Calvin Johnson on the Sax

In the spring of 1988, I returned to New Orleans, and as soon as I smelled the air, I knew I was home.
It was rich, almost sweet, like the scent of jasmine and roses around our old courtyard.
I walked the streets, savoring that long lost perfume.
— Anne Rice, Interview with the Vampire

While I have traveled to states outside of California in the United States, New Orleans is my first exposure to the South. It has been really interesting to see how the culture of the city intertwines and mixes with traditional, cultural elements of the South. The city of New Orleans was historically built upon three main cultures- Spanish, French, and American. Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, New Orleans and Louisiana were strongholds in the slave trade and slavery. For this reason, there is also a great influence of African American culture ingrained in the city as well. Our group has walked through the French Quarter, around Jackson Square, down Royal Street, and into Congo Square which has enabled us to see how all four cultures intersect and are represented in this lively and diverse city. I had a lot of high expectations about what New Orleans and the people here would be like, and so far all of them have been surpassed. Before I arrived the first things that came to mind when I thought about New Orleans were Mardi Gras, beignets, the supernatural, and jazz. But now that I have spent hours wandering around the city both at night and during the day, under the blazing hot sun and in the middle of a terribly humid thunderstorm, I see how while these aspects of the city are just roots that grow out much farther than what appears at the surface.

Mardi Gras’s original purpose was to serve as a week to indulge in life’s greatest pleasures such as good food, loud music, hours of singing and dancing, crazy (sometimes vulgar) costumes, and usually excessive drinking a week before the start of Lent. However, the traditional celebration of Mardi Gras is not just one crazy week but is a representation of the lifestyle here. On almost any given street, you will see a chain of beads – gold, green, purple, red – hanging from the trees, balconies, and rooftops. The people celebrate the good things in life every day and night. The other day, after brunch, a couple of us stumbled upon a random parade accompanied with live music and baby doll dancers that blocked off the streets and went on all day. In addition, there’s a free concert with live musicians, local art, and food and drinks every Wednesday evening in Lafayette Square and Second Line Parades every Sunday afternoon. These are just a couple examples of how there is always something to do and enjoy in New Orleans. Frankly, any night on Bourbon Street is congested with people of all different backgrounds, intentions for the night, and motives of celebration which ultimately describe the way people exist in this city.

The cuisine offers a unique insight into the culture and history of the city. I’ve had beignets at different bakeries and restaurants in California and never understood how the ones in New Orleans could be so much better but they truly are. And I am saying this without even having the ones from Café du Monde yet. The contentment and satisfaction with the simple things in life, such as beignets -a rather easy dessert compared to rich chocolate desserts- and other of the like parallels the lifestyle. The Cajun style food is usually cheaper types of meat and fish that might not be great in texture such as catfish, alligator, and crawfish but made delicious with copious amounts of seasoning. Almost all meat comes with an option to be fried, known as a ‘Po Boy’, which is a great addition to the comfort food and home-y sense given by the atmosphere of the restaurants and cafes in the city.

Taken from Google Images

I, like many others, have always been curious about the spookiness surrounding New Orleans. It is the setting and home for many different supernatural stories like spirits, ghosts, voodoo, and vampires like in the book we read Interview with a Vampire by Anne Rice. I was able to understand the novel more when actually learning about the culture of spirits, good, and evil in New Orleans. In Part 1 of the novel, Louis the main character states, "People who cease to believe in God or goodness altogether still believe in the devil. [...] Evil is always possible. And goodness is eternally difficult." It is clear to see just how true this observation is within the context of the city. As a group, we visited a voodoo museum and I learned about the history and current practices that proved a lot of my preconceptions wrong. I always believed that the primary purpose of voodoo was to hex people and cause harm through voodoo dolls however, this is simply just how it is portrayed in the media. I learned that it is mostly used for positive purposes and to provide love, health, and healing. This is just one example of how as a society we are so conditioned to automatically call something bad or evil in nature when we don’t know a lot about it especially when it comes from a more exotic culture or belief system than “the norm”. It was interesting to be able to think more deeply about goodness and evil in the context of New Orleans and its past while reading this novel.

Take a moment to listen to the audio file above, while it is not the Preservation Hall Band with the music stylings of Calvin Johnson, it’s great to listen to.

Finally, jazz was born in New Orleans and it remains alive and well. The highlight of our trip so far was probably the evening we had the opportunity to listen to a glorious band play at Preservation Hall. Listening to the jovial music of the trombone, drums, trumpet, clarinet, piano, saxophone, and bass play ‘South Rampart Street Parade’ – the street we had just walked along the day before- I could feel the music that gives life to the city rush through my veins. It is only fitting that jazz was created here as it serves as a home to multiple types of genres such as blues, ragtime, and folk which mirrors the diverse groups of peoples who created the culture in New Orleans. Moreover, the beautiful differentiation of jazz songs and its ability to display such high highs and low lows reflects the history of New Orleans. While much of its history is vibrant and wonderful, it is also deeply rooted in oppression and poverty and dripping with blood from slavery and racism, which I will explore more in future blogs. I am looking forward to diving deeper into jazz and New Orlean’s history as we explore the black experience in our next novel Coming Through Slaughter by Michael Ondaatje.