The last day of French Quarter Fest, we decided to quit fighting the crowds and enjoy the many international bands who’d flown from around the world to, as Julie Parker of K College in England said, “Have the audacity to play your music to you.” Recently, Japan has experienced a natural disaster that exposed infrastructure weaknesses and led to manmade devastation. That’s familiar territory for this city and the people here feel deep empathy for the people of Japan, just as they have for the people of Haiti. We decided to start the day with the Sound of Vespers from Japan.
I lived in Japan from the ages of 2 to 5. My first memory of a parade is not of Mardi Gras, but of wearing a beautiful kimono, a pink and white obi tied around it, and red wooden thongs with bells in the heels to make noise as I walked. The first food I remember was as full of history and ritual as any jambalaya or crawfish boil, but I recall dried shrimp and rice candy. The first culture I was immersed in focused on respecting elders and honoring history but rather than the gumbo of nationalities that have influenced New Orleans, Japan prides itself on the purity of its rituals and bloodlines. Japan is the first home I remember and I have not let myself feel the pain of watching my childhood home suffer on television.
Then I saw the faces of the men of Sound of Vespers. I felt a connection between what New Orleans suffered after Katrina and the BP Disaster and what Japan was going through and I realized that Tokyo was their home and they were going to have to go back to all that their homeland is suffering. That’s when I let myself remember it was my childhood home too and I wept. Inconvenient timing to finally connect but I think it’s the power of music at work, connecting us all, making us one.
At some point they played Just a Closer Walk with Thee, a funereal dirge. I hoped the band would see how far this city has come in 5 1/2 years and feel hope. Then the song did what all our dirges do, it became an upbeat parading song and out came a second line of silk fish flags, just like the ones I had as a child. After Katrina, there was a small second line through the Quarter a few days after the storm. My mother and I saw it as a sign that New Orleans would rebuild, that they had not killed the soul of the city, that it would rise again phoenix-like. Watching the visitors laughing and parading in circles with a Mardi Gras second line umbrella and their fish flags, I was filled with that same hope. Japan will find their way.
The band was stoic but playful, placing a hat, the kind our traditional brass bands wear, on the head of each person as they did their solo. I blew up a photo to see what was written on the top of the hat – Live and Let Live. Reminded me of Rebirth’s Do What You Wanna.
The dance floor stayed full as Toshihiko Iikubo, on cornet, led the band including clarinetist Tsuyoshi Watanabe, Hidenori Nishizuka on trombone, Wataru Ishida on banjo, pianist Toshi Sawachi, drummer Muneyoshi Tomita and Tsuneo Sekino on bass. Sound of Vespers is named for evening prayers and I definitely had a spiritual experience listening to them.
Next up was Lillian Boutté and the K College Band, some of whom I’d met at Miss Lillian’s concert Thursday. The band stayed for a week, taking time to plant trees and marsh grasses, sampling great food and taking in all the music. The head of the Music Department, Julie Parker, explained that the students were studying the music of New Orleans this year, that their final project would be to perform a concert of NOLA music and that they would, in fact, be graded on their performance that day! I really hoped they didn’t suck.
I needn’t have worried. When they struck the first few chords, I realized they’d been schooled in the sounds of the Dirty South, they were funky and even soulful. By the time the blue-eyed beauty, Helen Garrod, sang Galactic’s Heart of Steel, taking on Irma Thomas, I was on my feet and singing along. The band rotated instruments as often as a volleyball team and with as much precision. It was impressive to see how many of them played a multitude of instruments and played them well.
They seemed to have a special connection to NOLA favorite, John Cleary, a native of England. They brought that energy to his More Hipper Than What You Got. I continue to marvel at how far reaching the culture of this region is, how treasured. It reassures me to see the next generation from across the world playing and endeavoring to honor this music. They played Dr. John and even Pocky Way, a local standard, all with confidence and showmanship. It was all very impressive. We were asked to vote either Pass, Merit or Distinction and we made our approval clear.
They had also had the good fortune of meeting Shaka Zulu, a Mardi Gras Indian who educated them about Indian culture and music in the Mardi Gras Indian Gallery in what will soon be a West African restaurant on Rampart across from Armstrong Park.
Then, Lillian Boutté joined the kids onstage. She took the place over immediately, showing them how a master rolls. Accompanied by Richard Simmons on piano, she spread fierce joy. Though we’d just seen her a few days before, this was far more intimate, she was only a few feet away. She invited some women onstage and the 3 of them sang back up as Helen Garrod sang Natural Woman and I could only imagine what a thrill that was for her.
After Miss Boutté clicked the heels of her red wooden shoes and all I could think was There’s no place like home, the show ended with Barefootin‘ and everyone dancing in bare feet. For the names of all the talented musicians, please see the photos and thank you to bass player, Nils O’Hara, for inviting us to see the show.
Last was Threadhead Records artists Ensemble Fatien with their African beats. They were the first band I saw at my first French Quarter Fest last year so it was fitting that they’d be the ones to close the weekend for us. That was also the day I met their singer, the wonderful and talented Margie Perez. We walked past all the families eating crawfish out of giant foil roaster tins and enjoyed everyone dancing as the Ensemble played.
At last year’s Satchmo Fest, Seguenon Kone spun like a Tasmanian Devil while playing a giant xylophone-type instrument hanging from his neck so when I saw them clearing space on their cramped stage, I realized he was crazy enough to do the same thing surrounded by obstacles with a 6 foot drop on one side. And, just like last year, it was thrilling, frightening – in a good way, like on a roller coaster. Oh, and the guitarist killed it.
Walking home, we were reflecting on what a great 4 days it had been, how nice it was to end with the smaller, less crowded International stages, when life threw us a bit of lagniappe. Coming toward us down a French Quarter street was a brass band in traditional dress. As they passed my clapping hands, I saw where they were from. Belgium. Music is universal and that’s what French Quarter Fest is about – the tentacles from the past reaching through our generations into our hearts and around the world.