The true blues of New Orleans

Can hiring a ‘cultural engineer’ help a hip new hotel become part of the city’s authentic music scene?

On the corner of Washington Avenue and LaSalle Street, just beyond the floodlit athletic field of AL Davis Park in New Orleans’ Third Ward, a hundred or so people gather late on a Saturday night in March. Rihanna blares from a sound system set up in the bed of a pickup truck. Amateur bartenders have set up neat rows of tables with cheap liquor for sale. A barbecue smoker on the back of a trailer releases fragrant plumes of hickory smoke into the night air.

It is St Joseph’s Night and the procession is about to begin. A city with both deep Roman Catholic roots and an alchemical power to transform ancient traditions into wild new ones, New Orleans had turned the Catholic holiday, traditionally celebrated by southern Italians who emigrated to the city in the late 1800s, into a cross-cultural mosaic of food, ritual and music. During the day, altars laden with elaborate baked goods in the shape of lambs and porcelain statuettes of saints are set up in the backs of bars, churches and private homes. Vast buffets of roast meats and pasta are prepared for the faithful. But at night, here where the Klieg lights cast long shadows, the celebration throbs with the beat of drums and inscrutable chants.

A Mardi Gras Indian in costume©Getty
A Mardi Gras Indian in costume©Getty

The Mardi Gras Indian tribes, one of New Orleans’ most distinct and colourful traditions, emerge in full costume on this night, as well as at Mardi Gras, to circumambulate their territory. There are about 38 tribes still active, with names such as the Wild Tchoupitoulas, the Seventh Ward Creole Hunters, the Guardians of the Flame and the Golden Blades. Their chiefs wear ornate hand-beaded costumes inspired by Native American ceremonial dress that can cost thousands of dollars in materials alone and take hundreds of hours to make. Weighing up to 150lbs, the get-ups are not so much a costume one wears but a sculpture into which one squeezes. On the apron, elaborate tableaux made of beads feature Native American braves, skulls, horses and flowers. On the crown, crests of feathers spread like a peacock.

Faintly heard beneath Rihanna’s hits, the sound of drumming draws some of the crowd down the block, past modest single-family homes and a graveyard. The drums grow louder and then a group of five or six members of the Golden Blades appear, resplendent in bright purple, red and yellow feathers, dripping with beads. They carry satin banners and chant. Around the clan, a few people gather, camera phones and tambourines in hand.

The Indians themselves divide into two lines, forming a corridor through which each member dances as the others chant their name. One man waves his flagpole to warn back observers, another, dressed in bright red feathers, spins tight circles in his wheelchair. The chief, Derrick Hulin, almost lost among yellow feathers, stands at one end. Behind him three men beat a drum. They sing songs such as “Hu-Ta-Nay” and “My Indian Red”, songs that have been sung for years.

The bar of the new Ace Hotel
The bar of the new Ace Hotel
These are half chants, half songs and wholly New Orleans. This is music not as performance but as culture. There are no tourists — with the exception of this reporter — no stage, no proscenium. It’s so powerful that it seems private and, though there are no barriers or malice to outsiders, it is. This small group of souls chanting on a quiet corner of the Third Ward is the beating heart of this city.
But the heart beat is growing fainter and irregular. Since Hurricane Katrina scattered many New Orleanians in 2005, the city has undergone a well-documented demographic shift. This shift is seen, felt and, above all, heard. It’s no secret that the music most closely associated with New Orleans is jazz and jazz’s forebear, blues. Nor is it a secret that it’s not simply the genre and musical excellence that makes New Orleans remarkable, but that the music exists in ways that are deeply embedded within the community. Think of the jazz funeral, a uniquely New Orleans tradition. It isn’t a concert; it’s ritual.
Front of the Ace Hotel
Front of the Ace Hotel

But as many studies have noted, those communities are being squeezed out or, rather, not welcomed back. According to the US Census, the black population of New Orleans has shrunk by some 100,000 since 2005. Because the storm disproportionately affected African-Americans, and because those displaced were the least likely to be able to afford reconstruction, the communities such as those in the Lower Ninth Ward, which traditionally have been the epicentres for black music so skilfully commodified and repackaged for tourists, have suffered the most. As Eric Porter, professor of American Studies at University of California, Santa Cruz, and author of New Orleans Suite, told me, “There’s a lot of love for the product of black culture but not for the communities that create it.”
It is in this complicated milieu that the Ace Hotel, the latest property from the Portland-based chain known for its hipster clientele, opened its doors last month. Like most hotels in New Orleans, this one is located in the relatively anodyne downtown area near the French Quarter. But unlike most others, the Ace employs a full-time “cultural engineer” to navigate thorny issues. Cultural engineers, essentially community liaisons, exist at all of Ace Hotel’s nine properties but in New Orleans — as opposed to, say, Pittsburgh or Palm Springs — community liaising takes on an added weight. Negotiating that relationship falls to a striking 33-year-old former restaurateur named Sonali Fernando.
Fernando grew up in Garland, Texas, but moved to New Orleans in 2002 to study at Loyola University. A former bartender, musician, music promoter and artist, she has seen gentrification close up as the co-owner of a bar and restaurant named Oxalis in the rapidly changing neighbourhood called Bywater. She is, she says, aware of the troubling trend of which the Ace Hotel is just the most recent and arguably coolest example: the hollowing-out of New Orleans’ black middle class, their relegation to service industry jobs such as those in hospitality, and the simultaneous and seemingly ineluctable gentrification of their birth city, borne on the very cultural capital they produced. “What we’re trying to do at the Ace,” she says, “is leverage business for culture. Not the other way around.”
Sonali Fernando, left, Ace Hotel's ‘cultural engineer’
Sonali Fernando, left, Ace Hotel's ‘cultural engineer’

That’s not always easy, especially in a city where tourists account for $6.82bn in annual spending. “I worry about that all the time,” Fernando admits. Much of what Fernando does involves bringing a sense of community to the Three Keys, a music and event venue tucked off the main lobby (and named after a song by the late New Orleans pianist James Booker). There, Fernando envisions, true cultural exchange can occur. So far, she’s booked acts that range from the local and folk, such as Sunpie and the Louisana Sunspots (a group fronted by Bruce “Sunpie” Barnes, an accordion-and-harmonica-playing former NFL player), to the garage-punk band Bottomfeeders. Then there are lectures by social justice organisations such as the local non-profit Institute of Women and Ethnic Studies — hardly what you might expect to pull in high-spending tourists.

“I am a transplant,” admits Fernando, “I don’t represent native voices. But I am very concerned about hearing and making sure those voices are heard.”

Tarriona ‘Tank’ Ball of R&B group Tank and the Bangas©Eric E. Simon

Tarriona ‘Tank’ Ball of R&B group Tank and the Bangas
After watching the Golden Blades gather on St Joseph’s Night, I stop in at the Three Keys, where one of those voices is being heard, loud and clear. It belongs to Tarriona “Tank” Ball, the lead singer of Tank and the Bangas, a soulful spoken-word/R&B group with a big following in the city and undeserved anonymity outside of it. Like many of the bookings, Tank and the Bangas don’t conform to the jazz stereotypes trotted out in the lobbies of convention hotels or milked on Frenchman Street. It’s New Orleans but it’s New Orleans now.

The room is packed and vibrating. There’s no stage here, just a wooden floor painted in a black, white and grey geometric pattern. Around her, so close that she can — and does — reach out to touch them, the crowd is a mix of local New Orleanian fans singing the words to all the songs and somewhat baffled but enthusiastic hotel guests.
By the time Ball says good night with an “I love you, New Orleans”, it’s two in the morning but the Ace is still busy. Fernando is in the lobby, surrounded by friends who show no signs of flagging.
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Not more than 10 hours later, I return to AL Davis Park. No clouds mar the sky on Sunday morning. A crowd has gathered, just a few hours after daybreak, for the public spectacle of Super Sunday, when the Mardi Gras Indians who paraded privately last night will return for a longer, more formal procession.

With expensive SLR cameras with massive lenses and fleur-de-lis T-shirts, the spectators are undoubtedly among the estimated 9.5m tourists who will visit New Orleans this year. The street has been set up for them. Food carts selling sno-cones, hot dogs, BBQ and andouille sandwiches line the park. The amateur bartenders have returned, or perhaps never left.

Then down Washington Avenue, a feathered figure appears on the horizon. He is a lone Indian brave, his face barely visible within its crown of feathers. As he walks solemnly to the park, he is encircled by spectators and stands silently. Unlike the night before, there are no drums being beaten. But the chorus of cameras, each issuing its own mechanical click, form a sort of chaotic drumroll. And this, too, is the rhythm of New Orleans.