Archive for February, 2008

Return to Snug Harbor: New Orleans Pt. II

Posted in Uncategorized on February 19, 2008 by Josslyn Luckett

I still have these pictures of me at Snug Harbor summer 1987, my first trip to New Orleans. I’m wearing this floral 1940’s dress I probably got at a vintage joint in Long Beach and holding a drink called “Sex on the Beach”. Thrift shopping on the beach, yes, sex on the beach? Are you kidding? I was a black teenage girl from lily white Irvine, California, with a dad from Jackson, Mississippi who owned MANY guns…of course I’d never had sex on the beach, the cocktail or any related activity. But all of a sudden I was far from home, in a place where my friend David Gautreaux told me if you’re tall enough to reach the bar you can order a drink. I was tall. There are many details to that first trip to New Orleans that are not altogether appropriate to share here, but I will say we left this set of Charmaine Neville with a certain local sax player who offered my friends very strong weed and for me, since I refused the pot and giggled at his heavy handed mack, he gave me a signed copy of book written by a Catholic priest (“Tragedy is my Parish” by the chaplain of the New Orleans fire department!)…I hope that sounds as funny/absurd to you as it does/was to me…see I knew this story would swing back to the sacred…(smile).

There used to be a blues joint called “Benny’s” I think it was uptown and we saw J’Monque’D there (if you can get a hold of it, please enjoy his CD “Chitlin’ Eatin’ Music”, he does a version of “My Home is a Prison” by Lonesome Sundown that gets me everytime ) and I would always remember the line he said to me–again I was 18, all wide eyed and straight out of Irvine– “If I was pretty as you, I’d wake up everymorning and kiss the mirror 100 times”!!! I’m particularly nostalgic about all this because I went on this first trip to New Orleans and later Jackson and Vicksburg with my childhood friend Sheila who happens to be in town this weekend from Oakland. Sheila ended up falling in love with our friend David Gautreaux and moving to New Orleans for a few years immediately following that summer trip. Last night over dreamy pozole, I tell her both about my recent trip and about the documentary, “Return to Goree” that I had just seen at the Pan African Film Fest a few hours before seeing her. I tell her I saw Sunpie! She remembers so well the night we first met him. “He was always such a gentleman” she remembers, “and didn’t he also work as a park ranger?” Yes. Please google the fabulous Bruce “Sunpie” Barnes if you’re not hip to his harmonica revelry. When we saw him 20+years ago he was playing harp with a blues guitarist, but since then he’s become quite a famous, internationally known Zydeco bandleader. Like Sheila, my strong memory of Sunpie was what a gentle soul he was. He didn’t try to rap hard to me or offer booze and herb, but instead his sweetness and the way I sensed that he kept a protective, yet unassuming eye on me was completely intoxicating. 20 years later I was a little gaga to lay eyes on him at the uptown New Orleans/Cuban cigar bar, Dos Jefes. I tell Sheila last night, “I think I startled him. You walk up to a musician in a club and say you haven’t seen him in 20 years and have something to tell him…who knows what was racing through his mind!” All I wanted to tell him was that that impression he made on me 20 years ago really had an impact…especially because at 18, I had basically only had consistent contact with 2 black men ever…my dad and my brother. I’d struggled so much with my dad’s grandiosity and rage and felt such heartbreak as a kid around my brother’s lack of interest in blackness…at 18, Sunpie was suddenly this brand new image of black masculinity, so gentle and so strong, so…yum….

So forgive me again if I’ve slipped into territory that might seem like oversharing for this blog, but I really felt like it was an important and specific memory…particularly as it relates to that first wave of media coverage after Katrina, when the news seemed religious in its determination to demonize the black men of New Orleans as looters, rapists and thugs–and I’m thinking where’s the footage of the harmonica playing forest rangers? Where’s the footage of the most gentle and kind black men I’ve ever met…why aren’t those New Orleans brothers showing up on Fox and CNN? I’m so grateful for the multiple Sunpie-like sweeties who happily affirm for me every delicious and righteous southern gentleman sentiment and have me involuntarily humming “Do You know What it Means To Miss New Orleans?” at the most interesting moments…

Youssou N’dour was taken to a session of the Mardi Gras Indians (similar to the practice of the Wild Magnolias I blogged about in part 1) by New Orleans born, drumming maestro Idris Muhammed. In the documentary, “Return to Goree” (please check out the website and see the divine trailer: Youssou defines what he’s hearing as Ashiko rhythms…he wonders how he’s hearing the exact same West African rhythm in New Orleans as he grew up with in Dakar. He even fathoms, “Were these farewell rhythms?” That was one of the most jarring/devastating/supremely moving moments of the documentary…listening to Youssou wonder if those rhythms were the last sounds my enslaved ancestors heard before being forced through the door of no return. Farewell rhythms. Do you know what it means, to miss….home. So there’s something extra chilling/thrilling about the cut away in the documentary to Youssou and Idris jamming at Snug Harbor one minute and then back to the harbor of so much trauma in Goree. And then on Goree Island, Idris happens upon a drum circle that he joins in on–and because he’s Muslim and knows Arabic, he’s able to tell the young Senegalese drummers, “All of what I play I play because of you” and then they share a prayer of gratitude.

You see I’m all over the place with my New Orleans recollections, but they are all so interconnected and profound for me right now…there’s definitely a call happening…and I will soon return.