words/photos: Ani Yapundzhyan
When I started telling people that I was planning a solo trip to New Orleans, it always garnered the same reaction: “You better be careful, it’s shady out there” or “It’s still a lawless land, watch your back.”
People on the West Coast harbored the general consensus that New Orleans was a dark place where folks were lurking in the shadows, waiting to take advantage of you.
What I experienced in the five days I spent in that city was the exact opposite scenario: no matter where I went or who I was around, I received nothing but love and helpful hands, engaged in meaningful conversations with strangers and was shown the utmost respect.
I went to New Orleans by myself and felt as if I was surrounded by friends the entire time.
This was the embodiment of Southern Hospitality.
Case in point: My first night in the city, I hit up the famed French Quarters in search of some real Louisiana cooking. Instead, I found myself in front of the House of Blues where Lucinda Williams was performing and started to take photos of the marquee.
There was an older couple standing in front of it, blocking my view. I politely asked them to move. They not only moved out of the way, but waited until I was done shooting and then told me, “We have an extra ticket to the show, if you want it, it’s all yours.”
With that, I was inside the House of Blues watching the Honkey Tonk Queen mesmerize a country audience. What stood out most from her set was “Honey Bee” in which the band really did sound like they were performing a symphony.
After the show, I hit a bar across the street to watch the Lakers lose, where I met a well-meaning man who broke down the marijuana laws in the state and explained how much they’re relaxed over the last few years before he slipped me a business card with Bob Marley’s picture on it that guaranteed weed delivery.
A short cab ride later, I was at the beautiful Le Petit Theater where the Nicholas Payton Ensemble performed a one am show which was to be the first of many, many amazing jazz sessions I was to witness on my stay.
Le Petit Theater was also where I first saw New Orleans’ “Queen of Rare Groove,” DJ Soul Sister turn the small patio into a crackin’ party with her selection of classic soul jams-from James Brown to Al Green and beyond.
What I enjoyed about Soul Sister was her skill in knowing which songs to mesh together to produce the perfect party vibe. Sure, anyone can spin James Brown and it’s going to sound good, but it was the way she chose the music and the order in which the songs followed each other that made for such a successful set.
I got to my hotel well past four am thinking to myself that it was a rare late-night. Little did I know that I would not hit my bed until five am every single night I spent in New Orleans.
The next morning I devoured some delicious, spicy Brothers’ gas station Fried Chicken for breakfast before I hit the Jazz and Heritage Festival.
On the way there, my cab driver, an 80-year old conspiracy theorist named Elwood, engaged me in what turned into a 40-minute conversation about the government, people’s armies and militias, fluoride in the drinking water and a many other such topics.
I asked him, “So what are you, a scientist on your days off?”
He replied, “Nope. I just read a lot.”
As I got out of the cab, I heard the DJ on the radio dissing Lauryn Hill, “Who knows if she’ll even show up to Jazz Fest, we’ll be lucky if she makes it…”
Not only did Lauryn Hill show up relatively on time and perform an energy-packed set, but she stayed behind for half an hour after the show and took photos with fans, signed autographs and cracked jokes.
For the haters, I assume.
Backed up by New Orleans’ famed Hot 8 Brass Band, who were a group of funny, courteous Southern boys, Lauryn Hill hit the stage and performed songs from “The Miseducation,” Fugees classics and lots of Bob Marley covers.
It’s astonishing hearing Hill cover Bob Marley.
She sounded like Bob. Not just the accent she used for his songs, but her voice. It sounded like Bob Marley was singing right in front of us.
She is the only artist that consistently gives me goosebumps when I watch her live.
She followed Marley’s classics “Waiting In Vain” and “Is This Love” with classics of her own including “Lost Ones,” “Fu-Gee-La,” “Ready Or Not,” and “Killing Me Softly.”
A man standing beside me turned to me and said, “I’m going to cry when she does ‘Ex-Factor.'”
Another guy sitting nearby exclaimed, “I can cross this off my bucket list.”
This is what Lauryn Hill does to people.
That day, I met a friend-of-a-friend who invited me to a burlesque show.
I excitedly accepted her invitation, and found myself at The Hi-Ho Lounge that evening for the “Big Sleazy” show.
And that friend-of-a-friend turned out to be the dashing and talented Nona Narcisse of Slow Burn Burlesque.
In a dim, small club, I got to watch beautiful southern ladies (almost) take it all off.
The MC and host was the hilarious Ben Wisdom, who managed to be totally political-minded yet stay relevant to the show, crack jokes and be taken seriously all while being covered in glitter from the girls.
This guy was on it.
He started the show by explaining that although he wasn’t a globe-trotter, he still thinks New Orleans is “the best place in the world.”
“I don’t prefer nothin’ over New Orleans…it has the best music, best food, best culture, best music, best everything…Galactic, Rebirth, Trombone Shorty, Louis Armstrong were all from here.”
Wisdom spoke of Ann Rice living and writing her famous Vampire books in New Orleans, how “Interview With The Vampire” was filmed there and called Cruise and Pitt’s characters in the movie “Man-Pires.”
This was the intro to dancer Bella Blue, headmistress of New Orleans School Of Burlesque, who stepped on stage decked out as a vampire and exited after a routine in which she ultimately drowned herself in blood.
Then there was Roxie le Rouge, face painted as a skeleton, wearing an old Southern-Bell dress and looking like a character out of vintage southern folklore. She did a routine to a Screamin’ Jay Hawkins instrumental.
Ruby Rage used a voodoo doll in her routine, tempting Ben Wisdom to comment, “One of my favorite religions is voodoo.”
This is exactly what I wanted to see from the girls-music and dancing that represented the culture of this amazing city full of its lush history.
As Nina Simone’s “Taking Care of Business” started playing, Nona Narcisse sauntered onto the stage, pocket-watches hanging from her full petticoats, drinking whiskey as the music morphed into The Animals’ “House of the Rising Sun.”
It was all so home-grown, yet so professional and sexy.
Ben Wisdom was there to crack jokes in between each and every seductive set. He began to address the “Jazz-Fest potheads smoking in the parking lot,” and pointed to his stomach, “This is a temple, ladies and gentlemen…a temple of chicken and beer.”
One of the dancer’s boyfriends was sitting next to me during the show and we got into a conversation about the city in which he said, “I came here for New Years and realized it was the coolest city I’ve ever been to.” He has been living here for 8 months.
Backstage after the show, I met two guys from Australia, James and Pierre, who were surprised that I had “such a different mentality from most Americans.”
I assured them that lots of Americans and our mentalities would surprise them. Our political conversation turned to the dangers of climate change, and James asked, “How do you explain the ice age?”
Pierre replied, “It’s because the dinosaurs were smoking too much weed.”
It was at this point that I started to realize that I was becoming very enamored with the city and was already thinking about ways to stay there. I told this to Ben Wisdom and he replied,
“Sounds like you’re going to be moving to New Orleans soon. That always happens.”
My third day in New Orleans was a frantic running of back-and-forth between 12 tents in an attempt to capture as many acts as I could on the last day of The Jazz Festival.
The highlights included The Rebirth Brass Band, which consisted of a ten-piece band and two dancers. “We’ve been doing this for 48 years around the world,” one of the members exclaimed, as the high-powered, intense energy started from the first second and didn’t let up until the very last note.
This group put in work. I couldn’t rest my soul for a second watching these guys.
Michael Franti, on the other hand, performed a relaxed, chill set with Revolutionary undertones. It was right then when the intense heat and humidity died down, a cool breeze came in and I sat in a random person’s lawnchair and took his performance in. I wasn’t sure if it was the wind or Franti who had calmed me down, but I assumed they went hand-in-hand.
Franti performed “I’ll Be Watiting” and “Hey, Hey, Hey,” and I remember hearing him sing “Everybody addicted to gasoline, everybody addicted to technology” as I walked away.
I waited for hours to see Frankie Beverly for the first time, and this 65-year old soul legend belted out some oldies like I’ve never heard.
What a voice Beverly has on him.
He started his set with “Laid Back Kind Of Guy” and I could still hear the ladies in the audience screaming his name as I was running across the field to catch a few minutes of Sonny Rollins‘ set in the jazz tent.
I returned to Frankie Beverly, who was backed by his powerful band Maze, and got to hear them perform “We Are One,” “I Wanna Thank You,” “Why I’m Alone” and their famous “Joy and Pain.”
Hundreds of couples were huddled up close, dancing together, enjoying the grooves.
Me? I was dancing alone and loving it.
It was after Jazz Fest when I began to figure out why people in New Orleans nap so much.
Everyone I talked to told me “I have to nap before we go out.”
And it began to make sense to my tired body.
These guys begin drinking every day at around noon.
Then they party all night until five, six in the morning.
There is no way to be able to upkeep this lifestyle unless you are taking power naps in between.
And so, after a refreshing 30-minute “New Orleans Nap,” I hit the town with Soul Sister as my official ambassador to the music scene.
The first of our many adventures was at Irvin Mayfield’s Jazz Playhouse, where we saw the powerful Glen David Andrews’ Band.
Andrews is a trip: witty, serious, sarcastic, full of love for his city.
He sweats New Orleans.
It was evident that he and his music were a direct product of the city.
In between songs, Andrews got political, bringing up Hurricane Katrina and what it did to his beloved city, “You don’t know what it’s like unless you don’t have a roof over your head…unless you don’t have shoes to walk in…you never know who you’re gonna need a cup of water from…”
And it wasn’t just Andrews.
What astounded me was that no matter who I encountered on my trip-whether it be musicians on a stage, friends I made along the way or the guy selling me coffee-people were still feeling the effects of Katrina. The aftermath was still affecting the lives of every person living in New Orleans.
I didn’t understand the full context of the situation until I was being driven in a car for days and no matter what part of the city I passed through, someone would tell me, “This was all covered in water.”
“This too, this was all flooded.”
Everywhere I went.
How do people recover from something like that?
Soul Sister explained to me that New Orleans gets hurricane alerts all the time. “We’re used to that,” she told me. “Usually, I go upstairs in my house until it’s over the next day.”
But what occurred in Katrina was unimaginable.
“The major devastation and floods didn’t come from the hurricane, they came from the levees breaking,” she continued.
She said upon returning home a couple of weeks after the flood, she stepped inside her house, ran back outside and passed out because the fumes were so bad.
“The inside of my house looked like a damp, black cave. Slime covering all the walls. We had to re-gut the entire first floor.”
It was stories like this that I heard from natives all over the city.
And it was enraging to think that the major catastrophe was not due to the natural disaster but the inefficiency of the agencies that left the levees inadequate for so long prior to the storm.
The signs were everywhere. I would drive down a beautiful block with gorgeous houses built in traditional New Orleans architecture standing alongside an abandoned, boarded-up house with the mark of the “X” on the front door.
It affected every square inch of this entire gorgeous city.
When this understanding of the calamity comes over you, it’s overwhelming.
And its understandable that in every nook and corner, inside every home, in every club and on every stage in the city, it is still effecting the citizens of New Orleans.
And I felt that the rich culture of music that spewed out of every pore of the city was a remarkable way in healing from this mind-blowing, life-changing catastrophe.
My last day in New Orleans was non-stop, as a misunderstanding with the hotel had me on the streets at noon, with nothing to do but explore the city until my seven am flight the next morning.
No better place to be stranded on the streets for nearly 24 hours.
I took the St.Charles street car to the famous Camellia Grill, which is a historic landmark and the place to grub in the city.
With so many people in this packed diner, I barely had elbow room but the food was delicious, and the waiters were more like stand-up comedians who had me thinking that I should be paying way more for this experience than the reasonable cost of the food.
I then met up with a new friend I had made named Anthony.
Anythony plays trumpet in the Navy Band.
Thus, I found myself on the Navy Base, hanging out with the Navy musicians, most of whom displayed the opposite characteristics of the brain-washed, killing-machine mentality that I assumed persons in the military harbored.
It opened my eyes to a new world I was always weary of.
Not only were these guys completely hospitable, opening their homes, offering me three types of beer that Iv’e never heard of, but they were smart.
One trumpeter named “Strickland” told me that being a musician is the only set in the military in which one must be pre-qualifited with a degree.
“The highest educated sets in the Navy are the musicians,” he said.
These guys had framed photos of Miles Davis and Billie Holiday hanging from their walls, made great conversation and spoke of music history for hours.
As an anti-war pro-activist, I was baffled at the idea of these types of people in a military setting.
Just goes to show that music really does cross all lines and barriers.
That night, I hit Frenchman Street with Anthony and his fellow navy musician Jim, and we ended up on a street lined with bars, where at Dab, we saw Glen David Andrews perform again, who this time did a dead-on impression of Louis Armstrong with “It’s A Wonderful World” and then, staying in character, sang Snoop’s “Gin and Juice” in its entirety.
“Before I was a Christian, I was a gangster,” he said.
Glen David Andrews singing a Snoop song as Louis Armstrong?
Still sounds pretty gangster to me.
Everyone in New Orleans has gangster in them. It’s in their body language and impossible to miss.
We then walked next door to another bar where a girl named Dottie was singing a Southern version of Erykah Badu’s “Tyrone.” She was joined by Lady Butterfly on the blues harp and it turned into a jam session.
We stumbled out of there many drinks later and it was almost five am and time for me to hit the airport.
I had no idea where the last 17 hours had gone.
One thing was clear to me, though, as clear as anything can be to a drunken mind.
Music keeps the city of New Orleans alive and its people happy.
I grew up on the West Coast, which is defined by DJ culture.
During my entire stay in New Orleans, I heard a DJ once at a club. Once.
Everything is live. Most groups have no less than 6 members in them, each playing at least one unique instrument.
And the bizarre thing is, whether the musicians are staples in New Orleans music or unknowns in dingy, sweaty clubs, most have immense talent.
Nobody is out there talking about how awesome they are.
They just play. And its shows in the music.
It makes the people happy, which explains why New Orleans has some of the friendliest, most open-hearted people I have met in the entire country.
I’m already conceiving ways to get back.
Meanwhile, after five days of partying, I need a nap.