Tuesday, December 21, 2010

East Meets West in Louisiana

Life's a voyage that's homeward bound.

-Herman Melville

Before moving to Louisiana, I lived in Alaska for six years. In some ways I felt welcome up north, and in other ways I felt like a Vietnamese-American wandering solo in a cold cold world, literally. I remember walking into a newly-opened Vietnamese restaurant in Anchorage on a zero degree afternoon. They sold pho, a hot Vietnamese soup that will cure what ails you. After I paid the bill and thanked the family staff, the proprietor asked me, "Your Vietnamese is still good. You must be visiting from the Lower 48." I explained that I had been living in Alaska for six years already. "How do we not know each other yet?" Truth be told, it was a reasonable question.

I moved to New Orleans six months ago, and though never having lived here before, Louisiana has quickly started to feel familiar. At fist I found the humid heat oppressive, but it didn't take long for my body to adjust, calling upon those sectors of my genetic make-up built for swamp life that had remained dormant during my Arctic years. Like the Vietnamese, Louisianans are foodies, across class boundaries; Just as I've seen a day laborer in Vietnam venomously accuse a street vendor of selling Thai rice with her beef dish, I've also seen a Cajun construction tradesman spit out a piece of boudin made with Uncle Ben's instant rice. Like Vietnam--my family's homeland--and California--my family's home--a good section Louisiana is comprised of coastline, and is dotted with fishermen. And in both Vietnamese and Louisianan cuisine, catfish and shrimp are prominent players; those little dried shrimp my grandma would sprinkle in clear-broth soups? You can pick them up at a local grocer here to toss in your gumbo.

For these and other reasons, it was no surprise when I learned of the Vietnamese community based out of a section of New Orleans appropriately named Village de L'Est. These new immigrants who had already once given up their worldly possessions to hit the high seas in search of America were some of the first New Orleanians to recover from Hurricane Katrina, and were seen watering their lawns within a week afterwards, without any significant assistance from the Federal government. "Just another monsoon to them," was one explanation I heard from a Vietnamese American.

Though not quite the first thought of New Orleans, the Asian presence here is real. So real, in fact, that the mystic subculture of Vietnamese in New Orleans formed the subject of a collection of short stories by Robert Olen Butler in Good Scent from a Strange Mountain. While not nearly as much a tour de force as in California, the presence of the Vietnamese immigrant population in the Big Easy is evident in the couple of strip malls holding court to about thirty Vietnamese restaurants, groceries, and shops. Behind one of those strip malls is a small canal that is chock full of water lilies and lotus flowers grown by these recent immigrants, farmers and fishermen to the core.

I was first made aware of the unlikely connection between Vietnamese and Louisianans by my co-worker Charles, who grew up in Central City, a black neighborhood with a multitude of corner stores and po-boy shops. It was during a work-related discussion of a Vietnamese-owned po-boy shop in the neighborhood when he said emphatically, "Listen, when it comes to po-boys, the Vietnamese community has learned to satisfy the tastes of the black community." I was both stunned and proud; Charles did not know I was Vietnamese at the time he made that assertion. But what he said made sense; in fact, one could argue that the po-boy sandwich of New Orleans is long-lost brethren to the similarly overstuffed banh mi thit sandwich of Southern Vietnam, also made with French bread.

These and other similarities were highlighted for me when my mother came to visit here from California just a few days ago. After first inquiring in her usual manner if I had met any eligible bachelors suitable for marriage and child-rearing, she then asked, "So do you buy Jazzman rice?" My mom delves into the details of the rice scandal consuming the minds and tummies of her and her retired Vietnamese friends in Southern California. "There's a new rice grown here in Louisiana, a white rice but that's better for you than jasmine rice and still tastes good!"

As the basis of flour used in noodles, dough, or simply as is, jasmine rice is the staple of every Vietnamese meal. "It's not as sticky, but because there's less sugar, it's better for older people with diabetes. People have been going crazy for it at home." By home, she is referring to an area in Southern California referred to as Little Saigon because of the quarter million Vietnamese people living there. In a hushed tone, she explained that sales have skyrocketed for Jazzman rice, the genetically engineered brainchild of three first generation Asians who grew up in New Orleans, working in tandem with agricultural scientists from Louisiana State University. The entrepreneurs almost single-handedly funded the start of this new crop in Louisiana, and emblazoned their packaging with an image of Louis Armstrong. With their connections in the Asian restaurant industry in-state, sales were solid from the beginning and continue to soar. The upset in sales of Thai rice in America spurred the Thai government to conduct genetic tests on the Louisiana rice, under a suspicion that it was a violation of a Thai patent. The tests results were negative for Thailand--a big win for the Big Easy grain.

Not long after my mother disclosed this tale we were strolling on some of the narrow streets of the French Quarter, when the local okra man passed us by in his pick-up struck stocked with vegetables of the Southern sort. In a lilt that I swear could be passed for Vietnamese, he crooned "I've got ooooookkkraaaaaa..." Right then my mother was on the phone with my father when she said excitedly, holding up the phone, "Minh, listen, listen! They sell vegetables on the street with that sing-song call just like in Vietnam!"

Eventually I took her to the famous Parkway Bakery for the New Orleans piece de resistance--the almighty po' boy. Between the two of us, we shared an alligator sausage po'boy, fully dressed, a fried catfish po'boy, also fully dressed, and a side of sweet potato fries. We sprinkled all with Crystal tabasco sauce. "So good," she mumbles, in between mouthful chews. "It would be perfect if they had Vietnamese hot sauce. Maybe you should give them a bottle."

She's right, and her suggestion is not a bad one. Will it be long before I see the Vietnamese rooster hot sauce sitting next to the ketchup bottles at Parkway Bakery? When that day arrives, I will know that I am home.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

First in Line for the Second Line

When I was a little school girl growing up in a vapid suburban town in Southern California, I would take my textbooks outside and do my homework listening to jazz music playing on the local public radio station. It was at the age of eight that I started collecting jazz compilations with whatever money I could scrape together and by the time I hit middle school, I was listening to Duke Ellington's Mood Indigo, Louis Armstrong and his scat singing, Billie Holiday and her crooning about love. I dreamed one day that I would grow up and experience the world of music and life, something totally antithetical to the homework and parochial school that defined my existence at the time.

Shortly after reaching that magic age of 18, I lived in Berkeley, San Francisco, Budapest, Hanoi, and New York City. I managed to sneak in some fantastic nights in jazz clubs in European towns like Krakow and Budapest, but while living in San Fran and NYC, for the most part I was distracted by the wave of local hip hop, punk rock, and alternative (emo) music that defined collegiate urban counter-culture at the time.

And then I moved to New Orleans a few months ago. It was then I began in earnest my search for old jazz--that one dominated by brass, by vocals, by all those things that once were part and parcel of great music, and that gave it mythological status in my pre-adolescent imagination. Searching high and low, I went to clubs on Bourbon Street (what a joke), Frenchman Street, Magazine Street, all the usual stops. And I learned that New Orleans is not unlike New York City; there is great music, but because of the size of the population and amount of clubs around, there is also mediocre music, and even absolutely unlistenable music.

So by now, I've heard really good jazz performances, right up there with totally lifeless, mediocre-skill performances. Like Goldilocks trying out chairs, my thirst for that je ne sais quoi in jazz continued--and was finally quenched when I went to a second line.

The second line parade is a tradition dating back almost one hundred years. So named because they used to followed a main line of a parade (the floats and main dancers), today they are something of a parade in themselves, characterized by a brass band and dancers in thematic costume. Second lines are hosted by Social Aid and Pleasure Clubs (S&P clubs for short). The earliest known predecessor to the modern S&P club dates back to 1783 and was called the Perseverance Benevolent and Mutual Aid Association (PBMAA). It was comprised of freed slaves who bought their liberty from their slaveholders by saving funds earned from various crafts on the side. The PBMAA served as a means in which the veteran freed slaves would assist their newly-free brethren.

After the Civil War, S&P clubs also began providing loans, assistance,
and legal counsel to the newly emancipated slaves. The end of the Civil War also left an abundance of readily available brass instruments formerly used by military bands, and Black brass bands began rising from the ashes. It didn't take long for the African-American tradition of the jazz funeral to form, wherein a multi-piece brass band would accompany mourners playing both dirges and songs of jubilation. S&P clubs began collecting dues in order to ensure a proper jazz funeral for its members and served as a rudimentary form of life insurance for low-income blacks in New Orleans, to whom these services were not available otherwise in a racially segregated United States.

Eventually, with the end of Jim Crows laws, the social service components of Social Aid and Pleasure Clubs became redundant, and hence removed. The clubs were transformed to Social Pleasure Clubs, or S&P Clubs. No longer was a death required in order for the clubs to perform; instead each club hosted a second line.

A second line performance is the culmination of a year's worth of preparation. Costumes are designed and prepared by specialized tailors and cost hundreds of dollars, as is the case with the exotic shoes sometimes made of alligator skin. The fashion genre is frequently some combination of funkadelic meets 40's chic--in other words, beyond description. Dances are highly stylized and rehearsed, reflective of a century of the jazz tradition, with flairs of African tribal heritage. The dancers are accompanied by a full brass band of 10 or more musicians, and sometimes there will be two bands battling it out, one hosted by the women's contingent in the S&P, the other for the men.

The paraders are accompanied by a caravan of revelers following them through the side streets of New Orleans for about four hours, stopping at neighborhood bars and stimulating some local business. And there are no lack of provisions for the in between; part of the caravan is comprised of vendors carrying little else than a cooler with wheels, chock full of light beer in cans, and a mobile barbecue follows throughout, luring the weary with the fragrance of grilled sausages, chicken and ribs. In addition to the vendors, there are also police nearby. S&P clubs are required to pay a pretty penny for a permit, which buys a day-long police escort, with officers on horse, motorcycle, and car.

Because of the expense and level of production, S&P clubs typically host a second line once annually, but in a town where you can throw a brick and hit an S&P, there is a second line every Sunday over the span of about nine months. Needless to say, I have been eager to witness this in the flesh.

But, as with many things involving music, dance, and alcohol, and New Orleans, second lines can also be rife with violent assault and murder. As early as the sixties, locals recall the occurrence of stabbings at a second line. The first second line after Katrina was marked with lethal shootings. And, just this fall, one of the first second lines had a lethal shooting, as did another soon after. In both cases the victims were unintended bystanders of stray bullets from a gang altercation that occurred shortly after the passing of the second line and their police escorts. In the latter case the victim was two-years old.

I found this element disheartening, and I did not venture to second line for several months after moving here here. But things seemed to change; In a compact little town like New Orleans, typically there are no informants after a murder, for fear of retribution. But in an uncharacteristic rage, witnesses and informants stepped forward and the murderer of the child was apprehended. Since then, not another incident occurred. Sadly, perhaps that two-year old was the sacrificial lamb bringing about at least a few months worth of second line ceasefire.

My first second line was two months ago, in the Irish Channel, hosted by the Prince of Wales Social Aid and Pleasure Club, one of the oldest dating back to 1928, and so named in the honor of a 1927 visit to New Orleans by the Prince of Wales. I was accompanied by my friend and former boss, Shawn, a talented photographer, who was well-versed in the ways of the second line and had a deep connection to the Mardi Gras Indians (more in another blog entry). I decided that between his company, and staying close to the police escorts, that I could finally venture into this world about which I've been so curious.

Last Sunday was my second, second line, hosted by the Dumaine Street Gang. I am now a repeat second liner.

What I saw at these events--or more accurately, what I heard, was what I had hoped for when I moved here, but what I couldn't find on the sanitized streets of the more affluent sections of the city. The degree of care in the costumes, the level of jubilation in the dancers was something I had never seen before, not in this country, nor in my travels abroad. Joy, sheer joy, and tradition; all these things clearly led up to what I saw.

And the music, well finally I was hearing local jazz. That kind of jazz that
is played only by those who have grown up surrounded with the stuff, in their schools, in their families, in their friends, in the history of their hometown, when that hometown happens to be where jazz was born.

Second line jazz is distinct from what I have heard in clubs and bars here and abroad. The players are clearly feeding off the surrounding dancers, and paraders, many of whom are friends and family, and you can hear it in the power and tone of the instruments, aside from the technical acumen. It is loud and it is powerful, enough to move hoards of people to dance, sort of like a high school marching band, but really really good, without the goofy uniforms, and played by young, Black, New Orleanians for the most part. In the span of four hours we pass under freeways, out of and into neighborhood after neighborhood, by hundreds of houses, rich and poor; almost always, residents perch on their stoop or peer out their open windows, dancing and smiling as their eyes and ears fall into the music.

At one point I wander over to the itinerant grill and meet up with Rudy, a teenager living in one of the public housing projects in Central City. He is a hefty kid, sweet, positive and kind, and I know him through my work (with an affordable low-income housing developer). Rudy is a second-line lifer, and stuffs his ears with second-line music at decibel 1000 every chance he gets. He is a parader of another S&P club, and goes out every Sunday to enjoy and support the other clubs' parades. It is a sunny, crisp, cool day, and I am bundled in a light sweater, walking along for hours already when he asks me if I'm having fun. I tell Rudy that the second line--this part of the world that comprises his whole world--is one of those reasons I am glad to live in New Orleans, and that it makes me happy. "Yes, indeed. That's why we do it. To make people happy, to make us happy. We parade through the neighborhood, lifting spirits one block at a time."

New Orleans is a strange mix of deeply-rooted culture, based more-often-than-not in the poorest segments of the population, sitting smack dab in the middle of a criminally rife neighborhood. It almost seems as if this has always been so: as a young man, Jelly Roll Morton played piano in brothel; as a well-established musician, Louis Armstrong traveled alongside a host of agents, most of whom were heavily involved in the mafia; King Oliver made his name playing in New Orleans' red-light district

This crazy little place is so damn thick with talent, and in some of the most dangerous segments of town. Search the Disneylandish streets of Bourbon Street, and you'll get little more than strippers luring frat boys and middle aged men while dancing to loud bubble gum music. In Marigny, you'll find lots of talented musicians, very few of whom grew up here, and many of whom you could bump into in Austin, New York City, or San Francisco. But follow the second line through the back streets of Central City, or along the edges of the Irish Channel, or around and about Treme, and you will hear the music, that kind of music for which New Orleans is fabled, that Storyville I once thought myself corny to want to be true. Though second line jazz has a modern flavor of its own, in many ways it serves as the folk music of New Orleans, serving communities with its boisterous power to bring about dance.

As I continue to listen to live music here, over and over I pose myself this question: What makes good music good? What is the secret of a good musician? Is it the hard living of New Orleans, the recklessness of it all that produces the countless legends that were born and bred here? Is it the nothing-to-lose mentality of poverty that pushes a great musician to give it all he's got? Is it the brigades of tradition and support the New Orleans culture has provided for the musically inclined?

I doubt there is a single answer. And I don't care. There is no lack of music here, great music, and lots of it. It was trickier than I thought finding that local sound borne of tradition. But now I know, and on many a Sunday, I am first in line for the second line.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Singing on the Brain

When I was a child, my parents would take me to their friends' house for kid-friendly dinner parties. Invariably, in attendance were doctors, pharmacists, and radiologists, all immigrants from Vietnam, and all with children my age and older. Almost as invariably, after the meal was eaten my parents would spirit us away just as the hosts were breaking out the karaoke machine; But not before my sisters and I could get in a good laugh and point with the other children at their parents making utter fools of themselves, hitting high notes that weren't high enough. It boggled my mind; these people worked so hard to come to this country, and struggled to become health care professionals in a language they barely knew when they escaped their own war-torn homeland...and yet, they could not carry a note to save their lives.

My parents, having the good sense to understand their limitations, spared us children from such humiliation and never participated in such activities. For that I was grateful. Always my mother surrounded my sisters and me with music, buying opera and classical music cd's, taking us to see the symphony and the ballet, and paying for piano lessons. But never did she or my father mistake us to be the Von Trapps.

And that sums up the early roots of singing in my life. As I grew up, time and time again, I observed the strange fixation the Vietnamese-American community--in fact, many Asian communities--have with karaoke. And this proved true again when I lived in Vietnam for a year while in my early twenties. It was my Vietnamese language teacher, also fluent in Japanese language and culture, who said it best: "Westerners love to express themselves through dancing; Asians love to sing."

Eventually, I too succumbed to my genetic predisposition and after a few shots of hard alcohol, I frequently found myself in random Asian-themed karaoke haunts while living in New York City. I knew I was bad, but with some liquid courage, on these occasions I was shameless, and had the security of knowing that everyone listening (and not listening) to my warbling were just as if not more intoxicated than myself.

Not long after leaving New York City, I moved to Alaska where I took up my second instrument; the fiddle. Eventually I had become able enough to start my own band and play a few bar and dance gigs, and I sang as little as possible in Alaska, except of course, when I encountered that old friend of mine--the karaoke bar. But other than those lapses of judgment, I rarely allowed my weakness for song interfere with my fiddling, though I envied those who could mingle the two. It was during my days as a public fiddler when I promised myself that if I ever got to choose who I could be reincarnated as, it would be a jazz vocalist like Billie Holiday, hands down. And, since that day had not yet come, I seldom opened my mouth to sing.

My aversion to singing in public while sober was noticeable. I recall on one occasion I had the opportunity to play music with some of my favorite living old-time musicians, the Foghorn Stringband. After a few hours of jamming, one of the players observed aloud that I would not sing, despite the crooning nature of oldtime music...But he was white; how could he possibly understand the ghosts of my Asian-American past? The karaoke indignities that my people and I have imposed on ourselves throughout my life?

Don't get me wrong; I'm not ashamed of being Asian-American. In fact I believe that, generally speaking, we are capable of contributing to the world in many ways like many other immigrant communities. I also believe that singing (and driving) are just not one of those ways. Though my position on this subject has softened somewhat upon my discovery of talented Asian opera singers, I still am convinced that I am genetically predisposed to NOT sing.

But then I went to the Spotted Cat Music Club on Frenchman Street in New Orleans. The Spotted Cat is known for its almost exclusively traditional style jazz, from swing to Dixieland, and other brass-related genres from a era far past. One night in particular, I caught Meschiya Lake and the Little Big Horns, a swing band with a comely female vocalist, clad in 1940's apparel, hair swept in an orderly chignon, with tattooed vines arching above her eyebrows. The musicians were proficient and her vocals were pretty, but more strikingly, she looked like she was having fun, smiling as her eyes fell on the dancers in the crowd.

She reminded me of the promise I once made to myself, of becoming Billie Holiday upon reincarnation. And that's when it struck me; I don't HAVE to die and be reborn as a woman who became a prostitute at the age of 12 and live a life of pain and suffering in order to sing (though it probably helps).

I mean, I guess I could just take singing lessons. Not for the purposes of ever singing in public, mind you. Just to be able to carry a note in the shower.

In a town like New Orleans, throw a brick and you'll hit a singing teacher. During an impulsive and somewhat feverish craigslist research session, I listened to a multitude of mp3's from various local voice instructors. I eventually came upon my future teacher, Maria, singing The Very Thought of You, and I liked it. Two days later, I am parking my bike in front of her quaint shotgun apartment in the Lower Garden District.

I like her almost immediately. Maria had been a jazz vocalist for twenty-some years, raised children, and at some point after moved to New Orleans by herself. In her late forties, there was a charming element of rebirth about her...lots of art on the walls, her own florals on canvas, and some Asian-inspired pieces from a different era. When I arrived she had just come out of the shower; petite in stature, her hair was wet and messy, but her white men's shirt was neatly fitted, and she wore heels, giving her a slightly disheveled but ladylike appearance. She tells me that she has only recently moved to New Orleans (4 years ago) which inspired her to sing again after years of dormancy. She sat at the piano and we began some voice exercises. Ah-ah-ah-ah-ah-ah-ah-ah-ah-ah. Ah-ah-ah-ah-ah-ah-ah-ah-ah.

In those 45 minutes, to my surprise we learn that I have a range of almost three octaves, and that my pitch is good. We also learn that I have no power or tone and that I tremor out of fear--to put it bluntly I have a wimpy singing voice. She also tells me that my speaking voice is notably below my natural range. I am not surprised; as a result of hearing enough ear-piercing Americans blabber on the other side of some cafe or hostel while traveling overseas in my early twenties, I actively began lowering both the pitch and the volume of my voice. Though I eventually would learn to speak more loudly in public settings, this effort at bringing my voice down a note (or three to be exact) only intensified when I began to practice law and spoke in courtrooms for hours at a time on a daily basis, side-by-side with mostly male colleagues, in front of mostly male judges, representing mostly male indigent clients.

With this revelation thanks to Maria, combined with the scars of my karaoke past, I realize that I am carrying life-long voice baggage. Maria tells me I need to quit it. Partly for shock value, she shares the story of Walter Cronkite, who like myself, also spoke artificially lower than his natural range, and eventually developed nodes in his throat.

A few days later, after some amount of peer pressure, I accompany my good friend Suzy to Buddha Belly, one of the many local karaoke-laundromat-bars in town. Suzy is smart, professional, and dedicated to her work, and at the same time, the picture of an attractive and charming white Southern girl. But she suffers from an addiction to karaoke I've seen primarily in Asians. I watch her wobble on stage as she shouts out a damn hearty version of Megadeth's Master of Puppets, stomping her high heel boots under the colored lights, as someone walks past her with a basket of clean laundry.

And, in her wake, after a few shots of something strong and liquid purchased for me, I sing two of my favorites; Lola by the Kinks and Heart of Glass by Blondie. I laugh hilariously during and after each song, partly because of the alcohol and the good company, and partly because it is apparent that my voice training has not yet come to fruition. My voice teacher Maria has her work cut out for her.

On my bike ride home, I realize what a travail it is for me to try to sing, even if just for my own enjoyment. Despite having played instruments for over the span of about twenty-five years, never did have I truly and wholly attempted to hear my own voice, until now, when I have relocated to New Orleans.

In the past I have learned to do the things I am surrounded by; having lived under the roof of two book-reading professionals for eighteen years, becoming a professional was second nature. Later I surrounded myself with Alaska and all of its rugged beauty, and I learned to split wood, ski, and ice climb. And now, I have chosen to surround myself with music--live music, of the kind I used to only catch on cd's and special public radio programs. While I have no delusions that this immersion will make a professional singer out of me, I do dream that one day I will be able to belt out Stormy Weather, The Way You Look Tonight, and other classics, hitting all the right notes with power...in the presence of only my dog and cats, with shampoo in my hair and water running down my back.

And until that magical moment happens, I suppose I can always catch a good jazz singer at the Spotted Cat.