From our guesthouse in the French Quarter of New Orleans, we look across North Rampart St to the bright, inviting entrance to Louis Armstrong Park.
In the spring sunshine next day, we walk beneath the arch, past the bronze sculpture of a Mardi Gras Indian chief. The first building we encounter is the shell of the huge Municipal Auditorium – broken, abandoned and unrepaired since being battered by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. A little further into the park is the Mahalia Jackson Theatre of the Performing Arts, a modern and imposing concert hall, overlooking ponds, fountains and well-tended gardens.
The stark difference between the two buildings – one a wreck, one a vibrant hub –- is telling. By day, Louis Armstrong Park is full of strolling couples, families enjoying picnics, kids playing and jazz bands under the trees. After dark, it’s a no-go zone – the dangerous streets of Treme are on the other side of the park.
New Orleans, Louisiana – aka Nola – is a city of contrasting observations, fleeting impressions, of odd vignettes and memorable snapshots. Here are just a handful of my experiences.
Every other Sunday, it’s Cajun Fais Do-Do night at Tipitina’s, a famous music venue on the corner of Napoleon and Tchoupitoulas Streets. Bruce Daigrepont and his band are playing and the ramshackle old wooden hall is soon bouncing to the hard-driving sounds of accordion, fiddle, washboard and triangle, all held tightly together by drums and electric bass.
Bruce sings in French, but I pick up occasional snatches of lyrics I’ve heard listening to Cajun bands such as the Pine Leaf Boys and the Red Stick Ramblers. We find we can easily adapt our style of rock and roll jive to the bands bouncy, toe-tapping two-steps and waltzes.
It’s a friendly and sociable scene – returning from the bar I find I’ve lost my partner to a much better dancer, so I ask for the hand of a lady sitting alone. Nancy teaches me some new steps and tells me we’re lucky to be hearing Bruce Daigrepont, who is a huge name on the Cajun music scene. I also learn the story behind the Fais Do-Do name.
“Cajun dances have always been family nights,” Nancy says. “Parents would bring their children along, and the mothers would put the babies to sleep in a room away from the music. Naturally they wanted to get back to the dancing before their husbands were picked up by one or the other wives, so they’d rock the little ones to sleep with a lullaby – Fais Do-Do is short for fais dormir, go to sleep.”
On a trestle table at the back of the hall, they’re setting up supper. It’s red beans and rice – good, simple fare after an hour’s energetic dancing. The food is being served by Bruce Daigrepont himself and the chilli-flavoured bean sauce that he ladles onto my plate of rice is the specialty of his wife, who makes supper for all the band’s Fais Do-Do nights.
“You Australian folks have come a long way to do some Cajun dancing,” he says. “Are y’all having a good time?”
Well, what else can I say, Bruce? C’est formidable!
NOT DEAD. JUST SLEEPING
Flat on his back and fast asleep on a sidewalk near Jackson Park in downtown New Orleans is an Australian blue heeler. He was born in the USA but a twitching paw suggests he might be dreaming an ancestral cattle dog’s dream about nipping Herefords on the heels, somewhere out on the Darling Downs.
“He’s slept like this since he was a puppy,” the dreadlocked young owner tells me. “I used to come down here busking on guitar – Galen would come with me and go to sleep on his back in my guitar case. People were more interested in him than me, so I ditched the music and worked up this gig with the dog. With the flowers and the coffin and all, plenty of folks think he’s dead – it freaks them out until they see him breathing.”
His sales pitch is that if it’s worth a photo, it’s worth a dollar. And judging by the number of banknotes he collects (mine included) in the few minutes I’m there, business is booming.
BELLIES ON BOURBON
The wrestlers are in town! Wrestlemania is rocking the city and Bourbon Street in the French Quarter is full of big boys with bulging biceps and bigger bellies. There’s a lot of not very imaginative chanting: “Yes Yes Yes” is a popular one, on a par for monotony with Australia’s own “Oi Oi Oi”.
Some are parading in the costumes of their favourite wrestlers – Hulk Hogan is starring at the Superdome and he tops the dress-up bill, with lots of lads sporting bandanas, wraparound sunnies and horseshoe moustaches. Surely it can’t be the same Hulk Hogan from the 1980s? Yes Yes Yes, it can!
Others clutch ‘hand grenades’, billed as Bourbon Street’s most powerful drink. Served in a long plastic tube shaped like an elongated bomb, heaven only knows what’s in them, but they’re clearly good chanting fuel.
This is the town where jazz was invented and we enjoy the free all-day music in the quaint little Musical Legends Park on Bourbon, but mostly we try to avoid the crowded street, zigzagging through the French Quarter. We people-watch, go window-shopping, inhale the city’s mixed smells (swamp water, warm aromas of freshly-fried beignets, cigar smoke from the bars, a fishy rankness in the drains, fragrant magnolias in bloom) and admire the multi-coloured, pleasantly shabby examples of the city’s narrow ‘shotgun’ houses, named because you could fire a gun from the front door, down the hall and out the back door, without any walls getting in the way.
MORE STORIES YOU’LL LOVE …
- Iconic foods of the USA
- Free things to do in the Big Apple (New York City)
- Touring North America – the Scenic way
- Road tripping from Los Angeles
- Leaf Peeping during New England fall
MS T’S SUNDAY COLLECTION
The queue for Sunday Gospel Brunch starts in Decatur Street and runs up the narrow laneway to the doors leading into the House of Blues. The doorman hears our Australian accents and tells the usher “Set these folks down with Ms T.”
“Welcome to my place,” says a smiling older lady, twisting multi-coloured strings of Mardi Gras beads around her fingers. “I always like to have special friends with me to hear the music. I sit right here and listen every single Sunday.”
Ms T then leans across the table to meet our· politely-puzzled expressions.
“l live upstairs,” she confides in a whisper. “I own the building. I like to invite my special friends to come up with me after the show. I hope you’ll join me.”
A wedge of fat gospel-flavoured piano chords, a blast of brass and a call-and-response riff by a singer and her vocal quartet make further conversation impossible. But sure enough, after we’ve bounced, rocked, waved napkins and hallelujahed to the music; after we’ve loaded our plates with gumbo, fried chicken, fried catfish, collard greens, pickled okra and red beans; and after I’ve finally worked my way to the bottom of the vodka, tomato juice, chilli sauce, oysters, prawns, celery stick, cucumber, strip of crispy bacon and ice cubes that jostle for space in my Nola-sized Bloody Mary – after all that, we follow Ms T up to her luxurious apartment on top of the House of Blues. It’s full of original artworks: paintings, sculpture, ceramics, glassware, antique furniture, tribal craft from Africa, Persian carpets.
“My late husband and I were big art collectors,” Ms T explains. “But these days, I don’t have as much room or time to keep buying new pieces. But I surely do love showing new folks the things I already have.”
I think I understand. These days, Ms T is more interested in collecting people.
FAREWELL TO NOLA
The black and white United Taxicab that looks so much like Jake and Elwood’s Bluesmobile pulls up outside our St Ann Street guesthouse. On the drive to the airport, the driver tells us he used to live in the Lower Ninth Ward, which was flooded when the Katrina storm-surge came and the levees failed.
He was one of the lucky ones to escape, driving his cab 130 kilometres to safety in Baton Rouge. Most of his neighbours were trapped. Buildings floated off their foundations and houses flooded to the attics. Some residents escaped by chopping their way out through the roofs. Tens of thousands of people ended days of appalling conditions sheltering inside the storm-damaged Superdome and the city’s convention centre, waiting for help that did not come. More than 1000 people died.
The city is still rebuilding and the authorities recognise that increasing tourism will continue to be important as the economic recovery goes on. Our driver knows it, too.
“Sir, ma’am, thank y’all for visiting New Orleans, we ’preciate it, you hear me? Tell yo’ friends we’ll show them a good time down here too, know what I’m sayin’? We want y’all to come back to our city, you hear?”
We hear you. We know what you’re saying. We’ll be back.