Mu­sic of the Big Easy soothes the ghosts of hard times

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set­tings aren’t: you can smell the bayou and all but taste the po’boy sand­wiches.

You can smell the damp in­doors, too, in his novel The Tin Roof Blow­down, a must for out­siders who want a sense of the emo­tional and phys­i­cal land­scape postKa­t­rina. So too is the HBO TV se­ries Treme (a great primer on mu­sic, though the body count might make would-be vis­i­tors ex­ces­sively anx­ious about street crime). An­other must is 1 Dead in At­tic, Chris Rose’s di­ary of a city “with a per­ma­nent bath­tub ring around it”. It’s a raw and per­sonal read (Rose and his wife split up and he got ad­dicted to an­tide­pres­sants), but in­fused with a deep love for the city and a sardonic sense of hu­mour.

Both qual­i­ties were in ev­i­dence dur­ing a tour of his I joined, on which his “spirit guide” was Ernie K-Doe, “the clown and crown prince” of New Or­leans rhythm and blues. K-Doe fre­quently claimed that his 1961 hit “Mother-In-Law” was, with “Amaz­ing Grace” and “The Star-Span­gled Ban­ner”, one of “three songs that will last for eter­nity”. He also said: “I’m not sure, but I’m al­most pos­i­tive, that all mu­sic came from New Or­leans.” Rose, a lean, rest­less man with a nose fit for jour­nal­ism, was in­tent on con­vinc­ing us that that was true. As we set off from Jack­son Square, he told us that North Amer­ica’s first opera house had been on Bour­bon Street, as had the venue where Mozart’s mu­sic was first per­formed in the US. “That is now Big Easy Daiquiris. Oh, how we have pre­served our cul­ture!” At the end, fin­ish­ing as strongly as he had promised, he brought us to “the place where rock’n’roll was born” – where Roy Brown in 1947 recorded “Good Rockin’ Tonight” – “and it’s [now] a laun­dro­mat!” In be­tween, antsy, ar­tic­u­late, en­ter­tain­ing, he pressed the claims of Louisiana as the orig­i­na­tor of coun­try and an Michael Kerr was a guest of the New Or­leans Con­ven­tion and Vis­i­tors Bureau (newor­leans. com) and Bri­tish Air­ways (0344 493 0787; BA flies five times a week be­tween Lon­don Heathrow and New Or­leans; re­turns from £590. He stayed at the Ho­tel Mon­teleone (001 504 523 3341; hotel­monteleone. com; dou­ble room in early June from $195/£142 a night) and In­ter­na­tional House (001 504 553 9550; ih­ho­; from $159).

Friends of the Ca­bildo (001 504 523 3939; friend­soft­he­ca­bildo. org); His­toric New Or­leans Tours (001 504 947 2120; tour newor­; Know NOLA Tours (001 504 264 2483; know no­la­; Chris Rose (chris­ by Ned Sublette (Lawrence Hill Books); by Chris Rose (Si­mon and Schus­ter); by Lawrence N Pow­ell (Har­vard Univer­sity Press); by Freddi Wil­liams Evans. in­spi­ra­tion for reg­gae, and of New Or­leans as the birth­place of hip-hop.

Rose made the last as­ser­tion on the edge of the Treme district in Congo Square, which his­to­rian Freddi Wil­liams Evans calls “the root of African Amer­i­can cul­ture in the United States”. Un­der the French and Span­ish, not even en­slaved Africans were al­lowed to work on Sun­day, so they gath­ered there in their hun­dreds to sing, dance and trade, pre­serv­ing the rhythms, rites and rit­u­als of home.

Un­til 2011, the square was of­fi­cially called Beau­re­gard, af­ter a Con­fed­er­ate gen­eral. With metic­u­lous re­search, Evans, a woman of bright smile and pen­e­trat­ing gaze, was in­stru­men­tal in per­suad­ing the city au­thor­i­ties to fol­low lo­cal us­age and re­vert to Congo. She has also helped de­vise a self­guided tour of city slave-trade sites.

As I chat­ted to her at a cof­fee shop, she in­tro­duced Ma­lik Bartholomew, who runs Know NOLA Tours and agreed to show me the Treme. These things hap­pen in New Or­leans.

Bartholomew – whose fam­ily fled Ka­t­rina and whose par­ents have never re­turned – is a cheery soul with close-cropped hair, a great semi­cir­cle of beard and a gift for walk­ing back­wards with­out stum­bling over words or holed pave­ment. I haven’t room to do jus­tice to the ground he cov­ered, phys­i­cally, cul­tur­ally and his­tor­i­cally, over a morn­ing with me and two New York­ers, Erica and Chris. But Chris put it well: “I lived here for five years,” he said. “I learned way more to­day than I ever knew.”

We fin­ished by walk­ing un­der a stretch of free­way that in 1968 was cut right through the Treme to link sub­ur­ban New Or­leans to down­town. Homes, busi­nesses and an­cient live oaks were flat­tened, along a space that had long been the scene of black Mardi Gras gath­er­ings. Since 2002, in a “Re­store the Oaks” pro­ject, the free­way’s pil­lars have been painted with mu­rals de­pict­ing the slave trade, the strug­gle for civil rights, lo­cal he­roes from Ernie K-Doe to Fats Domino – and those lost live oaks.

Sights more ob­vi­ously touris­tic were on the itin­er­ary for two other tours I took, one an il­lu­mi­nat­ing stroll through the French Quar­ter with Friends of the Ca­bildo, a vol­un­teer group that sup­ports the Louisiana State Mu­seum, the other themed on ceme­ter­ies and voodoo, with His­toric For more than 150 years, street­cars have rum­bled along St Charles Av­enue on the “neu­tral Thanks to fires in 1788 and 1794, the only ex­tant build­ing in New Or­leans from the French pe­riod (and the old­est build­ing in the Mis­sis­sippi Val­ley) is the Old Ur­su­line Con­vent, built in 1745. It’s now a mu­seum (oldur­su­linecon­vent­mu­, with a new ex­hibit ex­plor­ing the Catholic Church’s three cen­turies in the Cres­cent City.

New Or­leans Tours. At St Louis Ceme­tery No 1, tighter con­trols have stopped devo­tees scratch­ing triple-Xs on the tomb of “Voodoo Queen” Marie Laveau, but they haven’t de­terred ad­mir­ers of the ac­tor Ni­co­las Cage from press­ing red lips to the white walls of the pyra­mid where he plans to be in­terred. A more deco­rous trib­ute sits in front of the tomb of the chess cham­pion Paul Mor­phy: one pawn.

I hadn’t heard of Mor­phy; I’m more fa­mil­iar with the achieve­ments of New Or­leans jazzmen. At the Jazz Mu­seum, where blast-proof doors be­tray its old life as the US Mint, I got a close look at the first cor­net used by Louis Arm­strong, which he played, ac­cord­ing to the cap­tion, “as an ado­les­cent at the Col­ored Waif ’s [sic] Home”. Across the room was the white Stein­way of Fats Domino, saved from his house af­ter Ka­t­rina and re­stored with do­na­tions from fans, in­clud­ing Sir Paul McCart­ney.

The mu­seum’s cu­ra­tor, David Ku­nian, tipped me off that Johnny Vi­da­covich, one of the best drum­mers in the city, was due to play that night at the Maple Leaf Bar. I rat­tled there in the dusk – past man­sions set like wed­ding cakes on lawn – on an­other his­tor­i­cal arte­fact: the St Charles Av­enue street­car, “the old­est, con­tin­u­ously op­er­at­ing street rail­way line in the world”. I got two bril­liant drum­mers for the price of one: Vi­da­covich trad­ing licks un­der the tin ceil­ing with Stan­ton Moore, ac­com­pa­nied by Ivan Neville on key­board.

“The Leaf ” re­opened af­ter Ka­t­rina on Septem­ber 30 2005, when most of the city was still dark and deep. Blues­man Wal­ter “Wolf­man” Wash­ing­ton and his band, pow­ered by a diesel gen­er­a­tor, got the joint jump­ing – un­til the po­lice ruled that a cur­few was still in force.

That, to me, ex­em­pli­fies the spirit of New Or­leans. Its peo­ple, what­ever is thrown at them, get up and get on. At the end of The Tin Roof Blow­down, Ro­bicheaux de­clares that “New Or­leans was a song that went un­der the waves.” Maybe it did, but it has re­fused to stay there.

I know they’re sung in de­fi­ance of ge­og­ra­phy and me­te­o­rol­ogy, but I pre­fer the lyrics to Steve Earle’s “This City”: “This city won’t wash away, This city won’t ever drown.”

French Quar­ter, above; his­toric street car, top; Preser­va­tion Hall jazz, be­low

Jack­son Square, named af­ter the man who beat the Bri­tish

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