New Orleans…the birthplace of jazz with its air of elegant decay is a sultry mix of French, Spanish, African and Caribbean influences which is quite simply like no other city in America.
I reached New Orleans on a rainy night in April. My hotel room felt stuffy and I cracked open a window to let some fresh air in. And it was then I heard for the first time what would soon become the constant soundtrack to my stay in the Crescent City. I’d never been much of a jazz aficionado associating it mostly with well, elevator music. This was different. It was pulsating, joyful, chaotic, sweaty, sensual…It could instantly make you smile, quicken your step and cause an inadvertent snap of the fingers. Or it could make every step heavier, slowly unravel your plans for the day and tease you to crack open a bottle of wine and find a shady spot to savour it in.
The musical performances I remember the most weren’t even in the legendary jazz halls or trendy nightclubs. My two most memorable “concerts” were free and completely unexpected. One was given by an orchestra that had gathered right in the middle of one of the streets branching off Bourbon Street on a hot afternoon. Their audience, a motley crew of tourists and waiters from surrounding restaurants, sat in rapt attention on the roadside pavements. The second was given by a young boy no more then fourteen or fifteen years old who was playing an electric guitar in Jackson Square. I wasn’t even sure he was playing for money. His eyes were closed and he had a faint mystified smile on his face, as if he’d just stopped on his way back from school to appease an unrelenting muse. The most wonderful part was when a couple of old men who had been sitting near by, nodding and smiling as they listened to him, got up and found a spot near him, opened their dusty worn cases, pulled out their saxophones and started gently improvising alongside…
Music is such an integral part of life and of peoples’ identity in this part of the world that even when they speak their normal tone of conversation feels musical – slow, lilting and exaggerated. Social niceties are very much a requirement here, you can’t just walk up and ask to buy a tram ticket or a bag of crisps without first smiling and asking how the day is going!
New Orleans Travel Diary Part 1: French Quarter
My first impression of Bourbon Street actually filled me with immense disappointment. Bright neon lights, loud commercial pop of the most annoying variety, shops selling greasy pizza slices and buckets of fries and worst of all, large knots of nasal-voiced drunk teenagers lurching through the streets. They would shriek and cat-call at revellers gathered on the balconies of hotels and bars above them who would then throw down beaded necklaces in response a la Mardi Gras. I learnt to avoid this stretch completely for the rest of my visit. It was the cross streets and the ones parallel to Bourbon – Chartres, Royal and Decatur that were far more charming. The houses that lined these were painted bright colours and their facades were decorated with elaborate wrought iron balconies and flower boxes.
One shop I passed that deserves a mention is Marie Laveau’s House of Voodoo. It was crammed from floor to ceiling with all sorts of curiosities. Like African tribal masks and voodoo dolls – the cruder, the creepier, most were just a patch of burlap cloth with buttons for eyes and a short line of cross stitch for a mouth. Not to mention bottles of potions with labels like “love” and “protection”, skulls, feather boas, stuffed birds and books of spells. At the back there was a little counter where an achingly Emo looking boy with kohl-lined eyes looked me over and asked if I wanted a “consultation”. I presumed there was some sort of fortune teller behind the beaded curtain next to him. But as tempting as that sounded I felt a little uneasy and left – the catch with knowing what the future holds is it might be disappointing, and then what are you meant to do?
There were several great little art galleries tucked away on these streets as well. One of these sought to capture what was heard and felt on the streets around with brightly coloured paintings of jazz musicians – their ecstatic faces seeming to pulsate with vivid streaks of myriad hues lining every crease.
The heart of the French Quarter is Jackson Square the centrepiece of which is St. Louis Cathedral. My first glimpse of it was from the promenade next to the mighty Mississippi river. The cathedral looks unreal – like a cross between a Disney fairy castle and a postcard from Prague’s medieval Old Town. The leafy square has an equestrian statue of Andrew Jackson rearing up surrounded by pink flower beds. Next to the square is a street lined with old fashioned horse carriages with tourists milling around them. With the cornflower blue sky above and the bright sunshine putting the whole scene in sharp relief such that the colours actually dazzle your eyes – this is the quintessential “money shot” of the old, genteel, continental soul of the city.
Of the various museums that dot the neighbourhood nearby my favourite was the Cabildo – dedicated to Louisiana’s history with an amusing exhibit on the 1938 Cecil B. Demille swashbuckler “The Buccaneer”. The film famously romanticised the local legend of French-American pirate and smuggler Jean Lafitte who fought the British alongside Andrew Jackson in the Battle of New Orleans.
New Orleans Travel Diary Part 2: New Orleans Museum of Art
I have to take a moment here to mention the New Orleans Museum of Art where I found a couple of lovely paintings which I wish I had noted the names of…One of a Moorish girl wearing tangerine harem pants and a lavender head scarf, another of what appeared to be a brothel in a time of classical antiquity with two ladies in crumpled silk dresses languidly stretched out on a divan.
The sculpture garden outside the Museum is well worth a visit as well especially to see this curiosity which as you approach it seems like some sort of tall steel antenna curving backwards. On a closer look its a column of crouching men balancing successively on each other – each one covering the eyes of the man whose shoulders he is sitting on.
New Orleans Travel Diary Part 3: Garden District
I took a couple of walking tours in the city. One was of the Garden District which is where the nouveau riche of the American South, those who minted their fortunes from cotton, sugar and shipping in the nineteenth century, built their homes. The reason its called the Garden District is there are only two to four houses per block allowing each one to have its own impeccably landscaped garden. I read about how the architecture in this neighbourhood is said to be a mix of styles – Neo Classical, Greek revivalist, Victorian, Georgian. To me it looks very American. Americans, I’ve realised, are very house proud. They love to build their homes from the ground up, to bring to life their own personal whims and fancies. And fortunately most of the ones who built their dream homes here seem to have had exceptionally good taste. There are some recurrent themes, for instance wraparound colonnaded porches, gabled roofs, bay windows, balconies with elaborate grilles, clean lines, neutral palettes and all set amongst a lush green environment.
New Orleans Travel Diary Part 4: Plantation Tours
A lot of the houses in the Garden District are modelled after the “antebellum” or pre-war style of plantation houses. Speaking of which I took one of the ubiquitous “plantation” tours which take you out of the city to visit some well preserved estates along Louisana’s Great River Road. One especially lovely plantation house was Oak Alley. The highlight being the long driveway in front of the house lined with giant oaks. Dappled sunlight filtered through a deep green canopy formed by the gnarled branches of the ancient oaks. Young girls in full period dress with hooped skirts showed us around the house and then served us delicious mint juleps on the front porch.
The more atmospheric tour however was of the Laura Plantation, which had been run by successive generations of strong, wilful Creole women. The men in the family all seemed to be dissolute reprobates who were habitually packed off to the continent to escape the law after getting into violent drunken brawls. Several wooden slave cabins were scattered across the plantation. The eponymous Laura’s grandmother purchased 30 teenage girls back in 1830 and had them impregnated thus harvesting her own “crop of children” to work in the fields. One of the most heartbreaking exhibits in the tour is a piece of handwritten paper listing the price schedule as it were for the slaves. It had a brief description of the features as well as the asking rate for each one as if they were dishes on a menu or household appliances like washing machines advertised in a magazine.
New Orleans Travel Diary Part 5: Ghost Tours!
My last night in New Orleans I decided to take a “ghost” tour. The most chilling part is of course walking by Madame LaLaurie’s house – the infamous M. LaLaurie who kept a secret chamber of torture in her attic where she did unspeakable things to her poor slaves. Her sins finally came to light when a neighbour saw a twelve year old slave girl fall to her death from a balcony in her mansion as she was being chased by a whip wielding M. LaLaurie.
Another stop on the tour is the restaurant that lays out a table every night complete with candlesticks, a fresh basket of bread and a bottle of its finest wine. The table is for the resident spirit who after a peace deal brokered by a local medium agreed to stop terrifying the staff and clientele in return for this nightly gesture of hospitality. There were many other local myths and legends which my guide rattled off with obvious relish and it was the perfect way to end my visit. Wandering among the shadows, listening to macabre tales of lust, jealousy and murder, and then slowing walking back towards the twinkling lights and incessant soundtrack of the French Quarter.