The Big Easy Throws a Party
NEW ORLEANS — TO borrow words from Louis Armstrong, the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival is ``Somethin' Else!'' The 10-day blowout each April just completed its 25th-annual rendition of auditory nirvana. It combines the party atmosphere of Mardi Gras with the laid-back musical euphoria of Woodstock. With 17 styles of music by 580 groups, it's more like Gumbostock.
Typically, big-name national acts headline the shows. This year they were Aretha Franklin, Little Richard, B.B. King, and Herbie Hancock. But 90 percent of the musicians are home-grown Louisianans, increasingly recognized elsewhere, like Beausoleil, Wynton Marsalis, and the Neville Brothers.
As one festivalgoer, Alan Firestone from New Mexico, puts it: ``The fest offers a chance to sample a wide variety of music from Cajun to fusion, from classic Dixieland to funk rock, while sampling the incredible variety of Louisiana cuisine and observing the `eye candy' of interesting people.''
This year's festival attracted a record 424,000 visitors. They came ``to listen to good American music in the place where a lot of it started,'' says second-time visitor David Dombrowski from Baltimore.
Music fans could wander from one of 11 tents or stages to another, wallowing in waves of music while eating large quantities of Creole food. Although mobs churn through the infield of the Fair Grounds Race Track, harmony reigns in spirit as well as music.
``In all the years I've been coming to the fest,'' says Terry Lynam, a Michigan attorney on his 13th consecutive visit, ``I've never seen anyone look crossly at anybody else. People from every cultural, social, and economic level interact peacefully, without territoriality. Everybody is there to enjoy themselves. You can lay back or dance around, and no one's going to bother you.''
Known for its eclectic programming that ensures a wide variety of music booming out simultaneously from separate venues, the festival's offerings represent a mini-United Nations. Rhythms from Africa, the Caribbean, and Louisiana blend into a populist mix of beats and bounce.
The gospel tent, where a sign proclaims ``Jammin' for Jesus,'' seats 2,000 and is usually packed. As part of a showcase for church choirs and school gospel groups, the tent is filled with emotional intensity and foot-stomping fervor.
When the New Life Gospel Choir sang ``How Excellent,'' making a joyful noise in three-part harmony, glory hallelujahs rose to the heavens.
In sharp contrast to such tightly orchestrated vocalizing is the down-to-earth New Orleans music known as funk - a slinky, improvisational style of syncopated rhythm and blues. Bassist George Porter Jr. of the Meters sang a rowdy medley of Carnival classics such as ``Iko, Iko'' and ``They All Asked For You,'' revving up the crowd to a state of near-ecstasy.
While gospel brings a lump to the throat, funk brings out the dancin' feet: A tall, shirtless youth played air guitar and leaped like a whooping crane in a frenzy, while an elegant linen-clad woman twirled like a top in perpetual motion.
It's not surprising, in the city where jazz was born, that America's indigenous art form is amply represented, from modern jazz to traditional Dixieland to brass marching bands. In the jazz tent, premier vocalist Germaine Bazzle showed off her uncanny scat style by bending her voice to imitate half the instruments in her backup band. On Duke Ellington's ``Mood Indigo'' her voice swooped and ripped - first honeyed like a clarinet, then trading brassy riffs with her saxophone player, and finally shifting to the rollicking wah-wah sound of a muted trumpet. From growling to yowling, Bazzle filled the tent with more snap, crackle, and pop than a Rice Krispies factory.
Over at the Congo Square stage, the Mardi Gras Indians dazzled with their raucous call-and-response chants. Elaborately dressed in brightly colored ostrich plumes and beadwork, these ``tribes'' - who parade on Mardi Gras day - are social clubs composed of working-class black men who spend all year sewing costumes for their Carnival appearance.
Their songs, such as ``Two Way Pock E Way,'' are America's purest expression of the African vocal heritage, originally preserved by slaves dancing and singing in the city's Congo Square.
``When you put on your Indian suit,'' says Big Chief Jake (Gerald Millon), leader of the White Eagles tribe, ``a certain magic comes over you. It brings out the African in you.'' Melodically repetitious, the chants, powered by drums and tambourines, enthrall.
Blues performers at the festival seem to inspire anything but the blues in the audience. Singing ``Staggerlee,'' Taj Mahal cranked his acoustic guitar into overdrive, as if lubed by WD-40. ``Shake what you got! Twine your spine!'' he exhorted the audience, which obliged by shimmying like belly dancers.
Rhythm-and-blues masters are always in plentiful supply in this city. Solomon Burke, resplendent in a purple suit as shiny as Mylar, belted out classics like ``Tutti Frutti,'' as an assistant wiped his perspiring brow with a towel.
The beat is contagious at all the tents, and the audience hops nonstop in a Dancercise marathon. The Cajun two-steppers, moved ``avec joie de vivre, cheri'' to jaunty music like Beausoleil's. To the sounds of the squeezebox (a traditional button accordian), triangle, washboard, and fiddle, dancers spun and dipped, as Michael Doucet sang ``Quelle Belle Vie'' in double-time Cajun French.
For festival-lovers, the music born in Louisiana has become a universal language that stirs the blood. Both young and not-so-young obeyed singer Irma Thomas's injunction to get their ``backfields in motion.''
Taj Mahal expressed the prevailing sentiment among the hundreds of thousands of music fans, stuffed with crawfish, red beans and rice, and good vibes. ``It's nice to be at one of the most talked-about festivals in the world, where people from all over the country and all over the world are having a good time out in the sun.''
Let other cities organize the Olympics or host the stock market. What the Big Easy does best is throw a party.