More than simply an open space, the unusual venue also showcases small houses that were built to be played as musical instruments. The natural synergy between members of the New Orleans Airlift nonprofit and other fellow artists is what made this enchanted place come to life.
Close your eyes. Picture yourself walking in a woodlot. You hear chimes and strange sounds coming from afar. You see a high metal fence that keeps you from discovering the source of these intriguing noises. You bypass the fence, only to come across a wide array of quirky-looking houses. You see people who play these houses as if they were instruments. Wait—they are instruments. You suddenly feel like a kid again, as you happily join them, clapping boards, shaking bells and banging drums.
“Is this real life?” Yes, it is. Inaugurated this last October at 4557, North Rampart Street, the permanent installations of the Music Box Village have since then hosted many memorable musical performances. Previously located at City Park, the Village is now composed of eleven houses. Each of them is a unique work of “musical architecture”. Some of them must be shaken to produce sounds, like the “Tintinnabulation Station” or the “Shake House”, others must be thrummed, like the “Drum Kitchen” or the “Inter-relational Messages and Patterns”.
The dream-like place couldn’t exist without the New Orleans Airlift, a nonprofit founded in 2006 by multimedia installation artist Delaney Martin, musical director Jay Pennington, visual artist Swoon and sound artist Taylor Lee Shepherd. Their concerted efforts were nourished along the way by the crucial collaboration of numerous artists and musicians from New Orleans and abroad.
The New Orleans Airlift was created shortly after Katrina. Artists were having a hard time finding their audiences, so the idea was to provoke and cultivate contacts between artists and communities from here and elsewhere; artists who wouldn’t or couldn’t necessarily travel outside of the city. The name “Airlift” was actually taken from the “Berlin Airlift”, as a way to represent this desire to elevate artists’ life situations and to make partnerships blossom.
“So that worked really well and it says what we do”, declared co-founder Jay Pennington when I met him at the Music Box. “We fly things in and out in a way. We started bringing in artists. Our mission became about helping artists to get out and also helping artists from afar who wanted to connect in New Orleans, to find people to collaborate with, to create opportunities for them to get to know the city through an actual artist here, as opposed to just come to New Orleans and having a show at a gallery or a concert at a club. Something more collaborative.”
The Lost Bayou Ramblers
For Louis Michot, singer and fiddle player in the Lost Bayou Ramblers, the spirit of collaboration inherent to the Music Box is partly what made their experience there so special. Along with guests Rickie Lee Jones, Spider Tracy of The Pogues and Langhorne Slim, the Ramblers presented two evenings of Cajun music last December. As Michot told me on the phone, “when you get to the Music Box, there is so much room for improvisation and creativity that it really allows [their] collaboration to bloom.”
He continued: “There is such a beautiful learning process and an opportunity to expand your concept of what the music is, and you end up with something even more beautiful, something you’ve never heard before. It allowed us to do something else than stand, whistle and sing folk songs. It gave us so much room to play other instruments, to play the houses.”
This whimsical place has found its rightful home in the Bywater, here in New Orleans. “We both look around and just see that everyone’s cultural output in New Orleans is just beautiful artwork”, said Jay Pennington. “It doesn’t really matter what it is; if you’re an iron worker, etc., there’s an artistic side to what you do. There’s already a deep awareness in all communities in New Orleans about the idea of that being a part of something bigger than yourself. People are usually ready to do it.”
With a Mardi Gras art market, an “all-things-aquatic”—themed masked ball, and the Spring season shows yet to come, the Music Box Village will be keeping very busy! Visit the space at 4557 N Rampart for your turn to be enchanted and feel like a kid again! More information can be found at musicboxvillage.com.