Tag Archives: photography
I would still nominate the sign for the Eccentric New Orleans Hall of Fame along with coordinates of surreal mergings and logic-defying oddities. Such sites have been known to render tourists into a prolonged catatonic state of befuddlement. But there they are in their laid-back glory for anyone to see. Cases in point: the Saturn Bar, with its mummy hanging from the solar system, and the Aztec tomb in a Metairie cemetery.
One of my favourites among such “interesting” places is a psychic convergence of formal wear and fried seafood sandwich, the Carrollton Tuxedo Rental and Po-Boy Shop. It’s like something out of A Confederacy of Dunces. Imagine: with every fifth po-boy you got an extra day of rental. Their grease stain policy must have been lenient.
Alas, this unassuming landmark of quintessential New Orleans sensibility has gone to eccentric retail heaven, along with the Used Car and Jello Shot Junction. But in its heyday it graced Carrollton Avenue in Mid-City, my old neighbourhood. R.I.P.
Another time warp in my Louisiana series: a St. Joseph’s Altar created in 2003 on the front porch of a house in Carrollton, the New Orleans neighbourhood where I used to live. The tradition of creating and decorating altars devoted to St. Joseph every year on March 19 was brought to New Orleans by Sicilians and adopted by some African-American devotees of the popular saint in the Catholic pantheon.
Non-meat food offerings embellish the altars and are usually given to the poor at the end of the celebration. Bread offerings are often baked into shapes of carpenters’ tools such as ladders or saws, but this altar keeps it simple and efficient with a loaf of Sunbeam bread. The beads of moisture condensed inside the plastic bag are a typical phenomenon in subtropical New Orleans, which can be warm and muggy even in mid-March.
During the day, people knelt at the altar and prayed. In the second picture, the woman might appear to be reverently bowing her head, but she was actually dismantling the altar at the end of the day: many of the food offerings have been removed, but the rows of candles remain.
The adoption of Sicilian traditions by African Americans in New Orleans is not an unusual type of cultural phenomenon: the blurring of cultural and religious boundaries is the rule rather than the exception in southern Louisiana, which has historically attracted settlers from all over the world looking for opportunities in spite of the prevalence of diseases and natural disasters, and forcibly brought people from Africa as slaves. For many, survival meant mutual aid within their ethnic communities and interdependence among their diverse neighbours.
Louisiana’s “cultural gumbo” is not a cliché for nothing. Louisiana, especially along the Mississippi Delta, was—and is—a mixture of Spanish, French, African-American, Irish, Italian, Native American, Croatian, Cajun, Creole, German, Czech, Hungarian, British, Isleño (from the Canary Islands), Filipino, Mexican, Cuban, Guatemalan, Chinese, Vietnamese, Laotian, Thai, and more.
As a result of intermingling among ethnic and national groups in Louisiana, Germans along the Côte des Allemands, for example, became more French, translating their names from Zweig to Labranche, and from Troxler to Trosclair. Many of the original Louisiana Germans came from the Alsace region, which partly accounts for the ease with which they shared customs with Louisiana’s French. Some Louisiana Germans have become so distanced over time from their origins that they believe their ancestry to be Cajun or French Creole.
African-Americans intermingled and intermarried with French Creoles, Cajuns, Italians, and Native Americans, among others, and survivals of these blends among blacks can be seen in the French Creole language, St. Joseph’s Day altars, Zydeco music, and the customs of the Mardi Gras Indians.
It would be hard to find a group not influenced by black African and Caribbean culture in Louisiana. And the whole world, late in the twentieth century, tried to become Cajun by eating crawfish and dancing to Beausoleil.
Some groups in Louisiana seem to have had more permeable boundaries than others. Croatians, many of whom developed the oyster industry, created relatively close-knit communities with a tendency to preserve their own cultural heritage and not to mingle their customs with those of other groups.
And generally speaking, in the early settlement of North America, French colonists were more likely than British to intermingle their customs and blood with other groups. When I was researching Acadian culture in Nova Scotia, I discovered the extent to which the Acadians and the Mi’kmaqs, for example, had developed a close and interdependent relationship. One manifestation of the friendship between the two groups was of course their not-infrequent intermarriage. Another striking example of the degree to which both groups let down their boundaries was the syncretistic nature of a spring celebration that evolved: the return of the geese came to be celebrated in a hybrid feast blending Easter rituals with the Mi’kmaq Festival of Dreams and Riddles. I can imagine the consternation of the priests.
From the beginning of their settlement in Louisiana, the Cajuns continued to synthesize the customs that they brought from Acadia with the customs they found in their adopted land. A study of Cajun music, for example, shows influences from hillbilly music, blues, and Texas swing. If the Cajuns were viewed by the rest of the United States as unique and isolated, it was only by comparison with that amorphous category called the “mainstream.”
Throughout much of the first half of the twentieth century, the United States government instituted a policy of assimilation of the Cajuns in Louisiana, and until the late 1960s, many aspects of their culture were finally succumbing to decades of this unenlightened approach. Without a boost from the schools, the French language in Louisiana would probably soon have died out, for mine was the first generation of Cajuns, generally speaking, whose first language wasn’t French and who were increasingly unable to speak in the mother tongue of their parents and grandparents. With the advent of CODOFIL (Council for the Development of French in Louisiana), a more enlightened view of Cajun culture and heritage has permeated the curricula of primary and secondary schools of Acadiana, where Francophone teachers from France and Quebec have been hired to teach children the language of their parents.
Ironically, the movement for the preservation of the Cajun heritage threatened to turn a living culture into ossified museum artifacts. Cajun historical villages such as Vermillionville and Acadian Village recreated for visitors “typical” life in nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century Cajun communities, and people flocked to south Louisiana to experience “authentic” Cajun culture. Some forms of historical reflection, however informed or uninformed or misinformed, however laden with stereotypes or invested in historical accuracy, can contribute to the dying of a culture if there is an impetus to petrify it into some notion of its past–especially a past purified of other influences–instead of allowing it to grow, breath, change, and, most importantly, transform and renew itself from contact with other cultures.
One of the consequences of the policy of assimilation was an overall feeling of inferiority on the part of the Cajun people, a conviction that their culture was backwards and their French language less correct that that of their distant Parisian cousins. But pride is not without its pitfalls—pride in some notion of Cajun-ness, of a Cajun purity that never was and never will be. From the moment that the Acadians set foot on the shores of what is now Nova Scotia, they were influenced by the Mi’kmaqs and by the British, with whom they traded and fought. From the time that they settled along the bayous and swamps of the Atchafalaya Basin in Louisiana, they gathered still more influences in their vocabulary, food, customs, stories. Like any migrating group, they brought with and they borrowed from. Purity is an attitude that bears no resemblance to the infinitely re-folded layers of human culture.
Stepping into St. Roch Chapel in New Orleans feels like entering a shrine that isn’t quite real, like a movie set for the nineteenth-century yellow fever epidemic or a recreation of a voodoo shrine at an anthropological museum. I like to imagine that maybe it’s a place that is kept intact as a tourist attraction. I mean, does anyone still hang replicas of body parts on the wall of the chapel in gratitude to St. Roch for a miraculous healing? Or is it like the surreal gray moss dripping from crepe myrtle trees: something you suspect was hung there for the benefit of the tourists?
At places like this in New Orleans, it’s easy to feel as though you’ve crossed some invisible line and stepped into one of those parallel universes that string theorists talk about. The pennies and cockroach carcasses on the floor paved with bricks inscribed with “THANKS TO ST. ROCH” were sprinkled there by a movie director in the eighth dimension or a tour guide in the eleventh, to make the the place more convincingly reproduce the “authentic” dimension.
But no, it’s as real (or unreal) as the old ladies in Baton Rouge that I used to see praying to the statue of Huey P. Long on the grounds of the state capitol. And that reality is suspended in liminal space, trapped in a time capsule that seems as though it will always bear a close resemblance to whatever age in which its seal is broken.
I imagine sometimes that I feel nostalgic about living in New Orleans, especially when I rummage through my photographs, but really it’s mostly sadness that I feel, not a yearning to be there. St. Roch Chapel got about five feet of water. My neighbourhood was lucky. The area of Carrollton where I lived got only about two feet. I know many people whose homes were destroyed or heavily damaged.
But I didn’t leave New Orleans because of Katrina. Katrina only delayed my move to Toronto. There was a sickness at the heart of the city that caused me seriously to re-think living there. I could walk down my street and point to places where serious crimes had occurred: murder, rape, car-jacking, armed robbery. The racial tension was thick. Poverty, endemic. Public schools and other services, chronically underfunded.
I could easily turn this into a rant about the problems of New Orleans, pre- or post-Katrina. But I started off talking about the chapel. The tradition of placing a replica of one’s healed body part in a shrine or temple is at least as old as the ancient Greeks. There must be a lineage, a thread of tradition, that could be traced from those times all the way to St. Roch Chapel. Across the ages, the appeal to deities to be healed is ubiquitous. I suspect no one will ever put a replica of the city in the chapel, thanking god or saint for healing it. It’s a city whose inertia–whatever the cause–renders it in a state of constant deferral, steeped in nostalgia for what it perhaps never even was. When I think of the song “Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans?” I can imagine it sung only in New Orleans. It’s when I was living there that I missed it.
black asterisk in a black alphabet.
a question of the love of larvae. lovely
birth of larvae in yellow silk or yellow
brass. milky decorum or exo-skeleton
in the metropole. celestial urns and baskets, many
baskets mocking purple robins. why? paper cut
willow blues, willow socket shocks. motifs
appear. again, motifs and a coccyx twin.
sheepish angels in a starry slipcase mingle stone
or stones and blurry angels. a sudden folding,
a sodden book, abruptly sullen. is it signed
by paper prophets? is it numbered? acorns
are new. eels cascade. acorns are sadly news.
o bittersweet, bittersweet black sheep!
“black asterisk” was first published by experiment-o
For more information about the Zydeco Festival, see the official Zydeco Festival website.
“Als Kind verliert sich eins im stilln . . .”
Sometimes children get lost in silence
under the hood of the big bell
we get lost where it is cold and dark
and the escaping bird
breaks its wings against the bell wall
the great rim cracks
a thread of light slips through
we are lost our breath
falters in silence a memorized note and
one day it sings of death
no longer guilty as the rain
we will come back
to the loved earth like flies clothed in snow
Tom Clark, Easter Sunday
Probably I am an ordinary middle-class
believer in individual rights, the word
“freedom” is simple to me, it doesn’t mean
the freedom of any class in particular.
Politically naive, with an average
education (brief moments of clear vision
are its main nourishment), I remember
the blazing appeal of that fire which parches
the lips of the thirsty crowd and burns
books and chars the skin of cities. I used to sing
those songs and I know how great it is
to run with others; later, by myself,
with the taste of ashes in my mouth, I heard
the lie’s ironic voice and the choir screaming
and when I touched my head I could feel
the arched skull of my country, its hard edge.
Adam Zagajewski, from Tremor: Selected Poems
(translated by Renata Gorczynski)
As before, I’ve given the names that I recall. If anyone reading this recognizes anyone else, please let me know in the comments box. Merci!
For more information about the Zydeco Festival, see the official Zydeco Festival website:
The following four photographs are the first in a series; I’ll post the other installments in separate posts. I took the pictures in late afternoon, when the sun cast a golden light and the atmosphere took on the clarity of a lucid dream. It was a weekend of pure joy. And I haven’t even started on the food.
I’ve given the name of the one musician in this grouping that I recall. If anyone reading this recognizes anyone else, please let me know in the comments box. Merci!
The following short introduction to the history of zydeco comes from from the official Zydeco Festival website:
In the days of old, the Creole Community would gather at harvest time and work together to complete their tasks. When a family would have a bouchere` (butchering of a hog), everyone in the community would come over and share in the work and cooking of fresh meat.
When the work was finished, the people would celebrate and entertain themselves with a “La La” ( Creole French for house dance.) Instruments used to create “La La” music were the scrubboard (frottoir), spoons, fiddle, triangles (ti-fers), and an accordion.
When times got tough for a family, they would throw a “La La”, a Saturday night dance in the living room. Emptying the room of all furniture, they would charge ten or fifteen cents admission and sell gumbo, homemade beer and lemonade. Even churches would give benefit “La La” to support different functions of the church.
By most of the music being sung in Creole French, “La La” music was only thought of as being for rural and “old folks. One noted musician, the late great “King of Zydeco”, Clifton Chenier, is credited with naming the music ZYDECO “les haricots” (snapbeans).
In 1981 fearful that Creole and Zydeco music was dying out, “The Treasures of Opelousas” a group of concerned citizens under the guidance and sponsorship of Southern Development Foundation, organized the Southwest Louisiana Zydeco Music Festival.
The first Zydeco Festival in 1982 was started on a farmer’s field in the Plaisance community on the outskirts of Opelousas, with four hundred of our neighbors attending.
These traditions of yesteryear may be only a memory for some, but it is the testimony that the Zydeco Music Festival serves. A testimony to those who came before….to the ancestors who toiled in the fields under the hot sun to take care of their families….to those who shared with one another during good and bad times…especially to the ancestors who celebrated, laughed, and loved despite the hardships they encountered.
The Zydeco Music Festival is their offspring – a living reminder for us never to forget where we come from, to always appreciate and respect our past, and most of all to continue our legacy in keeping the rich culture alive.
Southern Development Foundation has kept the Original Southwest Louisiana Zydeco Music Festival alive and developed it into what is now known as the world’s largest Zydeco (“LA LA”) Music Festival.