Monday, December 6, 2010

Streetwise Radio in New Orleans

Story and photos by Shelah Moody

“Blues is played by New Orleans musicians with soul and understanding of the soul that lives inside us. An instrument is only what you make it do …an instrument does not make you…Musicians have learned that…You can take a piece of wood and make it talk, but it’s not going to talk unless you do something to make it talk. An instrument will lie there all day long and if you don’t make some kind of noise to make it sound like an instrument, it’s not going to do anything.”—Walter “Wolfman” Washington

Although New Orleans is known as the birthplace of jazz, the city has a vibrant cultural heritage that produces some of world’s most creative music in the genres of blues, reggae, hip hop and Latin music.
This summer, during the five year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, I toured the New Orleans club scene under the guidance of reggae artist Ben Hunter

(  An eclectic singer/songwriter who has produced albums such as “Voodo Reggae,” “Soul Avenger” and “Traveler: A Healing Album for the City of New Orleans,” Hunter is a survivor was featured in the independently produced documentary  “Baptized At Katrina: A Refugee Story.” Hunter calls the aftermath of Katrina the worst catastrophe in the history of this country. Hunter is currently working on his next album, “Delta Dub,” a mélange of roots reggae and New Orleans rhythms, produced by renowned Jamaican artists Wayne Jobson and Barry O’Hare.
Our first stop was Vaughan’s Lounge in the Bywater district, at 800 Lesseps St., where acclaimed trumpeter Kermit Ruffins plays on Thursday nights. Ruffins’ Thursday night sets have become so popular that he is featured in New Orleans Official 2010 Visitor’s Guide and in the HBO series “Treme.”  (Other jazz greats with ongoing gigs in New Orleans include the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, Mondays, Rebirth Brass band at Maple Leaf, Tuesdays, Irvin Mayfield at Irvin Mayfield’s Jazz Playhouse, Wednesdays, Ellis Marsalis at Snug Harbor, Fridays, Jeremy Davenport at the Ritz-Carlton, Saturdays and various Cajun musicians  at Tipitina’s on Sundays).
I caught Ruffins and his band as they were playing  the theme from the popular HBO series “Treme” and  a cover Chuck Mangione’s “Feels So Good.”  Ruffins comes from the Louis Armstrong tradition of playing and singing and entertaining. He has an ebullient sense of humor and  serves as the DJ, spinning dance tunes between sets. .
During Ruffins performance at Vaughan’s, Hunter introduced me to New Orleans legend “Uncle” Lionel Batiste, 78, co-founder and bass drummer for the Treme Brass Band. Uncle Lionel’s image is immortalized in Congo Square and in a painting by artist Brandon Delles at the Three Muses nightclub.  Uncle Lionel summoned me to the dance floor while DJ Kermit played James Brown’s “Sex Machine”  and twirled me around a few times.
Uncle Lionel embraces the sweetness of life; he loves to dance, drink beer and he also sing. He co-founded the Treme Brass Band more than 20 years ago; his nephew, Benny Jones (snare drum) is the leader. The Treme Brass band is famous for songs such as “Gimme My Money Back.” Uncle Lionel will proudly tell you that he born and raised in the Treme.  He comes from a large family and his mother delivered all of her children by midwife. Uncle Lionel  has also appeared in “Treme” and in Spike Lee’s post Katrina documentary “If God Is Willing and Da Creek Don’t Rise.”
          As the eve of Hurricane Katrina approached, Uncle Lionel reflected on its aftermath:  
“It was all so touching to me, because everyone had to move out. What New Orleans went through with Katrina touches the heart because a lot of your neighbors; you don’t know what part they’re in. Three of my friends that I grew up with, went to school with and played ball with lost their lives in the water. It still crosses my mind as I wonder where they are.”
Incidentally, Uncle Lionel keeps in shape by marching with the bass drum for at least four hours at a time. 
       At the Caribbean themed Café Negril, 606 Frenchmen Street, you can see Higher  Heights reggae band, which is made of a group of New Orleans musicians. They played the most soulful and  original cover of George Michael’s  ballad “Careless Whisper” that I’ve ever heard. Lead vocalist Earlette “Ijah” Hodges  eloquently mastered the complex lyrics of dancehall queens Sister Carol and Tanya Stephens. When they spotted Hunter in the crowd, they called him on stage, and he sang a bouyant cover of Burning Spear’s  “Slavery Days.”
          Frenchman Street is a popular gathering place for  New Orleans musicians, dancers and visual artists.
          From a car on  Frenchman Street, painter Joe Parker was selling his signature pieces while a local brass band played in the background. His work was surprisingly affordable; he was selling paintings for $20 to $60.
“Most of these (pieces) are primary colors; really bold lines and shapes,” said Parker. “Jazz is the heartbeat of New Orleans,  so I put both of them together. My style is fresh. It’s not seen a lot. Right now, I’m working with wood and acrylic.”
Parker is self-taught and has been painting for six years. “Mood Swing” is one of his favorite paintings. “It has the ability to see a woman in more than one aspect,” said Parker. “Like music, depending on the rhythm and the sound, it will change that for you.”
At the Three Muses Mediterranean restaurant at 536 Frenchman St., ( you can hear the classical, reggae, Flamenco and jazz guitar stylings of  Javier Tobar. Tobar hails from Ecuador, South America and has lived in New Orleans since 1979. Tobar collaborates regularly with Ben Hunter and appears on Hunter’s CD, “Traveler.” Tobar pointed out that jazz greats such as Louis Armstrong and Dizzie Gillespie were influenced heavily by Latin music.
This summer, Club VASO.  nightclub at 500 Frenchmen St. was the  site of the Cutting Edge Music Festival . The showcase attracted new and unsigned artists, such as rising R an B singer Innocents, (Texas)  from across the country.  At the showcase, I met hard working entrepreneur Henry Turner, Jr.  ( owns a recording studio and label based  in Baton Rouge, LA.
Turner gained popularity through is Louisiana reggae/funk/soul band, Henry Turner  Jr. and Flavor. Turner is also promoter of the Bob Marley Festival, which features predominately independent artists.
New Orleans has produced celebrated rappers such as Cash Money, Lil Wayne and Juvenile, Mystikal and 5th Ward Weebie. At La Maison de la Musique,  508 Frenchmem St. you can catch DJ Jubilee, the master of Bounce music, a pungent style of hip hop unique to New Orleans. Bounce is a sexually charged style of hip hop that encourages rapid shaking of the derriere and other X-rated moves on the dance floor. (Since this is a family blog, we cannot show you most of them).
On the August 29, the actual anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, I caught Walter “Wolfman” Washington’s Sunday gig at the Maple Leaf Bar, 8316 Oak St. The Grammy nominated blues singer/guitarist has been playing there for more than 25 years. Wearing a natty red suit and smoking on the terrace between sets, Wolfman was feeling fine.
Born and raised in New Orleans, Washington  began singing  in the church choir with his mother.       
“From there, I created a spiritual vocal group called the True Loving Full Gospel Singers,” said Washington. “We didn’t have a guitar player in the group so I decided to try to play a guitar. I always wanted to play the guitar. I made my first guitar out of a cigar box and clothes hangers and some rubber bands. One of my uncles had an acoustic guitar and he showed me how to finger it and how to tune it. I had a chance to go listen to a spiritual group at WBOK when they had spiritual groups on Sundays. We decided to go and play with them. I saw a guitar player  playing with all of his fingers. I decided I wanted to learn how to do that. At that time, my guitar was tuned differently because I was playing with just one finger. My uncle showed me how to tune it. My mother wanted me to try to play the guitar like a keyboard player; at that time she wanted me to play the piano. I made her a promise that I would try to play like a keyboard player. To make a long story short, that’s my style of playing.”
Washington, who plays a Gibson guitar,  is known for songs such as “Out of the Dark” and  “Fun While it Lasted.”
          During a pensive moment, Washington reflected on the Hurricane Katrina anniversary.  
          “Well, Darlin,’ I’m going to tell you to the truth…I didn’t. I really would like to forget about it. I can’t because there’s too much around me that reminds me of it. I’m just glad it’s over and that it will never happen again-that New Orleans goes down to the point where people think it’s never going to come back. You see, I was one of the last musicians to leave New Orleans after Katrina and one of the first musicians to come back after Katrina. The Maple Leaf was the first club in this area to have live music. We had like five generators going. There are good memories. I just didn’t like coming back to a city that was so dark. No light and stuff, no people. That night, when I played here, it was a night like tonight; everybody came out. They stopped us, because the police didn’t want us to go any later than midnight.”


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