Susan Dalgety: The party city where only musicians keep time
New Orleans has a soul like no other place on Earth and not even Mother Nature’s worst storms can break it, writes Susan Dalgety.
Death is everywhere in New Orleans. Its cemeteries, where the dead are buried above the ground because the city sits on water-logged earth, are a wildly popular tourist attraction.
So too are the gaudily painted coffins used at jazz funerals, while grinning skulls hang from the doorways of “authentic” voodoo stores, and the Museum of Death in the French Quarter boasts artefacts from serial killers and grisly crime-scene photographs.
“There have been a number of ‘falling down ovations’ (people fainting) so… prepare yourself before entering,” warns the museum’s website.
It is perhaps not surprising that death is as much part of ‘N’awlins’ as Mardi Gras and jazz, given that life here is constant battle with Mother Nature, one that she usually wins.
The city is squeezed onto a scrap of fragile land, sandwiched between the mighty Mississippi River and Lake Pontchartrain. Hurricanes batter its shores with crushing regularity, and with much of the city built below sea level, floods are a constant danger.
Thirteen years ago, Hurricane Katrina, which claimed nearly 1,500 lives, destroyed half the city’s homes and decimated its population, almost broke its spirit.
And the response of the Bush administration, which idled while New Orleans drowned, exposed the mighty US federal government as not only ill-prepared for a disaster that was all too predictable, but hard-hearted, bordering on racist.
It was mostly poor African Americans who were trapped in the city after the deluge, waving frantically from rooftops for help that was slow in coming, or sweltering for days in the fetid Superdome, without fresh water or sanitation. Everyone else had been able to flee.
But New Orleans has bounced back, as it has done many times since it was established 300 years ago. In a bitter foretaste of its future, the fledgling city was destroyed by a hurricane only four years after the first houses were built.
“There is no other city like it in the USA,” explained Cordell, who finally made to the move from LA to NOLA – an acronym for New Orleans, Louisiana – a few months ago.
“I had been coming here a lot to party so, as I can work anywhere, it made a lot of sense to move here.
“I have a condo just round the corner,” he went on, waving his bottle of IPA in the vague direction of his French Quarter flat. “It costs me a third of what I was paying in California, and I get all this.” All this is a non-stop party.
We met Cordell in a bar frequented by locals, and the occasional wide-eyed tourists wandering in off the street, attracted by the raucous laughter.
At four in the afternoon, the party was in full swing. James, squeezed into a silver, sequinned jacket three sizes too small, was drinking Bud from a champagne flute, while handing out stuffed toys from a large bag under his seat.
“He always does that, he’s got a big heart,” explained Cordell, who came back from the bathroom with a penguin.
Shortly after we arrived, a roar went round the bar as another regular, rather the worse for wear, announced he was buying everyone a drink. Shots of Jameson were quickly poured in plastic glasses and passed round.
Someone shouted, “this is going to be a night to remember!” Cordell shrugged and said, “I am not sure I want to stay forever in New Orleans, maybe there is too much partying. Perhaps I will travel ... Belize, or Spain, or south-east Asia. What do you think of Spain, or Portugal?”
And before we could answer, the conversation turned, as it usually does, to “that man”.
“I see you have a Baby Trump,” laughed Cordell. “That is a brilliant idea. He will hate that. God, we hate him. He is so embarrassing.
“Obama was such a good president, you know. He was honest. Organised. Intelligent. He knew stuff. We were proud of him ... well, most of us.
“Even George W was better than this man. He is a gangster, no, he is the worst gangster, a crack-head, low-life gangster. We are so angry, and ashamed.”
There was nothing more to be said about President Trump, so we bought another drink, and toasted New Orleans, a city like no other.
Earlier in the day, we had visited Congo Square, in the Treme district, just beyond the fabled French Quarter and its hordes of drunken tourists, clutching plastic shot glasses, almost throttled by their cheap carnival beads.
We were alone, except for the ghosts of Africans, stolen from their lands to be slaves in colonial Louisiana.
Two hundred years ago, these men and women would gather every Sunday to remember their culture, to sing and dance and for a few, short hours, forget that they were no longer free.
It was here, in this square, that the drums and banjos of Africa, suppressed elsewhere in buttoned-up Protestant America, merged with European influences and jazz was born.
From the mid 19th century, the square was called Beauregard Square after a Confederate general, until 2011 when its original name was restored.
“Jazz is the only truly indigenous American art form,” declared the city ordinance, “and arguably its genesis was Congo Square, a true gift to the entire country and the world.”
That most Southern of gentlemen, the playwright Tennessee Williams, made New Orleans his home for much of his life.
He once wrote, “In New Orleans ... I found the kind of freedom I always needed, and the shock of it, against the Puritanism of my nature, has given me a subject, a theme which I have never ceased exploiting.”
New Orleans still has the capacity to shock. Bourbon Street after eight o’clock at night is not for the faint-hearted. Poverty still stalks the Lower Ninth Ward where Katrina did the most damage, and violent crime remains stubbornly high.
It has been often been described as the worst-organised city in America, where the only people who keep time are the musicians.
But it has a soul like no other city. A spirit rooted in the villages of West Africa, the plantations of Louisiana, and the shacks of Treme.
The ancient rhythms and heartsick blues of New Orleans have lifted the world, soothed its soul, and made it want to dance.
No-one, not even Mother Nature herself, can stop the life force that is N’awlins.