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The spirit of New Orleans: travelling to the Big Easy

27 August 2015 ( 31 October 2016 )

Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans in 2005, but even a natural catastrophe couldn’t blow away the city’s musical heritage and indefatigable spirit.

New Orleans, Louisiana
New Orleans, Louisiana

Thirty years ago, in a bar on New Orleans’s famous Bourbon Street, a stranger bought me a drink for the first – and only – time in my life. As a fledgling feminist, I didn’t know how to take this at all. 

Why would a stranger at the other end of the bar buy me a drink? There was only one way to find out, so I marched over and asked him. ‘You remind me of a singer, from my home town,’ he explained. 

It was a long way from the corny comeback I’d been anticipating, and perfect for New Orleans, which is stuffed full of singers – some of whom, it transpired that evening, are even flush enough to buy a fellow music-lover a drink. 

We chatted about jazz and the city, and I left with a list of the best places to see the best music in it, from the likes of the famous Preservation Hall to tiny bars such as the Candelight Lounge, where the Tremé Brass Band plays a weekly set.

The Big Easy

Returning to the city and its music scene recently, I hoped the Big Easy’s unique musical spirit – a winning mix of bonhomie, independence, enthusiasm and experimentation – hadn’t been destroyed by Hurricane Katrina. 

I needn’t have worried, as it’s clearly still in full force on Frenchman Street. 

Here in the happening Marigny district, the pretty late 18th- and early 19th-century Creole cottages and townhouses of the French Quarter give way to bars, bars, and more bars, most of them offering a wide range of independent craft beers, tapas-style small plates, and at least three live bands a night, often playing for nothing more than tips. 

Locals have their favourites, and the d.b.a Lounge, Three Muses, Spotted Cat and Snug Harbor come up again and again as recommendations, but the best thing to do is pick a sound you like from traditional jazz, ragtime, zydeco, bluegrass, Dixieland, bounce, brass and gypsy jazz pick-up bands, and head on in.

Gallic charm

Frenchman Street will give you a real sense of the city’s pulsating rhythm, but its origins are best explored back in the French Quarter.

A visit to the Cabildo Museum, sitting regally on the corner of the must-visit Jackson Square, reveals the city’s musical heritage – a path clearly followed from the music played by slaves in Sunday parades centuries ago to the brass bands accompanying funerals ever since (what a way to go). 

It is here as well that you learn the history of the USA’s most conspicuously Gallic city, reflected not only in the distinctively colonial architecture, but the place names, the cuisine, and – of course – the unique ambience. 

None of this seems to have been diluted in the two centuries since Napoleon sold the territory to the United States in 1803.

The home of Mardi Gras

An easy walk from the northern fringe of the French Quarter across North Rampart Street to the working-class district of Tremé, the eponymous inspiration for the HBO crime drama series, brings all this to life. 

In Congo Square and Louis Armstrong Park, musicians and dancers party as they have been doing since the turn of the 19th century, only now it’s amid statues of the city’s musical legends in a beautifully revamped 32-acre green space. 

A few streets away at the tiny Backstreet Cultural Museum, the link between the city’s most famous event, Mardi Gras, and its music scene is vividly illustrated with costumes, photos, artefacts and graphic ephemera documenting the history of the carnival and jazz funeral processions. 

And just around the corner at the St Augustine Catholic church, Sunday afternoons are when the amazing Soulful Voices Choir lets rip, accompanied by those musicians who sometimes form part of the funeral processions to the nearby St Louis Cemetery No1, opened in 1789, or one of the city’s other Catholic cemeteries. 

Thanks to the custom of building vaults above ground in the 18th and 19th centuries, these are as characterful as they are fascinating, and tours of the St Louis No1 are big business here, second only to tours of the Lafayette Cemetery No1 in the Garden District. 

It’s definitely worth visiting both, ideally as part of a tour for St Louis and solo, via the evocative St Charles Avenue streetcar, for Lafayette.

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A streetcar of desire

Plying the 12 kilometres from Canal Street to the uptown South Carrollton Avenue, the lovely wooden cars trundle past the university buildings and Audubon Park and zoo, much of its route offering passengers leisurely views of the Garden District’s sumptuous architecture.

 Here, grand townhouses, double gallery houses and raised ‘cottages’ cry out to be examined up close. 

Hop off the streetcar to explore these elegant streets and lunch on turtle soup with sherry at the beautiful Commander’s Palace, which has a handy (and free) walking guide to the district. 

And if you’re still here into the evening, the cosy Upperline’s tasting menu is a great way to sample the best of the city’s Creole and Cajun cuisine, from gumbo and jambalaya to mudbugs and oysters (but sadly no fried chicken – for that, Willie Mae’s Scotch House on St Ann St is the place to go).

The St Charles streetcar leads to another major music stop, and a fitting place to end a musical adventure, in the shape of the Maple Leaf Bar, a proper old-school venue that most Tuesdays offers one of the city’s best musical highlights, the Rebirth Brass Band. 

It’s just the sort of place where a young music fan is likely to be bought a drink by a local musician, but this time around, it’s where I made friends – and shared the tab – with an Atlanta musician and his wife. 

They conjured up such a vibrant southern music scene beyond the city we were in – from Morgan Freeman’s downhome Ground Zero Blues Club in Clarksdale, Mississippi to the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville and the blues clubs on Beale Street in Memphis – that I know I’ll be going back again for another magical music tour – hopefully sooner than in 30 years.

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