Celestial Zydeco Dancers

by Renée Rothman, June 2019

So we were sitting under a tent at the Creole Tomato Festival (yes, we celebrated a local tomato…good, but not as tasty as New Jersey beefsteak tomatoes…don’t tell). The next band was comprised of at least three musicians who also worked as Park Rangers at the National Jazz Park—we’d seen them at the parks Tuesday free concert series. They played a creole form they called Afro-Louisiana: jazz, zydeco, you know: dance music. Music created to be accompanied by dancers. And the dancers responded.

Naturally I scoped out the best dancers and followed them intensely. I kept trying to follow their footwork but kept missing the beat. So I began videotaping them for later study.

I spotted a beautiful woman in a white turban dancing with a very handsome black man. They danced a smooth, sultry style that awed me. I knew them. I’d seen them once before at Bamboula’s, a club in the French Quarter. Even wrote a blog about them that I never got around to posting. I’m going to do so here so you will understand why I was so thrilled to see them again.

That Night at Bamboula’s

March 10, 2019

I see now that my spirit has shriveled over the last few years. I didn’t realize how much. But Saturday night I found a little piece heaven replete with its own Goddess and God, a Host of Angels, and a Band.

And my spirit quickened.

It was the first Saturday after Mardi Gras and the crowds were still in a celebratory mood. We had taken the St. Charles streetcar down to Canal and walked through the Quarter to Frenchmen Street. Frenchmen is where the local musicians go to play and listen, so the street is lined with live music clubs, funky little art shops, and of course, restaurants. We listened in at a half a dozen club doors to find just the right music for our mood. But once we walked passed Bamboula’s and heard those zydeco rhythms, nothing else would do.

Crawdaddy T’s Cajun Zydeco Review was already in the hot zone when we arrived. The sound, loud and rhythmic, drove out all thoughts of the day and left room only for exhilaration. Virtuosic performances on the electric violin, the harmonica, and the washboard. Did you ever think there was such a thing as a virtuoso on washboard? I didn’t. In fact, I didn’t know music this divine existed in the real world, anywhere. That’s what I mean by “bereft”: I’ve too long been starved of the best humanity has to offer. And this music, music that refuses to accept stillness, that lifts you up and moves you, is the best.

And then…a heavenly couple entered the dance floor. When they began to dance, I gasped. They moved as if they had been dancing together for a thousand years. Their dance released pure love and joy like incense. They took divine pleasure in moving together, being in intimate physical and spiritual connection with the beloved. Dancing. Pure and perfect dancing as only the celestials can perform. It was, for me, a dancer, a peak mystical experience.

That’s about when I realized that I had found Heaven and it came with a Goddess and a God and a Band and that I wanted to be a member of this congregation.

Clearly I was inspired. I didn’t see these dancers again but hoped that if I kept listening to zydeco bands, I might see them again. And here they were. Not only the heavenly couples but others of equal skill and expressiveness. It seems to be a genre that lends itself to stylistic interpretations, some more vigorous than others. But the couples that drew my attention had a unique style that looked like something I might be able to do. I’m hoping to see them again at this weekends big Cajun-Zydeco Festival. And this time I’ll find out where I can learn to dance like that.

A Second Line For Dr. John

8CE5A5F9-72AB-4F42-8218-07BE06399379“He was a mighty friend with a heart of steel/ Brother John is gone / But he never would bow and he never would kneel / Brother John is gone.”

I’ve come late to the music of New Orleans. I know a lot of the great names, from Louis Armstrong and Fats Domino to Allen Toussaint and Professor Longhair, but I can’t really claim any deep knowledge of the genre. One of the attractions of living here in NOLA is the opportunity to explore and absorb the musical heritage of this unique place.

For me, and I think for many others of my generation, Dr. John the Night Tripper was an entry point into the rhythms of New Orleans. An heir to the great tradition of Crescent City piano players, he added a gloss of spooky Southern mysticism that was catnip to this hippy wannabe. The dude was seriously cool, done up in full voodoo drag and riding an irresistible funky groove.

I don’t know when I found out that “Dr. John” was the onstage persona of the musician Mac Rebennack, but it doesn’t matter. He was the same unique performer, whatever you called him. And as I explore the musical culture of New Orleans, his name seems to pop up everywhere. Producer, arranger, performer—he was a giant.

When Rebennack passed away—is it really a couple of weeks ago?—it felt like the city took a punch to the gut. (A second punch, actually, since another New Orleans icon, Chef Leah Chase, had died just a few days before.) Almost immediately, the local Jazz & Heritage radio station, WWOZ, began broadcasting tributes which continued for more than a week. Grieving fans left flowers by a portrait mural of Dr. John in full costume on the side of a house on Toledano Street. And Kermit Ruffins, one of the leaders of NOLA’s musical community, announced that there would be a Second Line parade in Rebennack’s honor the following day, starting at Kermit’s Mother-In-Law Lounge in the Treme neighborhood.79625D3E-41C9-4F36-9164-EF604C645827

A “Second Line” is one of this city’s unique traditions. It starts with a marching brass band—the first line—and invites all the onlookers to march along behind in a second line, dancing and drinking, waving umbrellas and handkerchiefs in the air. It’s a part of many public rituals, sometimes connected to an event like a wedding, sometimes scheduled by one of the city’s many Social and Pleasure Clubs, and sometimes just a spontaneous outburst of joy.

For Renée and I, it was the first chance to join in a big Second Line, and we weren’t really sure what to expect. The Mother-In-Law Lounge is just a few minutes away from our place, on North Claiborne Street below the elevated roadway of Interstate 10. We parked a few blocks away and followed the gathering crowd toward the bar. There must have been thousands of people there, of all descriptions—from youngsters in strollers to old ladies on electric scooters; black, white and all the skin tones in between. At 4 o’clock on a hot weekday afternoon.4D1BDDFD-9CC2-4F90-9600-1F320C2684AA

We milled about under I-10, thankful for the shade, while we waited for the band to start the procession. Reporters from the local TV stations jockeyed for position in front of the bar. A couple of small camera drones flitted about overhead. As I stepped around one woman, she asked me to be careful not to kick the drink she’d set down at her feet. These affairs are BYOB, and attendees take full advantage of New Orleans’ open-carry policy for alcohol. Many of those present had dressed for the occasion, with typical NOLA flair.

After some time, the band came out of the bar and formed up in the street. I couldn’t get a good look at them from where I was, but the sound of the horns echoed off the highway above and it felt like the bass drums were beating right on my chest.

The band started moving out, and the crowd followed, down North Claiborne and into the Treme neighborhood. For a while we stayed close enough to the band to dance down the street; but after a half mile or so, we paused on the sidewalk for a rest and a few tokes on a joint. Us old folks can only dance so much in the New Orleans heat.4659034B-92B2-48CE-89C2-A08E21A9648B

Eventually, the procession looped back to the Mother-In-Law Lounge and came to an end. As we made our way home, it felt like we’d given Dr. John the Night Tripper, a.k.a. Mac Rebennack, a fitting celebration and send-off for his journey to the spirit world. I bet the band in Rock ‘n’ Roll Heaven is looking forward to having him sit in.

 

Boat Spotting

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Looking downriver from Crescent Park

I think I’ve mentioned before that I have an affinity for rivers, so the Mississippi draws me the way a magnet pulls a chunk of iron. A few blocks off St. Claude Avenue there’s a levee along the Industrial Canal, right where it meets the river. It’s an unofficial dog run that Woody and I discovered a few weeks ago, and we now visit regularly.

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A tugboat waits for the St. Claude Ave. drawbridge to open

Tugsboats, with and without barges, often have to wait here in the canal for the St. Claude drawbridge to swing open. This allows me to look them over carefully as I stroll down the levee, while Woody dashes around off leash getting his feet muddy.

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The Industrial Canal, looking down the levee towards the Mississippi

 

 

 

It’s a good area for bird watching, too. On one recent trip to the canal, I spotted a beautiful Blue Heron flying in and perching on the bank, and there are always Redwing Blackbirds, Terns, Ducks and Egrets around too. A few hundred feet along is the river itself. A local fisherman we met down here one morning told me he’d catch 50 or 60 pounds of catfish in a day at this spot.

The Mississippi at New Orleans is a commercial river—I haven’t spotted a single pleasure boat in the traffic up and down, whether I’m looking from the canal entrance or Crescent Park. I looked it up the other day—the cargo moving up and down is about 30 percent petrochemical products and 30 percent agricultural, with the remaining 40 percent split into a bunch of smaller categories. Sailboats and the like are confined to Lake Pontchartrain, just north of the city.

 

Some tugboats push rafts of six or eight barges in front of them. This seems positively heroic going upriver against the current, which runs at about 3 knots in this section. Going downriver with the flow, they can travel at a pretty good clip. It surprised me to see that they often just push the raft aground along the riverbank and park for a while. I’m not sure why they do it; maybe they’re waiting for dock space upriver. Other tugs are rigged for nudging bigger ships in and out of docks. I’m still looking for a chance to spot that operation.

Immense, brightly painted tankers hailing from faraway places like Singapore and Hong Kong also pass by, often just a few dozen feet away. It’s close enough to really feel the size of these leviathans. They have to make a 90-degree turn to follow the curve of the river as they pass in front of the skyline of downtown New Orleans. This makes Crescent Park an ideal position for a boat-spotter, giving me a chance to see first the starboard side, then the port, of a big tanker as it heads up the river. Oddly enough, the empty tankers are more imposing, floating much higher in the water than their loaded counterparts. I try to appreciate the physics involved in persuading that much mass to change direction. Whoever’s driving that thing swings a big-ass rudder, for sure.

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Just guessing, but this one’s probably rigged for dry, bulk cargo like grain. Petrochemical tankers have complex networks of pipe on the deck.

The most impressive vessel that I’ve spotted (so far) was a container ship with boxes the size of railroad cars stacked like Lego bricks, six high and 12 across in 20 rows from bow to stern. The back of my napkin says that must be in the neighborhood of 1400 containers full of everything from shoes to bicycles to Mardi Gras beads, being brought in from overseas manufacturers for sale at your local Walmart or Target.

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Ocean Spring enters the turn in front of the city

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Flashing her port side before she heads out of sight upriver

It’s an endlessly fascinating parade for an old river rat like me, and I can spend hours just sitting and watching. Come by and join me if you’re in the neighborhood.

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The Creole Queen, a old-style paddle-wheeler, on her way downriver to deliver a cargo of tourists to the Chalmette Battlefield on a foggy morning

Jazzfest Postscript

We just couldn’t resist. We bought tickets for the final day of Jazzfest and had a last round of food, crowds, souvenirs and music. Out of several impossible choices, we opted to finish up in the Blues Tent with Buddy Guy, who rocked the place with his trademark polka dot guitar and matching shirt.

We discovered this year that there’s a different side to Jazzfest entirely. It happens after the fairgrounds close down at 7:00. If you have enough energy, you can hit the clubs around town all night long for top-line talent at bargain prices. I heard that Tom Jones dropped in on John Cleary’s set at Chickie Wah Wah on the Friday night before his Fest performance. (I felt kinda like I was stalking Tom McDermott around town and the Fest, I saw him so often. His set with Evan Christopher at the Lagniappe Stage was an inspiration. Check out this clip if you’ve never heard them play.)

Already can’t wait for next year…

Event Horizon

As I write, we’re on the cusp of Jazzfest, the one New Orleans event that rivals Mardi Gras in importance on the local calendar. Renée and I popped our cherry on this one last year, but that time we were visitors. Now that we’re residents, we have a different vantage point.

You can feel the city gearing up for it. The French Quarter Festival, held a couple of weekends ago, is essentially a full-dress run-through, giving locals a chance to fine-tune their festival costumes and seating arrangements. Not to belittle the FQF—anywhere else it would be the top-drawer event of the year. And we truly enjoyed it, making visits on Friday and Sunday to catch sets from local favorites Tuba Skinny, Bon Bon Vivant, Amanda Shaw and more that I can’t even remember now.3A61C763-9B49-495A-842F-94BB9FAE9353

 

Easter then gives the locals another chance to hone their parade skills, in a much more relaxed climate than Fat Tuesday’s. We bunny-hopped over to Esplanade Avenue for the LGBT parade, truly a gay old time. (Bunny-hopped, get it? I couldn’t help myself…)

 

But for Jazzfest, NOLA shoves it on down into overdrive. Local radio station WWOZ promotes it, programs around it and broadcasts live from the fairgrounds. The Jazz National Historical Park creates special exhibits and features performances by musical luminaries who either live here or have flocked in to play at the Fest. (Yesterday, we went there to listen to Tom McDermott, an extraordinary pianist with an encyclopedic knowledge of American music ranging from ragtime to Fats Domino. An intimate one-hour concert, free. I gotta say, the Museum is the best musical value in town. Follow them on Facebook–they live-stream the Tuesday concerts)

We’re really looking forward to our second New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, to give it its full name, and plan to attend on Friday and Saturday of the first weekend. Renée’s sister Shelley is here for a visit, and we’ll have the pleasure of introducing her to this experience. We’re going to try to hold it to the two days, but I don’t know if we’ll have that much discipline. Of course, the fest is a daytime event, so there’s more music to find in the evening along Frenchmen Street and the other clubs scattered everywhere around town. We have to keep reminding ourselves that NOLA is a marathon, not a sprint…

Mid-Marathon at Jazz Fest

So on the first Friday of the fest, we went the big-stage route, planting our folding chairs and blanket at the Acura Stage as soon as we arrived. We’re not young and fast enough to run for the front rows, but we got a decent spot about halfway back on the field. With space claimed, we wandered the grounds to round up food and drink, and to check out some of the smaller performance spaces.

But when mid-afternoon arrived, I hustled back to the big stage. I’m a big fan of one of the original funk bands from New Orleans, The Meters, and the 3:00 performance was billed as “Foundations of Funk,” featuring the Meters rhythm section, drummer Zigaboo Modeliste and bassist George Porter Jr. The band was filled out with a couple of Nevilles, Ivan and Ian, and other local funk royalty. Did I love it? Hell, I’m still singing along on “Hey Pocky Way.”

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Our seats at the Acura Stage

Then, at 5:00, the big act to close the day at the fest, Santana. You know, the guitar god who fused latin jazz with blues and rock, way back when. “Oye Como Va.” “Black Magic Woman.” Played at Woodstock (tripping out of his mind on acid).

He’s now 71 years old. And still an amazing musician. I’d never seen him perform live before, and damn, it was a spiritual experience. His kick-ass, percussion-heavy band (featuring his wife, Cindy, on drum kit), laid down a groove a mile deep, and his guitar playing, as always, connected directly to my heart. After two hours of blowing me away, he came back for an encore—and then brought on Trombone Shorty for lagniappe. I couldn’t breathe!

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Carlos Santana and his band welcome Trombone Shorty on stage

For Saturday, we took a different approach. We left our chairs at home, and concentrated on performance areas other than the big three. Renée and I started out at the Jazz & Heritage Stage, where we were rhythmically adjusted for the day by a Mardi Gras Indian performance.

 

Then, after finding ice coffee, ice tea and a snack, we headed for The Lagniappe Stage, one of our favorite Jazzfest venues. It’s tucked away under the grandstand, and a much more intimate space than most of the fest. Ven Pa Ca Flamenco, Tom McDermott & Evan Christopher, and Sweet Cecilia were some of the performers we caught here.

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Ven Pa Ca Flamenco, on the Lagniappe Stage

And we closed out the day at the Jazz Tent, with performances by the fantastic a capella group Naturally 7, and the day’s final set by singer Gregory Porter.

We needed all day Sunday to recover from two consecutive days of Jazzfest—it was exhausting. But we’re now debating whether to pick up tickets for one more day on the second weekend, because… well, because we can, OK? Forget what I said about discipline before. It’s the fest’s freakin’ 50th anniversary.

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Gregory Porter, closing out the day on Saturday

We went out on Monday to give Shelley a last taste of New Orleans before she left. Fried Chicken at Willie Mae’s Scotch House and a set from Aurora Nealand at Maison on Frenchmen Street wrapped up her visit.

And we might have to go out again tonight—Tom McDermott and Aurora Nealand are playing together at Buffa’s at 8:00. Can’t miss that… can I?

Moving Into Bywater

It’s been quite a week. Well, nine days altogether. OK, maybe more like two weeks, plus a weekend, so 16 days. The days have been blurring into each other, and without an established routine, I have to think for a couple of minutes to reconstruct the order and duration of recent events. We’ve had lovely visits with some dear friends, and we’ve leased, furnished and moved into the left half of a duplex New Orleans shotgun house in the Bywater neighborhood. Whew!

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The new digs

So let’s start at the top. When we lived in the redwood forest outside Santa Cruz, visitors were hard to come by. This has not been the case in New Orleans. First off, my high school sweetheart Carla, her husband Albert, her sister Bev, and Bev’s husband Ira arrived for a weekend from Boston and Seattle respectively, and we had the fun of showing them around a few parts of our newly adopted city. The St. Charles streetcar and Audubon Park, dinner at La Petite Grocerie, and a prowl along Frenchmen Street for some live music on Saturday night were all we could fit into a couple of days. I hope it was enough of a taste for them!

The following Monday, Willa and Bud, friends from San Francisco, arrived in town for a five-day visit. I’ve known Willa since we were both drama majors at Bard College too many years ago. Bud’s a musician and composer, so Jazz clubs were a priority for their tour of NOLA. Bud’s network of musician friends provided leads to some outstanding places and players, so our ears were well treated at Snug Harbor and the Maple Leaf.

It’s wonderful to live in a place people want to visit.

And yes, we live here now. Craigslist came through again, once we got past a couple of “send me money and I’ll send you the key” rental scams. We knew the kind of 60734F2F-106E-4FC5-B58B-86BFD87D6D17neighborhood we were looking for—funkier and more affordable than the Garden District, and not too far from the Vieux Carre. Bywater seems to fill the bill. Shades of Tennessee Williams—we’re just a few blocks from Desire Street (which no longer has a streetcar).

This area did get flooded post-Katrina, though not as badly as the adjacent 9th Ward. There are a few empty lots where houses used to be, and other buildings are still in the midst of renovation. But in other blocks, the brightly painted shotgun houses reflect an artistic temperament and a whimsical sense of humor. The neighborhood nowadays has a reputation for “hipsters,” whatever that means.

Crescent Park, right up against the Mississippi River, is an easy dog-walk in the morning, with a great view of the city, the bridge to Algiers, and the river traffic. I’ve always had an affinity for rivers, growing up next to the Connecticut and going to college beside the Hudson, so this great waterway speaks to me with a familiar voice, even though the accent is distinct.

We picked up a comfy couch, a kitchen table and six chairs, a bed and a dresser at a thrift shop for little more than a song. We’ve got internet, a TV with a Roku for streaming, and some food in the refrigerator. And now it’s time for dinner.

More to come, folks. French Quarter Fest started today!

 

Drinking Straight from the Source

46DCD786-2D90-4D40-86D4-45E94E3553ECSo with Mardi Gras done until next year, you’d think New Orleans would take a break from celebrations. Well, you’d be wrong. There are parades for St. Patrick’s Day and altars set up for St. Joseph’s Day. And, of course, there’s Super Sunday.

No, not the football thing. That’s a different Super Sunday. (And believe me, New Orleans is still pissed off about the blown call that kept the Saints out of that one.) No, the one I’m talking about happens in the Uptown neighborhood, at the corner of Washington and LaSalle. It’s when the Mardi Gras Indians come out to strut their stuff. And do they ever have stuff to strut.

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I won’t pretend to be an expert on this unique expression of New Orleans’ culture. I confess I still have a lot to learn. But this much I can say. The Indians are one of the African-American community’s responses to the celebration of Fat Tuesday, and they carry on traditions that are the foundations of New Orleans musical culture. And every year on Mardi Gras, the Big Chiefs parade in their elaborate suits.

 

The Indians don’t publicize their parade routes on Mardi Gras day, so you have to be lucky to witness them. But on Super Sunday, they have the full attention of the city. Everybody shows up to watch the Indians parade.

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I don’t know all the tribe’s names. I caught a few: Golden Eagles, Wild Tchopitoulas, Black Hatchet.

 

I don’t know all the traditional roles. I think the Spy Boy leads the way, and the Flag Boy follows, with the Big Chief bringing up the rear.10899F33-2505-4076-B338-68811AA62FEF

I’ve heard that in the past when two tribes met in the street there could be violence, but now it’s a friendly competition for bragging rights.

And I know that every photographer in New Orleans shows up at Washington and LaSalle. It’s what ya might call a target-rich environment, with the Indians posing every few yards as they march down the street. I’ve posted a few of my good ones—if you want more, just let me know.DA9EB15A-8A2F-422D-A0DE-C1831591E35D

I also know that chanting the response “Shallow water O Mama” with the singers and drummers following Black Hatchet’s Big Chief was an experience I’ll never forget. I’m drinking straight from the tap down here, and it feels like it’s nourishing something that I didn’t know was there. I can see why people fall in love with this place.

 

Oh yeah, did I mention that Renée and I just put a deposit down on a shotgun shack off St. Claude Avenue? I guess we’re going to be hanging around for a while.