"music…", with sometimes the music on the street poignantly filling in the silence of my ambiguous response (though sometimes it would be filled with the ramblings of a passing drunk guy, that's Frenchmen Street for ya.) And while Nietzsche has a few good quotes on the abyss, I'd like to attempt to fill in this ellipse with words of my own.
While it was easy enough to explain how the DJs of Miami didn't exactly intellectually, emotionally, or spiritually fulfill me, I realized that I was stumbling onto another question, "what brings musicians to New Orleans?"
While it's true that I did bring a guitar with me on my journey, it is equally true, if not more so, that my guitar collects more dust than my fingers do calluses, that I fulfill the role of the listener far better than the role of the player. So I turned to the legends of music, to all the musicians of who ever lived in New Orleans to see what I could find, but I decided that it wasn't enough, the narrative continues. Instead, I spoke with several musicians currently playing throughout the city to find out what keeps them playing here, through famine and flood.
Christian Craig is a street musician who was born in New Orleans, and after a sabbatical from the weird, found his way back home, playing everywhere from Jackson Square to Frenchmen Street. We talked in a gorgeous courtyard of a bed and breakfast positioned on Frenchmen Street, run by our mutual friend Noni. Christian, like so many New Orleanians, has an uncanny way of filling up casual conversations with idioms that stick with you for some time. At one point, while talking about the ins and outs of the streets he has turned into his own personal stage, we laughed as he stated, that in the end, "you never know what's going to end up in your tip bag."
I met with Wolf during a tropical depression that brought more rain than worries, me and him having the outside seating of the Rum House to ourselves as we ate tacos for lunch while we conversed. It doesn't take long to realize how deep the love for music runs for him (and how perfect a fit he is to run the jam on Monday nights at Café Negril), when he shares his narrative on how music is another language. "Once you know the language, you can talk with someone you've never met before."
Meschiya Lake glides into Mimi's and immediately everyone's attention in the bar shifts to her. In a few words and a small smile she has control of everyone who is around her, similar to when she's on stage, the swing dancers and her synchronized. When she speaks of her connection to the swing dancers, and states how she "love[s] playing for swing dancers, they give back what I put out," you realize how privileged you are to share moments like that with her.
Julian lets me into his Irish Channel house through the side door. Talking about music on his balcony reminds me of our college days, back at FIU, where we would have directionless conversations about our English and philosophy classes on our breaks. "Let [my music] be the medium that reaches the unspeakable that runs through life."
All these musicians seemed to personify the lyrics of old, embody the characters of the past, live between the notes just as the legends did.
"Sad, but it's pretty like New Orleans"
When talking about New Orleans and music, obstacles did come up, mostly stemming from the fact that there is more talent than money here, more musicians than bars.
"The dude down the street can probably kick your ass" Christian told me (it might help to put that he meant this musically).
While Wolf stated how "If you don't take that $40 gig, someone better than you will."
These kind of deterrents make you wonder why musicians would flood the same city, or why they wouldn't try a bigger city, such as New York, where there would be more venues to be played at, more dollars to be had. Wolf even went to say some musicians here are "like homeless people with cell phones" asking for any gig they can get. In the end, you can't spare a dollar for everyone; in the end, you can't give a gig to every worthy musician.
But this doesn't really slow down the musicians at all, Christian still finds it to be a pleasure to live in New Orleans "in this time," where in one corner you have a brass band blasting their horns, and in the next you have Tanya and Dorese playing music for anyone who is lucky enough to have their paths cross them.
"You're just standing there telling me all that you want to do is get high, play some trumpet, and barbecue in New Orleans your whole damn life?"
-Kermit Ruffins and Davis, HBO's "Treme"
I wondered, was this just the characters of Kermit and Davis? An overly romanticized view easily discarded by anyone on the outside looking in as a ploy to turn Kermit into one of Joseph Campbell's heroes, making for better television? Well if you consider this more Faulkner than fact, more dream than reality, these musicians would tell you otherwise, informing you that you're in the land of dreams.
"Cool to take your musicians hat off and go and listen," Christian said.
"If you play from the heart, you'll be accepted," Wolf told me.
You "don't have to tour…they come to you year round," Meschiya Lake explains.
"The music is here, so that's where I'm at," Julian states.
Wolf explained to me how "in other cities, you need mathematics" to be considered a proficient musician. Wolf tells me a story of watching an instructional video with some of his friends done by a world class drummer. At one point, the drummer introduces the concept of a "New Orleans Second line" and after only three taps on his drum, Wolf and his friends busted out in laughter. The drummer had messed it up completely. A world class drummer couldn't capture the rhythm, the beat, the feeling, that six year olds growing up in New Orleans had learned to play.
In New Orleans, passion is the key. Here, passion seems to be a form of currency, it's one of the factors that separates the music here from what is being played in Los Angeles, New York, or Miami. It's why we have a heralded washboard player, why tap dance can be considered part of the music. In New Orleans, bullshit is easily detected, and thrown out with the used Hand Grenades and Hurricane glasses. In New Orleans, passion is the key, and the weird can get comfortable.
"You know when you get to New Orleans,
Somebody'll show you the Zulu King"
Being the fact that most people who decide to be tourists in this city don't know who Professor Longhair is, or think that Zulu is an video streaming website, I asked these musicians why they think people come to New Orleans. Christian's response was that people come "because they have a preconceived notion as to what music is here." Almost as if he had heard this response and was building on it, Wolf responded "Until you come down here, drink the water here, you won't know."
It seems that the glass is too thick between those who visit and those who live here. It seems that to these musicians, until you have spent enough time here, so that your eyes can adjust to the lens, so that your ears can be trained, that you may miss it all, for language rarely translates verbatim. And don't be mistaken, New Orleans has a language of its own.
"A bottle and my friends and me,
New Orleans, I'll be there"
Julian had expected to stay in New Orleans around six months, digesting the city quickly, then working his way to the next thing. Now that he's been here longer than a year, with no evacuation planned, he declares there's "no city like New Orleans." He tells me a story of a recent trip he took to Vegas, where he was charged $14 for a beer, and how ridiculous a concept a $14 dollar beer was. There's no city that captures the dreams of performers like New Orleans, yet still captures the comfort and culture of home.
All these musicians love their music, and love the city that they play it in. Meschiya went as far as to divulge that she would have no problem playing here for the rest of her life. She tells me about a clarinet player that she read about, the player becoming somewhat of a personal hero to her, and how after a few months in the city, that she was able to play with her. "Your heroes are your peers here," she says with a smile, with the same youthful exuberance of a child realizing a dream.
In the end, New Orleans is a home for the musically inclined, the weird, the curious. The musicians of today are retelling the stories of old, updating the narrative, adding to the legends. And that is why I'm staying in New Orleans, for I can walk down the street, hearing all these different musicians pouring out their sweat, their blood, their stories, and each night I can pick which one I'd like to hear, and I can stay and be a part of that narrative. For New Orleans, as Meschiya Lake says, is a "magnet for musicians." Here, the different don't have to defer. Here, the poor can afford to be passionate. This, is where the weird gets comfortable. This, is part of the reason musicians stay. This, is why I'm all ears.