It’s been a while, and I’ve been doing a lot of travelling over the last month and a half. In August, we visited Nice and then spent a week in Northern Corsica. We also visited my family in Chicago in September, and then took a family trip to New Orleans.
Being in New Orleans was like being at a festival, we packed in five shows over the three nights we were in town. As a good start to the trip, we visited Preservation Hall on the Wednesday night, followed by a trip to Candle Light Lounge to see the Treme Brass Band. The crowd seemed to be mainly comprised of other sleepy tourists, but the woman handing out free rice and beans doubled as a hype-woman and soon got us all dancing to ‘Treme Song’ (probably knowing that the show ‘Treme’ had brought most of us visitors there).
Candle Light lounge mural
Thursday night, we saw Kermit Ruffins at Bullets, which was really full of regulars, who favour drinking ’set ups’ (a bucket of ice, a bottle of liquor, and a can of mixer, but why only a can?) with delicious take-away boxes full of fried chicken or fish from the food truck outside. You can tell any local that you've gone to see Kermit (no last name needed), and they'll know who you're talking about.
Kermit Ruffins at Bullets
The third day, while looking for lunch, we happened to randomly come across Bamboula's where Chance Bushman and his band were performing all afternoon, and the saw Meschiya Lake and the Little Big Horns at dba in the evening (where we got my parents out on the dance floor), followed, incongruously, by Kraftwerk at the Orpheum Theater.
Kraftwerk at the Orpheum Theater
It’s hard not to fall in love with New Orleans’ music scene. There’s a huge variety of music on offer any night of the week, and you instantly feel like you glimpse part of this unique community of musicians, performers, and appreciators. We decided to see Kraftwerk during our trip because, unlike in Europe, tickets were relatively affordable and available. A similar show in London would have been about twice as expensive, and sold out in five minutes. Not to say that people in New Orleans don’t appreciate Kraftwerk, they just seem to not buy tickets in advance for most of their shows.
We also visited the Backstreet Cultural Museum, founded by a lovely elderly man from the Treme, who wanted to open a gallery of his photographs, and ended up being given hundreds of items, mainly some awe-inspiring Indian costumes. If you haven’t seen ’Treme’ (and you should) or know of the tradition, Indian costumes are created by the African American community to honour the Native Americans who helped their ancestors escape from slavery. The chiefs and queens will spend several thousand dollars, and hundreds of hours of their time and their friends’ time hand-sewing every bead of an elaborate costume, which they will only wear three days of the year: Mardi Gras, St Joseph's Day, and Super Sunday (the Sunday closest to St Joseph's). They can’t wear the same costume multiple years. The goal is to feel so confident in your costume that when you encounter another chief or queen on one of those three days and have a showdown, you get the other person to back down and admit that your costume is the prettiest. There used to be actual violence involved, but that changed to be more about an appreciation of craftsmanship. It’s like an extreme version of ‘Project Runway’. I actually would love to see Tim Gunn meet Chief Lambreaux from ‘Treme’. I think after getting past the Big Chief’s gruff demeanour, they would become good friends. As I said to my sister, whose best friend is a makeup and costume designer in L.A., does the Oscar committee know about these guys? They trump anything seen in Hollywood.
Indian costumes at the Backstreet Cultural Museum
I picked up a biography of Voodoo queen Marie Laveau at the library, and it was really fascinating to read about New Orleans in the early 19th century. It’s still considered the Northern-most Caribbean city, and it’s interesting to read how even when slavery was still so prevalent in the Southern U.S., New Orleans was full of free people, some of whom were in ‘plaçage’ relationships with white men. When New Orleans was founded by the French, the conditions were too trying for European women to come over, and the men struggled to survive in the conditions of the American South. They were surrounded by black slave women and Native American women, who were often their housekeepers, and knew how to survive. Inevitably, a lot of European men ended up having relationships and children with black and Native American women. Out of this came the idea of ‘plaçage’ which was a special arrangement to legitimise the children, and was a marriage in all but name. In the early 19th century, when New Orleans was the second wealthiest city in the U.S., white men would often have a white wife, but also a black or mixed race mistress with whom they had a ‘plaçage’ relationship. Ironically, the mistress would often have much more security than the wife. In these relationships, the man would agree with the woman’s mother to care for her, buy her a house that would then be completely her property, and any children they had would be given his surname and educated in either Europe (if a boy) or at the Ursuline convent in town (if a girl). Because of this, New Orleans was the most diverse, and highly educated city in the U.S. at the time.
Marie Laveau and her daughter of the same name were an interestingly polarising pair. Just in the bit of the biography of them I read, they have anecdotes from men saying how beautiful Marie the first was, and how elegantly she strolled around town. Conversely, women talked about how gaudily she dressed, and how she walked around town like she owned the place. Like a lot of misunderstood aspects of other cultures and religions, Voodoo has gotten a bad wrap. Marie Laveau the first was a devout Catholic, and went to church every day. On Sundays, after mass, she would go to Congo Square and dance with other free people and slaves. The authorities were wary of this, and tried various tactics to shut down these gatherings. They put a fence around the square and closed it on Sunday afternoons. According to the stories, Marie Laveau entranced the guards so she and her followers could walk right past them, but the other explanation is that she may have just bribed them. She would get a snake out of a box and start dancing with it, then other people would join in. From a European point of view, this seemed like some kind of heathen ritual, but it was rooted in the religious ceremonies of Central and Western Africa, where many of the people were from. Marie Laveau, who was the daughter of a plaçage relationship, combined Catholic and Voodoo in order to help her community. She dedicated her life to helping the sick and poor, and also aided people in attaining their goals and ridding themselves of bad luck through Voodoo.
Louis Armstrong Park
St Louis Cemetery no. 1
We visited Congo Square, now part of Louis Armstrong Park, and took an excellent tour of Saint Louis Cemetery no. 1, where the two Marie Laveaus are supposedly buried. The cemetery used to be open to the public, but recently, you can only enter with a guide, as there was too much vandalism happening. The tomb of the Laveaus in particular used to be covered in crosses, because of a legend that if you ask Marie Laveau to grant you a wish and draw a cross on her tomb, the wish will come true. The Laveaus' tomb is now clean, although a nameless tomb further into the cemetery is still covered in marks. Our tour guide suspected some bad Voodoo was centred on that tomb.
The tomb of the widow Paris
A heavily vandalised tomb
Funnily enough, another tomb targeted for vandalism is Nick Cage’s future eternal resting place. It’s a big pyramid in the middle of the cemetery, and up until a few days before our visit, it was covered in lipstick kisses. A woman from the diocese who look after the cemetery was telling our guide that Cage had come by earlier in the week and complained that the tomb had been cleaned of lipstick.
Nick Cage's future resting place
Another Hollywood connection the famous scene in Easy Rider which was filmed in Saint Louis Cemetery no. 1. There wasn't much acting in this scene, Peter Fonda climbed up on the Italian tomb while on an actual acid trip and started weeping about his mother. After the filming of Easy Rider, the diocese forbid any future filming to happen in any of their cemeteries.
The elephant in the room when discussing New Orleans is always 2005's Hurricane Katrina. According to our guidebook, you won’t make friends in the city by referring to it as a natural disaster, because the real disaster was the levees breaking. It’s saddening to think that such a large-scale tragedy happened so recently, in what is supposed to be the most powerful country in the world. New Orleans is still slowly recovering, but there are still many uninhabited houses in every neighbourhood. You can still see the spray paint on some houses where various government agencies marked that they had checked for survivors and hazards. Even locals will say that they don’t walk anywhere at night now. I’ve never been to a city where that was the case. Chicago has it’s bad neighbourhoods, but locals wouldn’t warn you off walking in the South Loop at night. It’s a potent reminder of how much the U.S. still struggles with equality on all levels.
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