Music Review: The Musicians Of New Orleans City Of Dreams: A Collection Of New Orleans Music
What one President giveth another President takes away could be a political axiom in the United States, but I don't think in the history of the country has there been as obvious an example as the fate of Louisiana, specifically her jewel of a city New Orleans. In what is now seen as one of the all time Real Estate deals ever, the United States under President Thomas Jefferson purchased Louisiana from the French. Now more then two hundred years later it seems that George Bush is willing to let New Orleans be sold out from under the people who lived there and in the process, destroy the soul of not only the State but maybe even the United States.
Ever since Hurricane Katrina destroyed the working poor, and poor neighbourhoods of New Orleans; home to all the housing projects and subsidized housing in the city as well as housing the majority of the city's black population, it's become painfully obvious that there is no intention of allowing those people ever to move back into their old neighbourhoods. Oh there have been announcements from the political bosses saying things like "you can't expect us to build anything for these people if they don't move back?' Well you can't expect them to move back if there's nowhere for them to live either.
In the meantime, the number of public schools in New Orleans has been reduced to four whilst thirty-four private "charter" schools have been approved. So, if the thousands of people from places like ninth ward ever do move back – what's there going to be for them? Four schools in a horribly under funded public education system to send their children to in the hopes of them getting something that passes for an education? That's not exactly encouraging people to move back home again, is it?
One of the hardest hit groups in the community were the musicians of New Orleans. The world watched and listened for news of Fats Domino when it was discovered he was missing in the floodwaters when the levees broke, and breathed a sigh of relief when he was found safe and sound. It was story repeated time after time amongst the musical community of New Orleans, watching their lives and livelihood float away in the post Katrina floods.
Recording studios lost master tapes with forty years or more of musical history and their ability to produce new music; clubs and small performance venues lost sound systems, along with the rest of their facilities, and every musician lost if not their home, prized possessions and memorabilia. The loss of recording and performing facilities though has to have been the worst blow to the musical community of New Orleans. Prior to Katrina there had been enough work performing in clubs spread all throughout the city for the city's musicians to make a living, but now with them closed, and most still ages away from re-opening, if they ever will again, those days appear gone forever.
Just over twenty-five years ago Rounder Records began recording the artists of New Orleans. In that time they have recorded and presented music to the rest of the world that previously could only have been experienced by going to the city. They became the first label to record the Brass Bands and the other street music live, during the weekly performance/parades that wended their way through Ninth Ward and the other Black neighbourhoods.
Like so many other producers and companies have discovered when they've started recording an area's music, Rounder was astounded at the amount of amazing talent that had never been recorded or heard beyond the borders of New Orleans. They took it upon themselves to do their best to record as many of these groups, individuals, bands, and street performers as possible.
Unsurprisingly over the years, they have amassed miles of tape of four of the musical types we associate with New Orleans. As a retrospective of their over quarter century of recording, preserving, and creating memories they have put together a four disc CD set City Of Dreams: A Collection Of New Orleans Music. Each disc represents one of the four genres they've recorded over the years: Blues ("Big Easy Blues"), Street Bands and Performers ("Street Beat)", Funk ("Funky New Orleans"), and the unique piano styles of the city come to life on "Ivory Emperors".
I'll have to believe them when they say this only skims the surface of the talent that the city represents, but if that's true I'd hate to think how many discs would constitute an exhaustive survey of New Orleans. On "Big Easy Blues" alone Irma Thomas, Marcia Bell, and Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown show up to pay their respects along with other creators of the Blues unique to the city. It's a sound with more of a funk groove to it, or maybe the swing of Dixieland, then the Blues from other parts of the country, reflecting its association with the other sounds of the city.
My personal favourite of the four discs has to be Street Beat. While the other three discs are exemplary in their presentation and selection, Street Beat stands out for the uniqueness of its material and the excitement inherent in the music. Recording these tracks live was a stroke of genius as it preserves and captures the true nature of the community spirit that is the motivation for these parades.
With the Brass Bands, (The ReBirth Brass Band, Dirty Dozen Brass Band, Dejan's Olympia Brass Band, and the Chosen Few Brass Band) leading; the second line singers, (Monk Boudreaux and the Golden Eagles, New Orleans Nightcrawlers, and Bo Dollis and the Wild Magnolias) dancing in their outrageous costumes and chanting out lyrics; and the public dancing and singing in their wakes, each track has the air of having been created spontaneously. In my opinion, these songs epitomize the spirit of New Orleans. Bound up in the people through families that have lived here for generations and have been passing the traditions about music, dance, and style down the line, you can't see one existing without the other.
What would be the point of a street parade dance if the people who are the inspiration and the reason for their existence were no longer there to enjoy it? Sure you can do fake ones for the tourists in the "French Quarter", but it would be merely a plastic, soulless recreation with no meaning.
For those of you not familiar with the New Orleans style of Funk, the "Funky New Orleans" disc will be a real treat as it gives an amazing overview of the city's very particular groove and will leave you wanting to rush out and buy more. "Ivory Emperors" is where you'll find the creative geniuses of New Orleans. James Booker, Champion Jack Dupree, and Professor Long Hair are representatives of the long line of piano players whose history dates back to the bordellos of the French Quarter.
The keyboard, from the grand piano to the Hammond B3 has been the backbone of New Orleans music since the first Madam decided she needed something aside from her girls to entertain her clients. It leant the atmosphere the air of the parlour or the salon as the gentleman awaited his companion for the evening, and made everything that much more genteel and civilized.
It's impossible to think of New Orleans and not think of music, but in the days to come, while the fate of over two hundred thousand individuals is being decided, there is the very real possibility that the unthinkable will become a reality. The music of New Orleans for all intents and purposes will be dead.
Sure, some of the bands can still commute, but what about the street bands and the second line singers and dancers? If there's no community for them to play for on a weekly basis, if the people of the city who are so integral to their performances are gone forever, who will dance and sing behind the second line on the way to grave, or just for the sheer joy of doing it.
Thankfully Rounder Records has given us this little piece of the glory that was New Orleans to hold on to as she might go from being a City Of Dreams to be the city that lives only in our dreams.