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Columns > Preaching on the Porch - Benji Feldheim

Published: 2006/05/15
by Benji Feldheim

New Orleans: Breathing, Screaming, Needing a Medic

I wanna go home/ whatever it takes I wanna go home / where the levees break I wanna go home / where the streets have holes I wanna go home / where the good time roll lyrics from Home by Cowboy Mouth
New Orleans was a fragile time capsule exuding a purity of culture not matched anywhere else in the world. That balance of roots clarity amid physical frailty is what made New Orleans the embodiment of unique. Whoever was in charge of levee quality failed to recognize this, and that capsule has broken. Some of those deep music roots from Congo Square are gone forever. Its possible some new breakthroughs will come as a result of the forced mixing of New Orleans musicians with other big music towns, or as Cyril Neville put it about playing in Austin, the gumbo has spilled into the chili. Who knows? Enough living spirits who have harnessed that indescribable magic of a creatively fertile Eden still live and scream. The second-lines are battered but not beaten. The Mardi Gras Indians have another tales of woe to preach. The pheasant gumbo will still tear the first layer of skin off a human tongue. Jazz Fest 2006 was a warm hug and a stab in the heart, but more than anything a sign the city still lives.
Oteil Burbridge says its the voodoo. Like anything called spiritual, its really a feeling. Two days before driving to New Orleans, I was feeling a strange fear. The only other time I felt it was while visiting my father in the hospital after some routine hernia surgery. It was a dread that Id pull a curtain aside and some awful hospital wreckage like a smashed head or emptied guts. Just didnt seem right to be the drunken buffoon I knew Id be around a graveyard. Crossing the Highway Ten bridge, that fear hit again, but in a way, partying it up in New Orleans is a tradition of paying tribute to it. In a sense thats the idea of the jazz funeral. The living celebrate being alive. Watching the water creeping high around the stilted bridge, lapping around the slivers of marsh still above the tide I thought of the waters just rising and swallowing it all. That stretch of Highway 10 feels like the edge of the world.
As we got into the city, it was easy to see the checkerboard pattern of areas hit and those passed by. The thing is, before the storm New Orleans was fragile, so even if a building didnt get hit, with some very wealthy exceptions, everyone got hit. We met up with Ari, drummer in Soul Project and keyboardist in Saraaba for a quick jaunt to the Tree of Life and a tour of the destruction. The Tree is a massive, old, weather-beaten rogue plant that has lived through more than floods and hurricanes. Its a symbolic sign of hope when practically speaking little has changed in New Orleans in the eight months since the flood. Leaving the Tree in Audubon Park behind, we went off to see sludge-marked, molding leftovers. Going down Canal to the Jeff Davis Parkway it was a ghost town. No activity. Numbers marking dead bodies on the houses. The Marine building at 3229 Banks looked like it might fall any second. Earlier before we took off Ari and Luke, trombonist in Saraaba, mentioned New Orleans Sickness. I laughed at first, thinking it was sarcasm. Luke said bumps grew out of his tongue one day. Ari spoke of a weird headache and big glands.
Itll go away, Ari said.
But who really knows what the fallout might be of all this? The response to this tragedy is truly reprehensible. Take the Claiborne Towing Facility. FEMA people said all toxic cars would be taken out of the city, but instead they just dropped them under the highway overpass running along Claiborne Street. Some cars were stripped of infected parts that were no doubt sold or used by people getting infected invisibly by the mold.
So, I did promise some mirth, and it did happen in the music played. Galactics late night set at Tipitinas Uptown included very little of their own repertoire. Rather they blazed through New Orleans standards with the help of the Stooges Brass Band. I asked some local musicians about song names, and some folks just know the songs so well, theres no need to know the names. Irresponsible? Perhaps. But New Orleans focuses on the important things. Not knowing the name does not negate knowing whether its played well and correctly. Whats more important?
The next day at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, one of the most honest representations of anything, was a solid eye-opener to the life that still beats in the city. More people were there than I have ever seen. Folks who live there agreed. After some stuffed crab breakfast, the Pinstripe Brass Band started the day, with second-line treatment of Every Breath You Take. The jumpiness led way to the hard soul of Walter Wolfman Washington on the Congo Square stage. A fine band raged around this local legend. His organ player is 19 and killed it. Tony Gambrell held fine tone on the trumpet, without playing too many notes. April 30th has been dedicated to Washington, a feat showing some ways of working are way more efficient in New Orleans than the government.
We wandered to catch some of Rebirth Brass Bands hip hop hyping party and swung back to the Jazz Tent for some justified flamboyance in Trombone Shorty. He looks like mini Kanye West, but plays as mean as anyone on those festival grounds.
Bruce Springsteen somehow knew the perfect act to bring to Jazz Fest: a massive roots band that plays bluegrass, blues, soul, country, funk, zydeco with sheer genuine feel. Between the wailing backup singers, crying lap steel, thunderous horns and ol Bruce in the middle of it all bellowing the cords out of his neck, it was a revelation. The message: those who have been touched by the music, life, culture of New Orleansits up to us all to keep it alive. The bounce of a Sousaphone led brass band hammered that notion home as we left the fest.
The truth of this situation is that monumental ignorance and incompetence in our leadership resulted in the near total annihilation of an historic cultural treasure. Looking out upon the ghosted out areas after leaving the Fairgrounds, and even after catching a short second line parade, its hard to think about anything beyond how easy we Americans make it for avaricious pigs to just fuck with our lives. Until massive redevelopment begins, at least go see some live music. The Big Easy is far from well, but it is alive and it will always feel strange, lusty and special in its purity beyond any other place in human existence. Like the Tree that has seen far beyond one major tragedy, the city has always existed in this limbo of near collapse. Perhaps theres a way to preserve what culture can be saved, and in give e city stronger armor for the next fight with nature. Then again, we might have to wait until 2008. Cant say Im holding my breath too tight.
The world is gonna pay / cause well be everywhere / theyll be dancin in the streets and music in your air / and when that water starts to fall you wont see us around / unless youre buyin drinks for us in our home town Paul Sanchez from Home by Cowboy Mouth

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