Tuesday, April 29, 2008

The Second Line

I just discovered that Lafayette, Louisiana, a small city in the heart of Lafayette parish, has some of the best-tasting, well-blended food in all of the Americas. I arrived there with the Garifuna Collective, and tasted the food and the warmth of the place. By the morning, I’d fallen heart, belly, and soul in love with Lafayette.
Perhaps it was because the place reminded me so much of New Orleans; in fact, resembled New Orleans compressed into a city of 300,000. The city plays host to the same cultural elements that form the rich cultural mileau of New Orleans – the African slave and French European mixture known today simply as "Creole." The Cajun, an entymological spin-off from "Acadian," from that area of Quebec, Canada, is what the people from that region – exiled by the British from Quebec during the French-Indian war – still call themselves to this day. Then there are the immigrants of Irish, Italian, German, and Eastern European Jewish descent that it shares with cultural metropolis like Brooklyn, Philadelphia, and Miami.

All of these groups experienced adversity and discrimination in varying degrees, from the Cajuns who persisted despite laws against the use of their language, to the Creoles and former slaves who recreated an entire African past through their music - the strong pull of the bass drum, accentuated by a washboard in traditional Zydeco music, felt in the soul, pain, and earthy groove of Louisiana blues of bands like the Black Magnolias. In similar fashion, around Mardis Gras time, the "Black Indians" still flaunt their feathers with a regal bearing and gravitas But when on Bourbon Street on Fat Tuesday, the bandleader asks Where yat?” everyone just says “I’m here.”

Perhaps that explained my comfort level in Lafayette; it is wonderful, the mix, that is ever so conscious of its roots. The musicians from the Garifuna Collective who I was traveling with seemed to agree with me. Their bellies full with crawfish, etoufee, red beans and rice, cornbread, and pudding, they told me that Louisiana “felt just like home.”

Coming from a play at the Cites des Artes following the Garifuna Collective's show that weekend at the Festival International, I walked right into a raucus Zydeco march that was traveling down the street. It was a thrilling moment - the energy of the band, the night stilt-walking man, and the blare of the brass band coming up from my rear. A new musician friend of mine whips out his sax and starts to riff some buttery lines off of the syncopated brass chorus. The chorus repeated and repeated, and we were intoxicated with nothing but the pure unleashed, earthy energy of a Louisiana crowd. In the midst of trying to steal couple of shoulder-mounted camera shots, I realized, though we were a hundred miles away from New Orleans, that we’d fallen into something of a "second line."

The second line is a tradition born out of brass band parades in New Orleans - the tradition of pageantry and procession, associated with New Orleans' famous (and now endangered) "jazz funerals" of black musicians. The "second line" originally referred to people who were attracted to the music, as opposed to the "first line" of musicians, mourners, and their friends and family. Customarily, these people would follow behind the "first line."

Despite the devastation of Katrina of human life and the artist community in New Orleans, jazz musicians continue to mourn their lost ones with a grand musical celebration starting with a slow dirge and ending in a beautiful cacaphony of brass and rhythm - a life-affirming tradition that no flood, no chains, no poverty, could stamp out.

My own experience with sudden loss came before Katrina, in September 2001, when I lost father suddenly to a drowning accident thousands of miles away. For years, I grasped in the dark wondering, how to pay tribute to his memory. This year, in 2008, Andy Palacio, bandleader for the Garifuna Collective, passed away after I had been following his career as a documentary filmmaker, when in the village of Barranco, I marched with 5000 mourners down a dirt road to his burial, I knew that I had been paying tribute to lost loved ones all along. I had danced into filmmaking with reverence, and when on stage with a camera in hand, reaching into the inner parts of my jazz-loving soul and embracing a powerful new music.

The joyful praise of a jazz funeral and the beauty of the black Indian costumes so intricately designed throughout the year leading to one important day of remembrance and celebration, are traditions that reaffirm my the celebratory rituals of our communities. My people, and our cousins all over the black New World, like the Garifuna, the Trinidadians, and Belizean Creole, have for over two centuries cultivated this street sanctuary known as the Carnival, the fete, the bacchanal, or the second line.

But creolized carnivals and parades are not as a place of temporary spiritual recovery or temporary amnesia. Our pageantry, leading up to a one-day explosion of ecstatic expression that lies just below the surface, is a way of remembering our losses and reaffirming our collective originality - that we can claim the originality of others because as descendants of communal cultures, it is a part of our common heritage. In an era when digital technologies and media threaten to erase our memory of generations past are far-distant, I think we should never forget this legacy.

I’ve come to think of life as a second line. While the band is passing your way, it is imperative for you not to watch, but to join. If you don’t have an instrument to pick up and play, you just go on in and groove. You dance for your life, for the spirits within you, for the lost ancestors who continue to guide your steps.