We woke up on our third day in New Orleans ready for the main event, The New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. We packed up the backpack that would not only carry our 18 month old, high maintenance hitch hiker, but also all of the things we would need to get him through a full day out. The goal would be to get in a full day of music because as a high school friend of mine used to say repeatedly after a few beers “we didn’t come here to knit”.
The first act was scheduled to hit the stage at 11:10am so we would have 8 hours to navigate the festival’s 12 stages and 64 acts ranging from international touring acts like Santana, Avett Brothers and Public Enemy, alongside home grown talents like New Orleans Rapper Dee-1, St. Martinsville’s Nathan and the Zydeco Cha Chas and New Orleans born Jazz Trumpeter Irvin Mayfield.
Well aware that without warning a toddler meltdown or boredom could derail the whole day, we strapped the kid into the pack and made our way towards the fairgrounds
As you cross the dirt oval track at the New Orleans Fairgrounds Race Course, which is normally reserved for sprinting 1,000lb beasts all of your senses are immediately put to work. The excitement builds as you get closer to the music and the smell of food gets stronger. You can hear a blend of music coming from the different stages but as you gravitate to any one stage, the music from the others begins to fade. We were immediately pulled towards the sounds coming from the Samsung Galaxy Stage which acts as a secondary main stage. It was the salsa music of Rumba Buena. We threw out our blanket and stayed for a while and watched people Salsa dance in the blazing sun.
We then made our way towards the Louisiana Folk Village where a Native American tribe was demonstrating various traditional dances while a circle of men beat drums in a hypnotizing rhythm. As a crowd gathered and formed a circle, an olive skinned woman with a single feather rising from her head danced in the patchy grass. Her moves seemed uncomplicated but exact and graceful. As she kicked up puffs of sand, it was hard to take your eyes off of her as she majestically waved her fan made from bird feathers. She seemed unfazed when the Cajun band began to play a few hundreds yards away in effect drowning out the sound of the drums. When she was done we made our way towards the stage that we heard the Cajun music coming from.
The Fais Do Do Stage is where you can find Cajun and Zydeco music. We found a piece of shade under one of the few trees that are sprinkled around the massive infield of the racetrack. We threw down our blanket again and just took in the Cajun music of Geno Delafose and French Rockin Boogie. Devin and Serena dozed off and I just took the time to zone out to the sounds of great music I would normally not think to listen to. Steve Riley and the Mamou Playboys were next to take the stage and they kept the crowd dancing to their accordion and violin driven Cajun sound. I popped over to the Congo Square stage and got a little taste of the Brass-A-Holic’s high energy horns act. When I came back, my family was waking up, rested and ready to move on.
The main attraction of Jazzfest may be the music, but the food is some of the best festival food you will find. This isn’t your run of the mill carnival grub. This is locally owned vendors that endure a strict screening process, whipping up food that people from Louisiana do best, Soft Shell Crab Po Boys, Red Beans and Rice, Crawfish Monica, Beignets and my Jazzfest favorite Cochon de Lait Po Boys.
We next hit the Jazz and Heritage Stage to see something that has fascinated me since my first Jazzfest in 2009, the Mardi Gras Indians. There are around 38 Mardi Gras Indian tribes in New Orleans who spend the whole year hand sewing the costumes to “mask” for Mardi Gras but also attend other events around the city like Jazzfest. It’s a long standing tradition with a cast of colorful characters that dates back to the 19th century. It was shortly past 3pm and the Semolian Warriors were on stage. Three middle aged black men commanded the front of the stage, only their faces visible under their ornate larger than life outfits. Behind them a battery of men beat drums and tambourines creating an infectious beat that landed somewhere between Native American and West African. Their chest plates made from thousands of colorful beads, fluorescent colored feathers protruded out and flowed back and forth as they moved to the beat with a repetitive chant.
We watched the Semolian Warriors for a while then made our way past the Acura Main stage to catch a few minutes of salsa star Ruben Blades. We decided to seek refuge from the beaming sun in the Gospel Tent. It was nearing 5 O’clock and Devin was still hanging in there but we didn’t want to burn him out by being in the direct sun too much.
I have never been to a revival but when we stepped under the big top of the Gospel tent that was the feeling that came over me. Lisa Knowles and the Brown Singers were onstage singing their praises to Jesus with a full band backing them. We sat in the back for a while to just take it all in. Pretty soon Devin and Serena were dancing their way down the aisle past the white chairs towards the front of the stage. As Lisa Knowles repeatedly called for her new found congregation to “jump for Jesus” they obliged and this prompted Devin to dance and jump as well. He hopped and danced in the aisle and in that moment I wished we went to a Baptist church if only so he could dance and jump in the aisle every Sunday. When the song ended Lisa pointed from the stage towards Devin and said “I see a dancing baby out there” and Devin on cue pointed back.
Near the center of the fair grounds is an area where a small village is set up to celebrate culture. This year the focus was Brazil and it’s African roots with Casa do Brasil as the focal point. When we stepped inside the large tent there were men doing Capoeira.
I have worked in Brazil the past couple of years and only heard about Capoeira. “It was developed in Brazil mainly by African descendants with native Brazilian, probably beginning in the 16th century”. Originally used a self-defense technique for revolting or escaped slaves you can now find people performing Capoeira in and outside of Brazil. Given the amount of time I spend in Brazil I found it funny that I had to come to New Orleans to actually see it performed. Again, drums and a chant were the backbone of this dance as the performer glided back and forth clacking the long brown sticks in each hand.
For our last show of the day we made our way towards the Congo Square stage to see the legendary rap group Public Enemy. Chuck D and Flavor Flav rocked the stage with a live rock band and with their ever present fully fatigued soldiers flanking them. The performance was legendary! Ripping through iconic hits like “Fight the Power” and “Don’t Believe the Hype”.
One of the best parts of attending a festival like this one is being opened up to new music and artists you might not have otherwise known about. My musical find of the day happened during the Public Enemy performance when a young man was walking through the crowd and people were stopping, talking to and taking pictures of a man I had not seen before. He seemed genuinely happy to stop and hold a conversation with each person but held a definite star quality and swagger about himself. I wasn’t sure who he was but figured he was a young rapper that all the kids knew about and that I was just too old and out of touch to realize. Being a shoot first, ask questions later kind of person, I went up to him and asked if he would take a picture with my son. He was happy to hoist Devin up who at this point was screaming at the apparent betrayal of just being handed over to a complete stranger. I spent the next couple of days trying to figure out who he was and finally employed social media by posting his picture on Facebook and I got my answer within the next 12 hours, he was New Orleans based rapper Dee-1.
After a little research otherwise known as Wikipedia, I learned that he looked so familiar because he was on an episode of one of our favorite TV shows, Treme. I watched one of his videos on YouTube (Jay, 50 and Weezy) then I was hooked. I downloaded one of his albums, “The Focus Tape” and the whole thing was a breath of fresh air from the nonsense unintelligent chatter the mainstream pushes on us and calls hip-hop. And there was Jazzfest in action broadening my music catalogue.
Our day at Jazzfest was only a small slice of the festival as a whole. Another six days of music would take place at the Fairgrounds over the next two weeks. The festival has seen a lot of change since the first one was held over 40 years ago in Beauregard Square. The first Jazzfest had a limited line-up to a crowd of 350 people with a ticket price of $3.00. Mahalia Jackson was not in the original line-up but showed up to sing after hearing about the festival. In 1997 ticket prices were $12 and this year $50 in advance and $70 at the gate. In talking with the locals we encountered at the hotels and restaurants, I got the sense the average New Orleanian feels that the festival was no longer for them but one catering to out of towners. I thought about that, when Public Enemy frontman Chuck D, keeping with their ever present message of fighting social injustice began speaking about low income residents displaced from Hurricane Katrina that have not been able to come home to a crowd largely from out of town.
At the end of the day the festival follows through on its core mission ” to promote, preserve, perpetuate and encourage the music, culture and heritage of communities in Louisiana…”. Someone may have paid the premium price to catch a big name headliner like Bruce Springsteen or Robin Thicke but it is impossible not to enter the fairgrounds and get lost in the culture, history and multitude of lesser known but equally talented musicians. In addition the festival brings millions of dollars to the city through the flood of tourists that come for the festival and spend money while visiting the city. Festival producers contend that they have tried to combat rising ticket prices but in order to afford booking local talent big acts need to be hired, so do ticket prices.
With all of that said, I just hope the festival can continue to deliver the broad range of music and culture because it’s our favorite festival in one of our favorite cities in the country. At this point it has become a family tradition that we hope to keep going.