So here I am in New Orleans, in the boozy, jazzy French Quarter. The Quarter is all Mardi Gras beads, voodoo and vampires. But there’s a seedy authenticity that trumps the touristy artifice. The grit and grime of the neighborhood somehow complements the quaint beauty of the slate sidewalks, the crowded architecture, the wrought iron balcony railings and gas lamps, the flowing vines and listing palm trees. It might be as close to Europe as can be found in the United States. And yes, the Quarter can be truly spooky at night if you venture away from neon Bourbon Street. The area is a visceral delight, a multisensory experience. While there’s a lot to see, it’s my auditory senses that are most stimulated by the Quarter’s aesthetic panoply. Crescent City culture simmers like the suffocating heat here, reverberating through the thick, wet air to be contemplated, savored, and preserved. And here I am without a microphone. Without any field recording equipment. In a city with perhaps one of the most distinctive soundscapes in the nation. What an idiot. I have nothing to collect and catalogue the curbside clarinet player in the French Market; the clatter of the mule-drawn carriages; the mournful howl of the harmonica player in Riverside Park; the murmur of local dialects that sound quite foreign to northern ears; the raucous dixieland of the brass sextet at the corner of Royal and Dumaine; the screaming match of the couple outside St. Louis Cemetery, so heated that I wonder if I should intervene or seek help (except it seems clear that she’ll be kicking his ass); the cajoling of the tarot readers in Jackson Square, nearly drowned by the overhead cacophony of birds that Erin associates with Stephen King’s The Langoliers. And in the 9th Ward…
Five years later, silence. Devastation. Abandoned homes with windows like gaping, lidless eyes. Deteriorating houses still bearing the spray-painted documentation of the date relief workers finally arrived, some more than two weeks after Katrina hit. And there, on one, under the “9/16″ inscription, the epitaph: “Gas main off. One dead.” Silence. It’s appalling that what recovery has been made here has apparently been achieved largely through the altruism of private individuals like Brad Pitt and Harry Connick, Jr. Thank God for them. But you can sense the community’s resilience, an almost defiant fortitude.
Community pride is alive and well back in the French Quarter, too, where Saints banners adorn the venerable buildings, and radio station WWOZ beats the NOLA tribal drum. A true community radio station, backed by local donations and staffed mostly by volunteers, WWOZ broadcasts from the French Market, spotlighting local music and events, celebrating and furthering New Orleans culture, condensing it and transmitting it for discovery and appreciation by outsiders like myself. Now that’s the spirit of radio. Or at least it should be.
Thanks, New Orleans. It’s been a pleasure and an education hearing you. I just wish I’d been able to record you.