Watching The Wheels

I left New Orleans behind and headed to New York, with mixed feelings about my time in the south. It wasn’t really what I expected but that’s not their fault, that’s because my expectations were skewiff. 

Peg and I went to the parades on Mardi Gras itself, winging it down to Tremé to catch the Zulu Parade on Tuesday morning. The Zulu Parade is always the last day and has a rich history as the longest running predominantly African-American parade in New Orleans. Founded in 1916, they used to use grass skirts and blackface, but since the ’60s have stopped doing so. They have a King and Queen Zulu every year and in 1949 Louis Armstrong was King Zulu, in a move that caused some controversy because of the continued used of blackface at the time. Louis being an African-American and still using blackface upset a lot of people. He loved it though. 

In the 1960s, membership had dropped to an all time low because of societal pressures from political and civil activists. Protestors advertised in the Louisiana Weekly:

“We, the Negroes of New Orleans, are in the midst of a fight for our rights and for a recognition of our human dignity which underlies those rights. Therefore, we resent and repudiate the Zulu Parade, in which Negroes are paid by white merchants to wander through the city drinking to excess, dressed as uncivilized savages and throwing cocoanuts like monkeys. This caricature does not represent Us. Rather, it represents a warped picture against us. Therefore, we petition all citizens of New Orleans to boycott the Zulu Parade. If we want respect from others, we must first demand it from ourselves.”

Nothing’s changed then.

In 1973, Krewe of Zulu became the first parade to racially integrate after those controversies and troubles, and is now one of the most popular parades during the Mardi Gras celebrations.
As we stood at the side of the street in Tremé, we waited a couple of hours for the parade to arrive, and arrive it did. Every float in Mardi Gras is made by the same company in the same warehouse, and impressive as they are, they all look exactly the same. Every parade is also the same; huge high school bands not actually playing that much, floats chucking off plastic tat to gagging masses and an obsession with plastic crap and drinking too much. I thought it was just me and Peg that felt it was all a bit soulless and horrible but as she left New Orleans and I went to a hostel for my last 2 days there, I found others who felt exactly the same about the place. New Orleans during the week of Mardi Gras is a different place compared to the New Orleans that isn’t that week. I get the impression that quite a few locals leave town (the ones not charmed by plastic and booze), much like the locals at Cowes Week do, and what replaces them is thousands of unimaginative idiots. 

As disappointing as New Orleans was, it was made infinitely better by having Peg there. When we lived together in Hither Green from 2007 to 2009, we spent hours wiling away the evenings on Youtube, showing each other daft videos, cracking songs and old kids telly. We never got out of that habit and spent time in our hotel room in New Orleans nearly 10 years later doing exactly that. I love it. I showed her this Youtube vlogger called ‘Infinite Waters (Diving Deep)’ who is one of those new age self help types. He has this odd emptiness to his eyes and he has cultivated a little series of catchphrases for himself in his self help videos. I had no idea how I found him until I saw his first 3 uploads were of Salvador Carnival so it must have been that. But he’s ridiculous. I’m kind of intrigued by stuff like that – the alternative thinker, power of the mind, all that stuff – but it is never helped by blokes like him making money off it and coming up with dopey catchphrases. Have a look for yourself and see how long you last:

One morning we sat in bed listening to Grime records. Peg showed me a new tune by Donae’o called Black, which houses a return to Grime for Dizzee Rascals. I’ve probably listened to it every day since. I love it.

When she left, I was ready to go to New York there and then but I had two extra days at a hostel called the NOLA Jazz House. I met three Swiss girls at that hostel, Nathalie, Sandra and Maja. They were so lovely and we hung out at the hostel and the airport as they were on the same flight as me to New York. The flight was delayed by 3 hours so we had lots of time to chat. It wasn’t until we parted that sisters Maja and Sandra revealed that they are Mini Golf Champions of Europe. How cool is that! In an area of Hither Green called Clock Tower, which I think is an old hospital, there used to be a place to play Mini Golf next to the Tesco Express. They had proper championships in there and we went and played a few times (not in the championships), often being the only customers for that whole day. Mini Golf isn’t Crazy Golf, it requires real skill and accuracy and every hole is possible to pot with 1 shot. The idea is to try and get a hole in 1 every time, or hole in 2 at most – if you take 3 shots to pot, you’re likely to get struck off the Mini Golf register. Maja and Sandra had won a European Championship of some sort in 2014. It must be so cool when a sport is on a smaller scale like that because the community must be so tight knit. You have your own world to inhabit on a championship weekend and a niche to share with people. I love all that.

Waving goodbye to Switzerland’s friendliest Mini Golf champions at Newark Airport in New Jersey on a Friday evening, I made my way to Rekha’s flat on Park Avenue in Manhattan. It’s an old converted hotel block and I think it’s quite common for apartments to be old hotels here. Rekha is one of endless wonderful people I know through my time in Batala, a time that has furnished my life with so many incredible people. She works for JP Morgan in Brooklyn and has the cutest flat on Park Avenue. It’s proper Manhattan – half an hour walk one way is the Dakota, where John Lennon lived opposite Central Park, and half an hour walk the other way is Lafayette Street, where David Bowie lived, also in a converted hotel. Both of them spoke of the joys of anonymity when living in New York and how they could just carry on with life without bother. I can see that here. Everybody says hello to you in New Orleans, which I like but it’s a little fake. Here everyone is just everyone and it’s much less ‘American’. I get the impression in Manhattan that Bowie and Lennon would have been left alone because everybody here thinks they are cool and other cool people are no big deal. There’s a single-minded indepedence to the people here. But I’ve taken to New York well. It’s a huge city with people and buzz and buildings, and that’s much more my bag and always has been. 

I haven’t achieved much really, other than quite literally living the ‘city that never sleeps’ tag and having 4 out of 5 evenings staying up late, til 6am, 3am and 4am twice. During the days I’m just sat there watching the wheels go round and round. I’m finally back home next week and will have to knuckle down straight away and find some work, so I’m maximising my time of not actually doing much. It seems odd to say that in such a vibrant city but Rekha’s place is so comfortable that cooking curry and watching Limmy’s Show as the city bustles out the window has been really great. I’ve seen some of Brooklyn and I’ve been up to the Dakota and down to Bowie’s place, and will visit the Dakota properly before I leave. You can stand right on the spot where John was shot and I want to spend a few minutes there, listening to God.

And the Anthology version of Watching The Wheels too.

I’ve wanted to see the Dakota since forever. Knowing he spent the last 9 years of his life there, and was killed right outside, has made it a must visit for a Beatles nut like me. I’ve been making a joke that seeing the Dakota was the last thing on the list of things I wanted to see on earth and I don’t need to go anywhere else now. It’s not true but it sort of is, until I think of other places I’d like to go to. Certainly everything I wanted to see for years I now have done in the last 5 months. 

Speaking of Beatles, I’ve been hanging round with a really cool girl called Jess this week. She’s a bassist and vocalist in a band here and I’ll see her play on Friday. She told me something the other day. Her Aunt Nancy is Paul McCartney’s wife. I nearly fell over… Uncle Paul. Seriously, Uncle Paul. She’s seen him numerous times in New York in tiny venues and been to his flat. Madness that.

Hanging out with Rekha is such fun. She told me this amazing story about her name. As I’ve been around the planet, I’ve always asked what people’s names mean. It’s something we’ve lost a bit in the U.K. and I’ve got no idea what Liam means for instance. But names in so many cultures have a meaning, from being born on a Tuesday, to strength, power, wisdom etc. Rekha told me the story of her surname Karna.

Her Great-Granddad’s name was Lalchand Karanmalani. He worked for the CPWD, the Central Public Works Department, in Sindh in what is now Pakistan. This was pre-1947 so India was still a British colony at the time. Lalchand recieved an award for something but we can’t remember what. He was to be given the award by King George VI, but the King couldn’t pronounce his last name Karanmalani. King George VI of course had a prominent stammer and Lalchand changed his surname on that day to Karna, so the King could say it. It has remained the family name ever since. What a fascinating story that is!

On my first night here, Rekha and I sat with red wine and Youtube and played tune after tune until 6am. That’s my sort of night! Very much carrying on from where Peg and I left off. I played Easter by Michael Price to Rekha. It’s by no means a popular song – it’s fairly obscure unless you’re aware of the Erased Tapes label. It’s a beautiful, relaxed piece of music by one of many great neo-classical composers on the label. Rekha was in Dubai last month and went up the mountains with a friend of hers that she hadn’t seen for 8 years. As they sat there in the car, staring out at the views, he played her a particular song he wanted to show her. It was this same song that I played. What an odd coincidence! She couldn’t believe it when I played it to her. Someone here is trying to tell her something. 

Since being upset at seeing the Steer Wrestling, I’ve gone almost vegan. It just disturbed me so much seeing this ‘sport’ of blokes in hats tying cows up by the feet in the name of achievement that I’m trying my hardest to not be a part of it. And I’ve found the holy grail – vegan Ramen. Oof… it’s unbelieveable. I’m gonna have to learn how to make it. Rekha and I also ate Ethiopian food on Saturday night, which when you go for the Beyeanatu, it’s vegan. I’d wanted it Thursday on my last night in New Orleans and after walking 4 miles to an Ethiopian Restaurant on Magazine Street, it had closed down, so after that missed opportunity it was first on the list here. How great it was to eat that food again for the first time since I left Ethiopia. I feel like it’s kind of rounding off the trip in a way, in the same sense that I played rhythms from some of the places I’d been to with BateBunda. Perhaps it’s like a closure thing?

It’s a very odd feeling coming to the end of this trip. I’m sad that I can’t do this forever. I have those common feelings of deflation that so often pop up when you’ve achieved something you’ve worked a long time for, but I’m not taking too much notice of them. This has been the best thing I’ve ever done. I’ve met the most incredible people who have shown the most incredible generosity. I’ve experienced basically everything that I wanted to, and then some. Although plane journeys bugger up the atmosphere, travelling is probably the best thing you can do if you have the opportunity, time and money to do it. Go to a place where they don’t speak the same language as you and realise how insignificant you are. Go to a culture diametrically opposite from yours and get completely stuck in. Spend extended time away from where you live and find that you can be more or less comfortable anywhere. See all the differences and similarities in everything. Try new food, music, people, clothes, weather, attitudes, languages, mindsets, religions… you all know how it is. I could not recommend it enough. 

One of my favourite pieces of music ever, Desert Island Discs worthy in fact, is Metamorphosis 1 by Philip Glass. On my last night of this whole trip, Sunday, I might be seeing Phillip Glass and Foday Musa Suso for a concert for Glass’s 80th in Brooklyn. You really couldn’t get a more perfect way to round it all off than that. And there’s probably room for 1 last blog post too.

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