharing parts of it with my friends. We’ve never felt so English being here, scratching our heads at the Americans all week and wanting chips and telly instead of people and parades.

I haven’t been all that well really either. I’m wondering if the last 4 months has caught up on me a little bit. It’s been pretty non-stop and being with friends has meant my mindset has changed. I’ve felt at only about 5o% for well over a week as what seems like a cold has never really materialised, but has hung about wearing me down as a sore throat. But I really just haven’t felt the same since I left Japan. I can’t stop thinking about the place. My brain is going ‘we liked that bit, can we go back please?’ It’s genuine pining.

I played the Muses parade on Thursday night with BateBunda, having spent the preceding 3 days learning their whole repertoire. I played a mix of bells, shekere and snare, and spent the week rehearsing it all to try and learn it. It was a fun challenge. The great thing about them is that they do rhythms from some of the places I’ve been to, so it’s a bit like collating all that I’ve done in to one band to finish off the trip. They play music from Nigeria, Cameroon, Benin, Togo, Senegal and Brasil, including a series of Candomble songs, some mad polyrhythmic Cameroon Bikoutsi, and Maracatu pieces, amongst others. Their Musical Director Logan has trained with Tony Allen and lives and breathes the drums. He and his partner Heather very kindly put me and Peg up for a few days, which was super nice of them. All sounds perfect doesn’t it? It could be great. But there’s just something missing.

The parade wasn’t very fun. The aim for me coming here was to play in Mardi Gras and I’m very, very grateful to have been given the opportunity to do so, especially playing so much African and Brasilian stuff. It was a 5 hour, 6 mile parade of about 30 something floats and the streets were lined with noise and revellers. But I didn’t enjoy it. I wanted to be anywhere else, especially Salvador, and then having caught some video of Cortejo Afro’s first night the next day made me want to be there even more. This is a video Dan posted on Facebook, one of many he posts of Carnaval this year. Thanks Dan. That is some of the sweetest tempo Samba Reggae you could hear. Just beautiful.

I don’t think I enjoyed it for a few reasons. I felt compelled to buy some aspirin before the parade, which is unlike me, because I wasn’t feeling peaky. I later found that they were actually pain relief pills taken by women with PMT. Mixed with the 6 mouths full of whiskey I had during the parade, I was all over the place when we finished. Celebrating with a carnival at this time of year comes from the winter coming to an end and the summer beginning. It’s a pagan celebration of the fertility of spring. People used to let loose by eating loads, taking their clothes off and getting smashed, before fasting for 40 days. As the Catholics swept through all they saw, many people wanted to keep this celebration because it was fun, so they kept it and renamed the fast ‘Lent’. Carnivals soon became a powerful tool of expression for oppressed people after slavery was abolished, and is the most important time of the year in places like Brasil and Trinidad and Tobago. It’s about the beauty of togetherness; coming together to express yourself in this way once a year, to make statements, share love, dance, music and costume. What it isn’t about is a high level of intense competition, and individuality. It isn’t about getting as off your head as possible or being really rigid about timing everything.

Mardi Gras means ‘Fat Tuesday’ in French because pagans killed a cow to eat before fasting. Pancakes are eaten so all the eggs and flour and stuff could be used up. It’s a slightly different thing in different countries but it tends to have its roots in the same place, much like the other festivals that were later Christianised, like Christmas.

Here carnival is a headache of narcissists performing for themselves to an audience of narcissists only interested in the acquisition of as much tat as humanly possible. It’s very, very white; the participants and the audience. I hate the segregation here. I hate the obvious white superiority. I hate it. Everyone is off their head, making the whole experience extremely surface level. There’s no depth. They are keeping the tradition alive of getting as much off your head as possible and taking your clothes off, but missing the point that it was because they fasted for so long afterwards. If you aren’t fasting afterwards, some would tell you that it’s just unadulterated gluttony.

Here they all seem to think it’s brilliant but it isn’t. I don’t think it was always like this. The processions and parades and events with actual meaning must still exist, but I haven’t found them yet. One of the most important parades was on Claiborne Avenue, until they built a freeway over it 20 years ago. The rubbish strewn all over the streets at the end of these parades is staggering. That amount of waste, and for what? I don’t know where the achievement is there.

Literally everything is about money and people getting stuff. Not Stuff Like That. Just stuff. Items. Tat. Crap. Shit. It’s such a wasteful culture. Mardi Gras parades are about throwing tat off of a float or a balcony and rabid dribbling idiots acquiring as much of it as possible. People get completely wasted and totter about dead eyed all covered in coloured beads. What’s the achievement? What’s gratifying about acquiring loads of tat and drinking too much? Where’s the imagination? Where’s the depth to what the thing is really about? Letting go like this was because you fasted after. It’s not just Tuesday that’s fat here, it’s every day.

There is no respect for anyone or anything. Everything is an advert. And what are adverts? Lies and looks. That’s it. And when everything is reduced to looks and lies, what does that result in? Well, this, apparently. There are many adverts on the television for prescription drugs. They advertise these things like it’s a Mars Bar. How mad is that? And the language they use – “switch to so-and-so drug today”. Using the word ‘switch’ caught my attention, as the advert is speaking to a population already on daily pills of some sort. Happy families are seen frolicking in gardens as a voiceover extols the virtues of some strong medication. Even I bloody fell for it by buying a supposed box of aspirin.

The food is knackering as well. Portions outside the French Quarter are far too big and everything is saturated in fat, salt and sugar. Fast food is everywhere and everybody walks around with huge sugary drinks. After you eat anything you need a lie down for a week.

The old saying is that the eyes are the window to the soul. When you look in to another person’s eyes, you can connect with them and communicate with a unique depth. They need that depth to begin with though. Looking in to people’s eyes here is to have them look through you. They don’t teach, they show. It’s all individualistic narcissism and a total lack of togetherness. It’s very friendly but how much of it is fake? Most of it. It’s friendly because they want something from you. Prices are ramped up and it’s like a competition to see who can consume as much as possible.

When we finished Muses, I was asked by Logan if I enjoyed the parade. “Can I tell you tomorrow” I said, dazed on accidental PMT pills and Jack Daniels. I’m well chuffed at my diplomacy there. I said to him the next day that “it was very American”. He said “you can’t come to a country and use their nationality as an insult!”. I replied “you can if you’re British mate”.

He was recording with a band one evening so I went and had a listen for the first hour. It was in a converted house and was a great studio space, with gorgeous equipment and pictures of Jesus everywhere. The guy who ran it was quite intense, with a hair cut like the Riddlers had gone punk. The song was about how the Natives helped escaped slaves and took them in, but I couldn’t really understand what the singer was singing. It’s been an earworm since though and it was a good tune. Peg and I went and saw some amazing Jazz that evening too, at the Preservation Hall. These boys could play and are basically the best Jazz band in New Orleans. They were all African-American apart from one white bloke playing Sax, who ironically looked like he has modelled his look on Adolf Hitler. He even had the little ‘tache and the sweepy hair. It’s stuff like that about this country… just odd. I suppose he would say it was Charlie Chaplin.

Peg and I both agree that New Orleans would probably be alright when it’s not Mardi Gras. I was hoping to see artists like Aaron Neville, Dr John and Irma Thomas, but they all play the Jazz Fest in April instead. Perhaps that’s the real time to come over for me.

It’s Lundi Gras and Mardi Gras tomorrow and Tuesday and we’re thinking Tremé might have something cool. Being the oldest African-American neighbourhood in the USA, we visited the Backstreet Culture Museum there the other day that had some absolutely stunning costumes from the Mardi Gras Indians that take 1 year to make. Now that wasn’t tat at all. There is a red beans parade in Tremé and loads and loads of high school bands from there, so I reckon we’ll stick to that area because the parade finishes at that museum tomorrow afternoon.

I’m trying my hardest to be open minded, to embrace people and things and not to dislike so many things here. But I think it has something to do with the fact that I’ve grown up in a country with a self deprecating nature, a healthy amount of empathy and a sense of humour. Those three things are distinctly lacking here and it’s becoming very difficult. It’s common for people to just do things for themselves. There’s not a communication level deeper than words and some people don’t even listen to those. There’s an obsession with items and how everything needs to be the biggest and best. I’m really trying but this place just isn’t my cup of tea.

Right up until very recently I didn’t want to come home but this place has made me very ready to come back. I’m off to New York on Friday for the last 10 days, which I hope will be different. If it was good enough for Bowie and Lennon then there must be something about the place! As hard as I am trying to keep an open mind about America, I certainly won’t rush back here.

One of my main issues is the following, and the lack of acknowledgement of it. Modern America, and much of the world, is built on the free labour of millions of African slaves. I mentioned in a previous post that only 1 plantation tour here focuses on those slaves. Classed as a museum, only this one, out of several thousand museums, acknowledges the fact that much of society as we know it today exists because of the transatlantic slave trade. The time must come to stop glossing over this.

It’s called the Whitney Plantation and has been open for 2 years, on its original plantation site further up the Mississippi from New Orleans. Peg and I went up there today and it’s an excellent and incredibly important tour. It was a German sugar plantation and had 300 slaves, with many children born in to slavery on site. Many of the slaves here were from the Senegambia region of West Africa. Through 10 years of research, the plantation focuses on the life of the slaves – we see their names and pictures, first hand accounts from interviews collated in the 1930s, and beautiful statues of slave children throughout the plantation. The tour guide hit home that this was the only plantation to focus on slaves themselves and said ‘the others gloss over it, and will tell you about the owners and their lifestyles, and milk it down’. I’ve never heard that phrase ‘milking it down’ before but what an emotive way of putting it. Our tour guide was an African American woman who had lived in the area her whole life and she told the stories without flinching.

Whitney was opened and set up by a wealthy white lawyer and property magnate called John Cummings. It has many original features from when it housed slaves, including buildings and equipment, and heinous acts were committed on this very site, none of which are glossed over. Lashings, whippings, beheadings – we heard it all. This is history, this actually happened, and this tour is making sure this isn’t hidden like at the other tours.

It’s the last weekend of Black History Month too and there was an event on beside us at the plantation. The sound of West African drums and music from the Senegambia region painted the skies as we toured round. They should keep that as a permanent feature.

Outside of the Whitney plantation, the attitude here is that slavery wasn’t as bad in Louisiana as in other places, and segregation isn’t as bad either. It really isn’t challenged or acknowledged. It’s almost as if people think that the slaves should have been glad that they were here and not elsewhere. Segregation is hardly ever brought up. I’ve tried speaking about it to people but I get “it is complicated”. Peg’s had the same. It isn’t complicated if you talk about it and acknowledge it. The Whitney is incredibly important in helping move this country forward from an obvious, outdated and utterly needless racial divide. Not once did I hear the phrase ‘people of colour’ there either, which is a refreshing move.

Also on the telly at lunch earlier was this ‘sport’ where blokes in checked shirts and rodeo hats are released in to an area, dive off a running horse and wrestle a steer cow to the ground by its horns as quickly as possible. Another round was diving off the horse and tying a cow up with rope by its legs as quickly as possible. There were thousands of people in the stadium watching this and it was on the telly. It’s called steer wrestling. What sort of sport is that supposed to be? In what sort of place is that animal cruelty classed as sport or entertainment?

The United States of America. That’s where.

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