Toxic Art 

As creativity and culture slowly return to New Orleans, numerous questions remain unanswered

I love New Orleans. But after anchoring myself there for half my life, I still don't understand it all that well. If this city has a soul, I think I've only caught fleeting glimpses of it.

One of these glimpses occurred in 1993, when I had the chance to meet musician Danny Barker. He was 84. I was 30. Michael Sartisky, the president of the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities, asked if I would write about Barker for the endowment's magazine, Cultural Vistas. I knew that Barker had played with Cab Calloway and wrote songs like "Don't You Feel My Leg," for his wife, Blue Lu Barker, to sing.

I arrived at Barker's doorstep one Saturday, and he let me in. I sat across from him while he pinned a microphone to his collar. He spoke quietly to himself. "I'll be using my intelligent voice now," he said.

He continued, now looking up: "I have 10 different voices: my intelligent voice, my jazz voice, my night-life voice, my day-life voice, black Northern voice, black Southern voice. That's interesting, eh? All the various voices you have to have when you have a brown or black paint job, you see?"

As he talked, he would constantly check in to make sure I was still with him: "You see?" "You understand?" He talked about smiles. He listed them all: half-watermelon, two-cent, nickel. He demonstrated each one, twisting his face, raising his eyebrows. He learned that lesson in Hollywood in the 1930s, when he'd been in a short with Stepin Fetchit. A smile, he said, was "a weapon--you use that to get in, and you use it to get out."

There are times in New Orleans when everything you think you know suddenly shifts, or fades into the background, or gets turned upside down. Danny could play those moments like no one else.

Danny Barker famously launched the brass band revival in New Orleans when he founded the Fairview Baptist Church Christian Band in the 1970s. Wynton Marsalis, who is now serving on Mayor Ray Nagin's 17-member Bring Back New Orleans Commission, passed through Barker's band.

"Sure, you get angry," Marsalis told interviewer David Hinckley about those days after Katrina when New Orleans slipped away. "But no angrier than you get all your life about a system that uses race, class and politics to keep us polarized."

Kid Merv Campbell also learned from Barker. Currently living in Tempe, with both his family and the other members of the great Treme Brass Band, he is well aware that his hometown has never been a profitable place for working jazz musicians. He doesn't see things really changing. "The people in power are going to do what they want to do," he says. "The people in the 'hood are going to do what they want to do."

Whatever the past relationship between government and artist, the music played on. Now, nobody wants that music to end. That's why Marsalis was invited into the top tier of city planners. And that's why we're all now talking about the culture. The rescue of Fats Domino became national news, and deservedly so. But the neighborhood that he chose to live in all his life is now in ruins. What will sustain him? What will sustain all of us who care about the cultural life of the city?

It is now a time for politics. Rough, abrasive politics. Cultural politics. Every home, every neighborhood, every social organization, every artist, must be accounted for.

We all know what it's like to buy into the myth. We strutted beside the brass band while the city planned an evacuation that would fail to include even the very drummer who was setting our tempo.

It's one thing to hear the music and feel like everything's all right. But most of us spent far too much time acting like everything really was all right.

"Two-thirds of what we call New Orleans culture is really myth-making," says the poet and commentator Andrei Codrescu. "People feed myths of the city back to the city. These myths are now in pieces."

It's about time.

sometime in the mid-1980s, when I was a college dropout and knew few people in New Orleans, I received a Thanksgiving dinner invitation to the home of the Randels family. The father was a Baptist preacher. His son, Jim, would become a public school teacher, and his daughter; Kathy, an actress and performance artist. Folding tables stretched across the main rooms. We all played charades after dinner.

That house is now lost to the flood. Jim went on to launch an inspiring public-school initiative called Students at the Center. Kathy went on to use her theater skills with women prisoners, with a theater group in Belgrade, and with high school kids in the Lower Ninth Ward.

Kathy and Jim are now getting ready to meet with a group that includes poet and teacher Kalamu ya Salaam. Kalamu has worked with Jim at Students at the Center, and is founding "The Neo-Griot New Orleans Project" to collect stories from evacuees. Other groups are talking about similar work, including The Neighborhood Story Project, which earlier this summer published a series of books written by New Orleans public-school students.

"I think there is going to be a lot of oral history and gathering stories," Kathy says. "The (Works Projects Administration) idea is coming up a lot."

In the mid-1990s, Kathy directed The Lower 9 Stories, a collaborative play for which students interviewed about 50 survivors of Hurricane Betsy, and then performed their memories. "Those students are now in their 20s, and now they've lived through it," Kathy says. "I keep thinking that one of the lines in the play was, 'It was a once-in-a-100-years storm.'"

Kathy thinks that post-Katrina art will resemble the work done by artists during wartime. It might not all be great product, she says. That'll come later. "Art is going to be a process of healing for our community."

Every New Orleanian now carries a piece of the grand narrative. In the absence of the kind of civic-minded leadership that produced the 1935 Works Projects Administration and the Federal Writers' Project, it's likely going to fall on individual artists and writers to hear the voices and assemble a better picture of New Orleans.

There's no doubt what Kathy and her husband, the musician Sean LaRocca, will do. The city is her mother, says Kathy, and she's hurting. But that's nothing new. "We've been in a triage situation every day in New Orleans," she says.

The creative impulse is scattered throughout post-Katrina New Orleans: a "Toxic Art" installation on St. Claude Avenue; "Radio Marigny" music blaring near Frenchmen Street; the new "Make levees, not war" T-shirts. Gatherings at Molly's at the Market, the now-legendary French Quarter bar that never stopped serving.

On Tuesday, Sept. 27, Hank Staples, the owner of the New Orleans music club The Maple Leaf Bar, was at Molly's. He was talking about how he wanted to bring live music back to the Leaf. He called drummer Kevin O'Day. They contacted Walter "Wolfman" Washington, who's been playing at the Maple Leaf for more than two decades.

Wolfman had stayed in his New Orleans home for 13 days following Katrina, living on liquor and steaks. But the mosquitoes were tearing into him. When the waters went down, he drove off. Now, he was in Ohio. On Thursday morning, he got in his car and drove through the night, arriving in New Orleans 20 hours later.

Five generators powered the show. The band played 3 1/2 hours past the 6 p.m. curfew. People spilled into the streets. The cops came and shut them all down. Just like old times--even if for just a few hours.

"By that time, we'd made our point," O'Day says. "Everyone had a chance to feel normal again."

The last time anyone heard from Larry Bannock was more than three weeks ago. In an Oklahoma Daily article dated Sept. 10, reporter David Zizzo described a "holdout" who said he'd been ordered from his home by armed guardsmen. The water had been up to the resident's chest. Now, he said he was being treated like a prisoner at an evacuation post six blocks from his home.

The reporter doesn't mention that the holdout, Larry Bannock, is the Big Chief of the Golden Star Hunters. In fact, Bannock is a renowned Mardi Gras Indian, a standard-bearer, a legend. He sews his own glass beads on his costume, goes out on Mardi Gras morning with his gang, chanting songs that go back generations. Bannock can tell you what lines like "Iko Iko" and "Hey Pocky Way" really mean.

Mardi Gras Indian culture is one of many New Orleans traditions that are easy to appreciate and impossible to fully understand. The Indians--actually African Americans, mostly men--come from working-class neighborhoods with names like Gert Town, which is where Bannock lives. Each year, Indians spend hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars constructing beaded and feathered suits to wear on Mardi Gras and a few other occasions. Chiefs keep the color of their new suits closely guarded secrets. On the street, they are guarded by Spy Boys and Wild Men, and announced with tambourines and chanting. When they encounter another chief, they lean back on their heels, open their arms and display their handiwork.

This pageantry doesn't take place in an auditorium or in a park. These are unsanctioned meetings that occur in neighborhood streets and beneath urban interstate overpasses. For years, Indians have complained about being harassed by police, being shoved to the sidewalks, even being forced to remove their suits. This past summer, Big Chief Tootie Montana arose from his sick bed to address the City Council to complain about this harassment. "This must stop," the frail man said, and then collapsed and died. Bannock was at his side.

I haven't been inside Bannock's house since I first interviewed him about 10 years ago, but I remember that the rooms are extensions of his suit, filled with Indian likenesses and statues. I know that he is a loner. A friend of his tells me he is diabetic. This friend is trying to find Bannock. He's checked the Red Cross sites. He's checked the morgues. "If you can't find the living, you start looking for the dead," he says.

I started looking for Bannock, too. At first, I just wanted to ask him the questions I keep hearing over and over, about the future of New Orleans culture. If Bannock was going back onto the streets, that would mean something.

I asked radio hosts and folklorists and attorneys and fundraisers who'd worked with Bannock. I talked to those few Indians I could reach.

At this writing, Big Chief Larry Bannock is missing. So are any answers he might offer about the future of New Orleans.

More by Michael Tisserand

  • On the Day Before Ashes

    Mardi Gras was a parade of misery, and everywhere you looked, people were laughing
    • Mar 9, 2006
  • Guest Commentary

    It's time to make some noise about New Orleans: It's time for a National Mardi Gras
    • Feb 2, 2006
  • Leaving New Orleans

    As families decide to leave the Big Easy behind, those who are staying feel abandoned
    • Nov 10, 2005
  • More »


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