Near the end of Donald Harrison Jr.’s Congo Square Stage set on the opening Friday of this year’s New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, after the saxophonist segued from groove-jazz to bebop to something too rhythmically slippery to name, he walked quietly offstage. Minutes later, announced by tambourines and shrouded by red feathers with black highlights, he was back; only now he was Big Chief of the Congo Nation, enacting a tradition inherited from his father, who, during his life, was Big Chief of four different Mardi Gras Indian tribes. Harrison led his band through “Hey Pocky Way,” a modest 1974 hit for the Meters (and later for the Neville Brothers) with a title adapted from the Indians’ inscrutable language.
The Mardi Gras Indians are the most mysterious and essential of the indigenous cultures that define New Orleans; together with traditional jazz musicians, brass bands, and the Social Aid & Pleasure Clubs who mount Sunday-afternoon second-line parades, they’ve infused all strands of locally bred music since at least Jelly Roll Morton’s day. Beyond that, they’ve helped revive a city nearly left for dead in 2005. When Harrison fronts “A Night in Treme” at Brooklyn’s MetroTech Commons and Manhattan’s Jazz Standard this week, he’ll reference his ongoing roles—in cameo, as the basis for fictional characters, and as a script adviser—in HBO’s Treme, which showcases the primacy and power of New Orleans culture.
The city’s homegrown showcase, Jazzfest, has grown decidedly pop-fueled, causing some local consternation (this year’s headliners included Bon Jovi and Arcade Fire). “It still does a great job of presenting the local culture,” said John Swenson, whose book New Atlantis traces the return of the city’s musicians. “But it has turned into what people were afraid would happen to New Orleans after the flood—a spectacle for tourists. It’s an unfortunate reflection that New Orleans will never return to what it was.”
What New Orleans was and what it has or will become are open questions. Caveats aside, Jazzfest remains a potent calling card and symbol. At a press conference, Jazzfest producer Quint Davis and New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu recalled the 2006 decision to mount the event despite a still-shattered city. “We couldn’t not have Jazzfest,” Landrieu said. Beyond such recollections, the recent past remains powerfully present. The alleged shooting of innocent pedestrians on the Danziger Bridge six days after the 2005 flood is fresh news, with a half-dozen NOPD officers awaiting trial. Treme transports viewers to the eerie uncertainty of early 2007 each Sunday night. And former New Orleans Mayor C. Ray Nagin’s ignominiously titled Katrina’s Secrets comes out this week.
New Orleans natives define past and present through the ancestral roots and healing properties of their singular culture. A focused presence of Haitian musicians and artisans at Jazzfest, a year past that island’s earthquake, intensified these aspects. “When everything else crumbles,” Haitian-born singer Emeline Michel said, “the art of a society stands tall.” Wyclef Jean, who nearly ran for the Haitian presidency, played the Congo Square stage. Richard Morse (whose cousin, kompa singer Michel Martelly, won that election) performed with his “vodou rock’n’roots” group, RAM. “New Orleans and Haiti are twin sisters,” he said, “separated at birth.” Prior to independence, when Haiti was known as St. Domingue, it was the richest piece of the French colony that included New Orleans, he pointed out; in the early 1800s, Haitians fleeing the revolution doubled the size of New Orleans.
At Jazzfest, the fact of shared legacy was felt. The Original Liberty Jazz Band, led by New Orleans clarinetist Michael White, performed with Michel and a 12-piece chamber ensemble led by Jean Montes, a conductor of Haitian descent, at one point playing rarely heard music from 1939 Haitian Moods sessions by New Orleans icon Sidney Bechet. At a craft pavilion, Demond Melancon, Big Chief of the Seminole Mardi Gras Indian tribe, marveled at the taut beadwork of Port-au-Prince flagmaker Marie-Lissa Lafontant. “It reminds me,” he said, “of exactly what we do.” The hocketed melodies from kornets (long tin horns, each producing one note) of the Haitian-expat group DJA-Rara sounded akin to the trumpets and trombones of the Hot 8 Brass Band. During a panel discussion, DJA-Rara’s leader, Yves Bien-Aimé, and Ronald Lewis, president of the Big Nine Social Aid and Pleasure Club, stressed the spiritual power of their respective parade traditions. And they compared tattoos—Bien-Aimé’s commemorating the earthquake, Lewis’s marking Betsy and Katrina, the hurricanes bracketing his life.
In New Orleans, local culture resonates safely within the artificial confines of the Fair Grounds Race Course, the festival’s home since 1972. The streets are a more complicated story.
Back in March, wearing his hand-sewn suit of red and yellow feathers emblazoned with beads, Terrus Delair considered what the charge of “disturbing the peace” might mean on Mardi Gras Day in New Orleans while sitting in a jail cell. Wildman of the Mohawk Hunters, Delair was among dozens of Mardi Gras Indians who took to the streets, enacting a ritual at least two centuries old. The Indians are the essence of the city’s “black Mardi Gras,” far removed from Uptown’s lavish parades and the French Quarter’s bared-breasts-for-beads. This is no tourist show; it’s a community thing. “When the handcuffs came out,” Delair said, “I was surrounded by neighborhood kids and old ladies, the ones that cheer on my tribe.” (The charges were eventually dropped.)
If that scene sounds like something out of Treme, it wasn’t—although in a recent episode of the show, fictional civil-rights attorney Toni Bernette explained how raised permit fees threatened brass-band-led second-line parades. She referenced reality; in 2007, the Social Aid & Pleasure Clubs took the city to federal court, invoking First Amendment rights, and won. “Should the law not be enjoined,” the complaint stated, “there is very little doubt that plaintiff’s cultural tradition will cease to exist.”
Nothing has ceased. But much has been threatened, repeatedly, often via new enforcement of old, blurry laws. Last year, the To Be Continued Brass Band was cited for violating sound ordinances at its usual spot on the corner of Bourbon and Canal streets. Such tensions are nothing new; the history of musicians arrested for making music in New Orleans is long. But since Katrina, there has been a distinct feeling among the culture’s keepers, whose purest expressions happen in the streets, that what they do stands in the way of where New Orleans is headed.
“Congo Square is not just a stage at Jazzfest,” New Orleans Councilwoman Kristin Gisleson Palmer declared at City Hall the day before Jazzfest opened in late April. With a unanimous vote, the council removed the name “Beauregard Square,” which honored a Confederate general, from the spot in the Tremé neighborhood’s Armstrong Park where, two centuries ago, enslaved Africans and free people of color spent Sundays dancing and drumming. Everyone already called it that, but Freddi Williams Evans, author of the new Congo Square: African Roots in New Orleans, had pressed the matter. Now it’s official. Following the vote, a procession of Mardi Gras Indians, brass band musicians, civic leaders, elders, and kids headed from City Hall to Congo Square. Libations were poured, drums beaten, and dances danced before a thick live oak tree. The ordinance was read aloud, like an incantation.
Yet changed symbolism need be matched by policy shifts. Which could happen. Meetings between Mardi Gras Indians and city officials have temporarily defused the tensions and raised the issue of “cultural sensitivity training” for officers. A year-long task-force review led by Councilwoman Palmer has led to a revision of the sound ordinance, currently under public review, that is, according to mayoral staffer Scott Hutcheson, “more enforceable for police, and more respectful to musicians.” A much-despised curfew on musicians is to be dropped, he said. David Freedman, general manager of WWOZ-FM and a member of the working group on the ordinance calls the revision “a thoughtful attempt to address the issues surrounding culture that have arisen over decades.” Next on the agenda, one hopes: a maze of zoning ordinances, adopted in 1974, that effectively prohibit live entertainment in New Orleans, save for specially designated exceptions.
“It’s a balancing act,” Mayor Landrieu told me of the reforms. There are legitimate demands and concerns of homeowners in all these discussions. Still, the city’s local culture needs of pride of place outside events like Jazzfest—on the streets, and on the books.
Season two of Treme opened with an 11-year-old trumpeter sitting on a stoop, wrestling with the beginning of “When the Saints Go Marching In”—pure cliché, except when played by a born-and-bred-in–New Orleans musician. David Simon wants us to consider what’s enduring about this music while his weekly drama unfolds. Will Landrieu’s administration sound the right notes and stake its city’s new storyline to timeless culture? Stay tuned.
Donald Harrison Jr. and his quintet, along with Cyril Neville and Mardi Gras Indians, perform “A Day in Treme: The Musical Majesty of New Orleans” as part of the R&B Festival at MetroTech June 23; ‘A Night in Treme,’ featuring the same personnel, is at the Jazz Standard June 23 through 25