Tuesday, December 23, 2008

NOLA Soul, Christmas Spirit: A Happier New Orleans

Lately, facing personal life storms, I hadn't given hope of a happier New Orleans much thought. I'd run my errands around town and even ventured into the French Quarter at night since returning last year, but my travels to the city's heart were not for pleasure, just work or duty-related tasks.

Ten days ago, however, I sat in a car with my aunt, cousin, and daughter, driven as a lady of leisure to see a show at Harrah's Casino on Poydras Street, and that's when I took it in, signs of normal New Orleans. Dare I say a happier New Orleans?

People crossed the street, laughing, talking, sometimes shimmying gleefully, carrying their Hurricanes in tall, curvy glasses where they belong. My cousin had trouble steering the car to the parking garage because of all the traffic. I looked to my right and saw Miracle on Fulton Street, a holiday display that features fake snow, food, and live entertainment, presented by Harrah's Casino and WDSU TV. This is its second year in NOLA as a "new tradition."

Under the spectacle's light-laden canopy teemed children, parents, and probably holiday tourists. I said, "What's going on here? Isn't this supposed to be a dead time in the city? Aren't these people supposed to be home with their families getting ready for Christmas? But they're here!"

The following week I decided to stop procrastinating and shop for a Flip Camcorder, something I'd been threatening to do for nearly a year. I wanted to blog my city coming back to life as I felt New Orleans fire in my own veins.

People say that New Orleans is magic, you know, and its people are connected to it by a soul energy. As the city goes so do we. Oh, we complain about our town, the heat, the rain, the crime, the overpriced rentals post-Katrina, local and state government mismanagement, and political corruption, and we know the city still needs help from elsewhere, but we still love our Crescent City unconditionally. We pray for its absolute recovery and against its loss of cultural flavor during the push for gentrification. We love the spirit and soul of New Orleans.

So, it was not the fake snow or the carefully styled Christmas decor that called to me from Miracle on Fulton Street as I passed it in my cousin's car. It was signs of NOLA celebration, the hope that I might catch its spirit and spring back to life in my own spontaneous second line parade.

About this time in my life, middle age, I need to gulp New Orleans soul, the courage to go against the flow of the mundane while keeping the celebratory rhythm of humanity, to bop and dip like the Rebirth Brass Band. I need the power to stand as my unique self with heart open enough to embrace every human and blessing. A blend of NOLA and Christmas spirit perhaps?

So, Sunday night I took my new camera like it was a talisman against dark moods and tested it at Miracle on Fulton Street. This is what I saw.

Not spectacular video, but okay for a newbie. Nevertheless, I had the feeling that the cosmos worked with me. I didn't know what life entertaiment Miracle on Fulton Street offered for the evening, but when I saw Shades of Praise, an interracial contemporary gospel choir, perform, I knew I'd come on the right night.

The choir formed before Hurricane Katrina in hopes of being a source of healing for one of the city's, even the nation's, problems, a problem that ironically Hurricane Katrina made more visible, our racial division.
In October 2000, two friends, Philip Manuel (a renowned New Orleans jazz vocalist) and Michael Cowan (a Loyola University theologian), had an idea to create a genuinely integrated organization. They wondered … if they brought black and white people together to do something fun, and meaningful, and valuable, might they create an environment where at least this small group of people could begin to get past the personal segregation that exists in life in New Orleans and in America.

So they each invited six friends who loved music, some black some white, to join a new gospel choir. And they convinced Al Bemiss, a highly respected New Orleans gospel choirmaster to direct the choir.

As fate would have it, the first performance of Shades of Praise was scheduled for September 12, 2001. And so, on that day of mourning in America, this small choir became a voice of hope in their first public performance at historic Trinity Episcopal Church.(History of Shades of Praise)
After Katrina, according to this
NPR story, the choir became "a lifeline" for its members and people who wanted to go home.
As the group's reputation for joyous, high-energy contemporary gospel grew, the disparate choir members found themselves growing into a sort of spiritual family. Hurricane Katrina affected them in the same way it did every other extended family in the city. The trauma of the storm was so devastating that no one was sure the choir would ever regroup.

Members worked the phones and Internet, and visited shelters looking for one another. After weeks of anxiety, everybody was finally accounted for. But more than a third of the choir members lost their homes or their belongings in the floodwaters. Suddenly, the group's role was not to be a symbol of racial togetherness, but a mutual aid society. (NPR, 2006)
In my video, the choir sings "Silent Night," using an arrangement similar to The Temptations version of the song. One of the ad lib lines is "In my mind I want you to be free." A good wish for New Orleans, a good wish for us all.

The choir follows "Silent Night" with "O' Holy Night," featuring soprano Consuella Lumas, and closes with "Emmanuel," a contemporary praise song, with solo by John King, Jr. The musicians accompanying the choir on the video are Vincent Dupre on drums, Matt Hampsey on guitar, Michael "Lucky" Harris on bass, and Al Bemiss on keyboard. Bemiss is also the director.

A choir spokesperson said the bass player, Harris, is called "lucky" because he's fortunate enough to have gotten a post-Katrina home in Habitat for Humanity's Musicians' Village. She also told the audience that the choir has CDs for purchase. You can order its Christmas CD Celebrate the Child at the Louisiana Music Factory, or at the choir's website, where you may also make donations or purchase its jazz CD.

"O' Holy Night" is one of my favorite Christmas hymns, and so, I enjoyed the performance, but I was especially touched because I remembered another evening when I heard the song and was far from NOLA. Christmas 2006, NBC's Studio 60, a show that's no longer on the air, had New Orleans musicians, including Troy "Trombone Shorty" Andrews, playing "O' Holy Night," in a beautiful scene on the show in tribute to the City of New Orleans.

The presentation moved viewers and offered an opportunity to donate money to New Orleans' Tipitina's Foundation:
The mission of the Tipitina’s Foundation is to support Louisiana’s irreplaceable music community and preserve the state’s unique musical cultures. The history of the Tipitina’s Foundation originates from the Tipitina’s music venue, a revered New Orleans cultural icon that continues to be instrumental in the development and promotion of Louisiana music around the world. The Foundation works to support childhood music education, the professional development of adult musicians, and the increased profile and viability of Louisiana music as a cultural, educational, and economic resource. (Tipitina's Music Foundation)
You can watch the Studio 60 video, a tribute to the City of New Orleans, and download the brass band version of "O' Holy Night" at my personal blog.

If you'd like to donate money to the Tipitina's Foundation, please visit its link above, or you may buy a copy of Fulton Street Live, a CD that includes 14 New Orleans jazz musicians and bands (not Christmas music) at Fulton Street Live. It's also a Harrah's Casino presentation and proceeds go to Tipitina's.

While my family and I watched Shades of Praise perform, we may have missed the "miracle" on Fulton Street, faux snow falling to the delight of children. So, here's a link to video of southern Louisiana children responding to Fulton Street snow.

This year, the faux snow's a little less miraculous, however, because a few weeks ago we saw the real thing down here. In some places enough snow fell to build snow men. You may watch video below of that unexpected snow falling December 11, 2008 on Poydras Street in downtown New Orleans, the same street on which Miracle on Fulton Street is located.

Snow falls in the CBD

For me, the miracle this Christmas season is the splash of normal I see in my town. Finally, I spy in the eyes of my fellow New Orleanians and southern Louisiana neighbors not post-Katrina salvation hallelujahs, but plain joy, the same light we see in the eyes of people all around America during the holidays. It's the plain joy I hope towns ravaged this year by Hurricanes Gustav and Ike will soon see again.

Survivors rejoice that they've made it through the storm and celebrate being home, but what they pray for afterward is the sense that their lives will come closer to ordinary on ordinary days, and that chaos doesn't last long enough to feel "normal." They hope not for the ordinary associated with boredom and mediocrity, but the ordinary that makes the good life possible, ordinary New Orleans magic associated with rest.

It is said that the ground must lay fallow or rest for a time, healing before we plant new seed. Perhaps this city needed to rest as well, and now it is ready for new seed, ready to bear our blessings again.

Bloggers Note: If you like New Orleans music, make plans to attend the New Orleans Heritage Festival this year. The line-up's awesome.

Cross-posted at BlogHer.com.

1 comment:

lilalia said...

Just love the fact that you've got a flip camera. Boy, of boy, here we go! Now you will be able to augment you wonderful text with videos.

All the best to you and your dear family this Christmas season! May the New Year bring you much love, health, and happiness.