Thursday, May 8, 2008

Fleur de Breeze

There’s a feeling in the night as I write this on our breezy porch. Our majesty palm is fanning her fronds next to me. The lime body of a gecko-like lizard relaxes on one of these sloping branches . The wooden chimes are chiming near our vines, vines which curl their unruly hair out of swinging pots. Some vine tendrils wrap around the wrought iron columns that support the porch. Others shelter a mother bird, who diligently sits on her nest in the swinging pot. I can just barely see the edge of her wings from here, where I sit at a little table in the middle of our porch and type about the night.

New Orleans is so special in Spring, particularly at this almost dusk time, the magic hour between 6:30 and 8:30, when everything gets cooler, a little less humid, and a lot breezier.

Right now, as I type, I can hear the last remaining bass beats reverberating from Jazz Fest, the 7-day celebration of local and big-time music at the Fairgrounds- less than a mile away. A few weeks ago it was French Quarter Fest, a free weekend-long outside array of bands along the Mississippi River. I couldn’t hear it from here, but I could feel it in the rhythm of the streetcar we rode to get there:
tangible excitement, a carefree, everyone’s on vacation attitude
lingering in and outside of the car’s open windows.

Before this it was the Tennessee Williams Fest- a series of discussions about Williams and productions of his plays. A Brando-inspired STELLLLLLLAH! shouting contest amid crowds of hundreds at Jackson Square. We rode the streetcar there too, breezing past signs for the NBA Hornets team and an upcoming performance of the Vagina Monologues.

Coming up is Bayou Boogaloo, with food and music along Bayou St. John, then Greek Fest, Creole Tomato Fest, and on and on…. it’s simply a season of fests and sunny weather before the storm season hits.

And this year it’s also a season of Hornets. Not the kind that sting and stalk you. We’ve got the playoff variety- a western conference number two seed that just beat Dallas in five games flat. People are wearing teal, yellow, and purple just as much- if not more- than they wear black and gold during Saints season. Plus, the team now has fleur de bee merchandise- that’s right- a turquoise fleur de lis with a hornet shaped into it. The bottom of the fleur de lis is the stinger of the bee, or er, the hornet.

This is very smart marketing for a once Saints-only city. The Saints emblem is of course a gold fleur de lis.

Lately I’ve been seeing a lot of turquoise fleur de lis flags breezing by— hooked to the tops of cars and swinging from porches not unlike ours.

The porch is central to social life and tradition in New Orleans. Porches, particularly on shotguns, are designed to achieve maximum breeze. Our porch always rests in the shade. It’s oversized, open, raised four feet off the ground, and has two sets of stairs.

Porches are where friends and neighbors sit and talk about nothing in particular at night, starting at this magic time, at near dusk. If the mosquitoes are out, we burn citronella candles, or simply forget about it. On our street, the shotgun house porches are lined up so that if you turn your head to the left, you can look all the way through people’s porches until the next cross street. If you turn your head to the right, you can do the same thing. It’s a little bit like having a tunnel of porches on either side, a thin channel for that sweet breeze to blow through.

One of the most traditional, memorable scenes of Jazz Fest is the porch culture before and after each long day of music and incredible fest food. In the morning, people are on their porches, in rockers, folding chairs and sofas, selling bottled water, playing instruments, listening to music, or cheering the crowds of Jazz Fest goers on and on. At night, porch people living around the Jazz Fest scene drink, eat, chat, and invite strangers to join. There’s always a trumpet blasting in the street somewhere. Some people sell water for half price. Others vend memorable wears of the political variety. I picked up “Obama 504” – hand-crafted in Mardi-Gras colors at this year’s Jazz Fest, for $12.

Tomorrow I’ll wear this shirt to work because it’s Friday, and everyone around the city dresses down. Jeans, tee-shirts, sandals: it’s all part of this spring breeze—the few weeks between March and May when everything is tolerable, celebratory, and going on, growing strong. This year, we planted our first-ever garden during this magical time. We didn’t till the soil or pull up weeds, but somehow—the tomatoes, herbs, hydrangeas, palms, and fig tree— it’s all thriving.

Things tend to slow down to a lazy gravy pace in summer, when the heat is thick, the breeze is mostly gone, and the threat of major storms goes on and on. But the spirit of festivals, porch people, and that spring almost-dusk breeze never quite leaves.

All year long, you can see this spirit on the faces of the people here: a light relax in their smile, a dancing candle bright in their eyes.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Jazz and Rain

A Mardi Gras Indian at Jazz Fest '08

Haz and I were walking away from the Jazz Fest food stands with soft shell crab po boys in our hands when it happened:


We had been waiting for it all day. We just didn’t think it would arrive when we decided to grab a bit to eat.

Haz stuffed his New Orleans seafood sub into his mouth and quickly, as if on cue, pulled our rain gear out of the small backpack I was wearing. I wrapped my po boy in a napkin and held it in my hand.

Large, thundering drops pounded on our heads, bare arms, and jeans as we fumbled with our rain jackets and rain pants purchased several years ago from a grocery store in Japan. The jackets and pants were tucked neatly into his and hers green and blue pouches no larger than a paperback novel. Attempting to wrestle the gear out of the mini bag in pouring rain was no easy thing, especially with an increasingly soggy, smushed soft shell crab po boy in my hand.

As we fiddled with our Japanese rain gear, a troupe of Mardi Gras Indians started chanting and banging their drums and bangles on the Jazz Heritage Stage directly in front of us.

“Bring the rain, bring it down…. rain, rain, let it rain…”

African American men dressed in huge suits of florescent feathers and masks stomped and danced all over the stage. Mardi Gras Indian groups and parades are a huge part of New Orleans’ cultural history, with dances and costumes inspired by Native Americans. These tradition also takes cues from African cultures, inspiring a decidedly random mix that best exists in cities like this.

The Indians continued to sing as I finally managed to shimmy into my rain pants without falling into the mud. We could do nothing but laugh and vaguely dance as I resumed eating my soggy po boy and Haz struggled to get his boots through the legs of his rain pants.

We listened to the end of the Indians’ song and sloshed our way over to the Jazz Tent, where Terrence Blanchard and the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra were set to play movements from Blanchard’s Grammy-award winning album, "A Tale of God's Will (A Requiem for Katrina)." We stepped through the tent in our wrinkled, dripping rain jackets and pants we last wore while hiking a volcano in Japan. The rain outside stopped as soon as we found ourselves a seat.

I finished my po boy sandwich and we both shimmied out of our rain pants as Blanchard started his performance with two songs prominently displayed on Spike Lee’s documentary, When the Levees Broke. Blanchard’s music dominates the documentary, bringing a distinct mood to the interviews of Katrina victims and hurricane footage.

The tent was completely silent as Blanchard and the orchestra took over, evoking thoughts of Katrina and the extreme side of rainy days.

The last song we listened to was the eeriest. Just as Blanchard and another vocalist started to hum and drone in a low, bellowing tone, the rains came again, as if on cue. The rains grew louder and louder with the music. It all brought tears to my eyes.

We emerged from the heavy overtures of the Jazz tent just as the rain stopped. We both kept our rain jackets on just in case. We finally headed over to the Michael Franti and Spearhead concert, where Franti sang happy, upbeat, political songs like “Everyone needs Music.” The rains came down once again, and we struggled to throw on our pants again. The crowd got louder, Franti got louder, and the mud grew into sludge.

* * *

Haz had a chance encounter with Franti earlier that day, before the rain. I left Haz waiting while I braved the aisles of portable potties and reluctantly selected a stall. As Haz waited, a white van pulled up. Out jumped the members of the band Spearhead, along with Franti, the talented political vocalist who often performs with the band. Everyone was barefoot. Michael ran over and hugged Haz, as if he were an old friend.

“Love the shirt, dude,” Michael commented.
“Michael Franti?” Haz asked, bewildered.
“Oh, cool. I’m a big fan. I’m looking forward to the show.”
“Oh thanks man.”

With that, the barefoot band ran off with a soccer ball, dribbling through muddy patches of once green grass.

I emerged from the portable stall and the clouds grew increasingly impatient. Haz told me about his celebrity encounter as we made our way to the soft shell crab po boys at the food stands.

* * *

And finally, as Spearhead finished, a small, hazy sun emerged. The sun was strong enough to lead us over to the main Acura stage, where Stevie Wonder and Irma Thomas were finishing up his tribute to her grammy-award winning album, After the Rain.

Stevie sang “Superstitious,” just before we sloshed our way through mud and crowds out of the gate. The streets surrounding Jazz Fest were plastic wrapped with rain, fallen leaves, and neighbors peddling bottled water and dry porches. We removed our rain pants and jackets somewhere along Esplanade Avenue, the oak lined promenade to jazz paradise in New Orleans.