... and All That Jazz - The New Indian Express

... and All That Jazz

Published: 11th May 2014 06:00 AM

Last Updated: 10th May 2014 10:46 AM

It’s time’s Vaudeville town. Off the bustling and touristy Canal Street, towards the River Walk, where the Mississippi river straddles the city of New Orleans, touristy shops sport signboards with cheeky phrases like, “get your tail bit here!” —inside alligator heads gape in neat rows. Edvard Munsch-ish hand-crafted voodoo dolls, named ‘God of Romance’, ‘Goddess of Wealth’ to ‘God of New Ideas’ and even ‘Goddess to Make You Feel Sexy!’offer dark Creole promise. Among buffalo and antelope trophies on the walls, vibrant masks—from feathered feline eye masks to the spiky headgear of the Mardi Gras clown—seduce in the company of multi-coloured bead necklaces. New Orleans is a Mecca for experimental foodies who are looking for the Cajun delicacy, crocodile meat or neatly packed jars of pickled pig tongues. The city is distinctively bohemian—thanks to the influence of an invasion of myriad cultures in a span of less than 300 years.

“America’s Europe” was founded by the French Mississippi Company in 1718 and was named after the Duke of Orleans. It was ceded to the Spanish in the Treaty of Paris (1763), but soon reverted to the French. Napoleon in 1803 sold it to the US and soon there was an influx of immigrants; the French, Creoles, Africans, Irish, Germans, Italians and Cubans—all who all made New Orleans “the most unique city in America”. Its distinctive southern twang has found its way into American literature and Hollywood. The tours of heritage mansions with antique furniture, slave cabins and gardens are preserved to help the gawker time travel to the 18th century; even the  ‘haunted house tours’! At one time, New Orleans was a key slave trading port. During the American Civil War, it was a staging point to smuggle weapons and supplies to the rebels. But New Orleans’ most famous export is jazz—always within earshot everywhere. Be it on the River Walk as you eat, shop, take a boat ride on the Mississippi, or the lanes of the French Quarter lined with period Creole townhouses with intricate iron balconies dating back to the French and Spanish era, and cafes serving Café au lait with a hint of roasted chicory—jazz is life.

But night in New Orleans is not just about jazz but also about blues and soul at the sassy strip clubs and traditional jazz in nightclubs on the notorious Burbon Street as well as the Musical Legends Park.  Spontaneous jamming sessions by sidewalk bands start under the watchful eyes of mounted police. The city’s music frenzy reaches its peak during the annual Jazz Fest between the last weekend of April and the first weekend of May. The next boho frenzy time is during ‘Mardi Gras’—literally ‘Fat Tuesday’—a revelry of outlandish costumes, high octane music and dancers gyrating on floats.

New Orleans also has its finer, quieter moments. The streetcars operational since the first half of the 19th century—the oldest uniterrupted operating street railway system in the world—is the ticket. The St. Charles Avenue line runs an original olive green Perley A Thomas streetcar constructed in 1923-24. It passes through classic late 18th century and early 19th century plantation mansions in the antebellum style (pre-American Civil War) with neoclassical and Greek revival architecture. The Canal Street line runs along the unique Saint Louis cemeteries where the graves are overground vaults decked with elaborate sculptures and artwork. Most were constructed in the 18th and 19th century and are part of the Louisiana African-American Heritage Trail in the French and Spanish tradition; Paris is the only other city with similar cemeteries. With the peculiar soil composition of New Orleans, after heavy rains, coffins tended to float up when buried in the soft earth. The line passes the New Orleans Museum of Art, with 40,000-plus permanent exhibits from the Italian Renaissance period to Modern, along with  works by Monet, Renoir, Degas, Gauguin, Picasso, Miro and many more.

The National World War II Museum pays homage to the American war effort. The 4D multimedia recreations using aircraft, jeeps, tanks, guns, bunkers, posters relive the days of the war. There is trivia to educate the visitor on the economic and social effects of the war; how Americans were urged to share cars, donate spare tyres for military use and production miracles like Ford’s Willow Run Bomber Factory that was producing a warplane an hour by March 1944.

New Orleans is a buffet of experiences fashioned by history, civil wars, the slave trade, industrialisation and Hurricane Katrina. As saxophones and the blues haunt the air, the soul of the city is eternal and unyielding, assimilating and becoming enriched in the process.

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