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Experience ‘the big easy’ at its best - during Mardi Gras. Words: Ryan Seagrist
t‘s 47 days before Easter Strnday. The city
has been alive for over two weeks now. and
this day is the high point of the carnival season. The English translation of its name comes out as Fat Tuesday. but the immigrant French that played a big part in bringing the tradition to the shores ofAmerica called it Mardi Gras. The entire festival of beads and beer. parades and public display has since taken on the name and has transformed itself into something more distinct and complex than any similar occasion.
To be fair. New Orleans has been blessed by its French and Spanish roots (most of the remaining architecture in the ‘French Quarter‘ is actually Spanish in origin). But it may have benefited even more through its unique position as a hotbed of Creole culture. inspired music. seafood and benign debauchery. Jazz. was born here. You can order alligator and creme brulee jtrst as easily as a cheeseburger and fries. and the entire package comes a full three feet below sea level.
To walk down the cobblestone streets of Bourbon Street. soul soaked jazz music coming from every darkened and mist-filled alleyway. is to take a trip to a place lost to time and geographical identity. There are fortune tellers hunched behind crystal balls and gaudy signs in the square that lies within the French Quarter. the moderately sized enclave of activity that is just one part of greater New Orleans. You can
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see street performers. human statues. children tap dancing with bottle caps attached to their trainers and perhaps even New Orleans” ‘Chicken Man‘ who gained his nickname as a sort of voodoo circus geek.
The outlying areas hold even more of New Orleans’ trademarked mystique. Due to the city‘s low position relative to the water table. bodies in traditional graves resurfaced like mummified jack-in-the—boxes when ﬂoods hit the town. Above-ground tombs became the norm for the recently deceased to avoid this exodus.
You can order alligator just as easily as a cheeseburger
and those graveyards that remain are like lost. overgrown cities. The voodoo queen Marie Laveau‘s tomb. complete with pagan graffiti and tiny offerings. is reputed to be found in Graveyard No. I just outside the quarter. and it is still visited by fans of the occult to this day. it is said that if you leave three Xs on the tomb. the spirit of Marie will look favourably upon your requests. Oooh. spooky.
Unfortunately. one point of interest. a virtual bastion of musical heritage that once rested within New Orleans. is now lost to the annals of history. Storyville. an area first set aside for the
legalised prostitution houses within the city. was supposedly where the sounds of ragtime became strangely intertwined with African rhythms to form what we now covet as one of the purest forms of expression and musicianship. jazz. It is probably New Orleans‘s most coveted export. yet nothing is left of the original area except fora few tattered buildings. Greats such as Louis Armstrong. King Oliver and Jelly Roll Morton made their debuts in the seedy district as entertainers and eventually branched outwards when Storyville was ordered to be shut down in 1917 by the Navy. Its contribution was not lost forever though. as you can still hear the sounds of the pianos. brass and traps of New Orleans‘s music on any given night of the year. Jazz Festival or not.
Yes. it is certainly true that the French. Spaniards and African Americans have created for us a place that has had all traces of a specific identity erased incontrovertiny from its record. Even when Mardi Gras has run its course. there is a buzz about New Orleans that no place can quite equal. Perhaps this sense of immediacy and life arises because the entire location could be swept into the Gulf of Mexico by one mammoth hurricane and lost forever to all posterity. Or perhaps it was just at the right place at the right time. as an unsuspecting participant in some strange game.