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New Orleans #5: Mulate’s
In my last evening spent in New Orleans, I have a choice. I can seek out Cajun music and culture, which brought me here to begin with. Within walking distance of my hotel, that rather constrains me. Cajun Cabin no longer has live music. Michaul’s, post-Katrina, is only open Thursdays through Sundays. The only option left is Mulate’s, a tourist trap next to the Convention Centre, with a cockroach sighting only last week, and with no good words from anyone online about their rendition of Cajun cuisine—least of all by Cajuns themselves. But with a decent rotation of Cajun bands, and the offer of Cajun dance lessons. (Or was that Michaul’s that offered that?)
Or, I could follow the advice of my concierge, bypass the horrors of Bourbon St, and go to the genteel surrounds of Faubourg Marigny, for some delightful Cajun/Soul Food at Praline Connection, followed by a performance of contemporary R & B stylings by Charmaine Neville at Snug Harbor.
I am typing this from across the road from the Convention Centre.
Now, I’m white. Not as white as some, but still plenty white. And to me, jazz stopped ca. 1930. (Things White People Like had a good post once on how white people get into black music a generation after black music has moved on to the next thing; make that three generations for me.) So I don’t know if I would really get the contemporary R & B stylings. I got a good dose of jazz last night anyway, at Maison Bourbon; and I couldn’t leave Louisiana without *some* Acadienité.
And the poor food and hour-long delays and unwelcome crawling guests? I guess I’ll just keep repeating to myself: I’m doing this in atonement for the Grand Dérangement.
When the sullen invitation was extended at the door to dine at a table or the bar, I picked the bar. I figured, easier access to alcohol, to dull the pain of the Grand Dérangement Culinaire; and more foot traffic, so possibly less likelihood of creepy crawly gatecrashers. I disappoint my New Orleanian hosts, who have good reason to poke their nose up at the mention of the Convention Centre (never mind Bourbon St); but I’m a reporter dammit, I need to find if it’s really as bad as all that (and whether the music redeems it).
Alors, laissez les bon temps rouler!
Well, ils ont roulé. Didn’t notice any roaches. I stayed clear of the mains (les entrées), and limited myself to a couple of appetisers, which were inoffensive but hardly amazing. The bread pudding *was* amazing—and was the only thing any online reviews had a kind word for: a quivering cube of porous toffee. My seatmate compared it to a blueberry muffin.
There are a couple of downsides to eating at the bar. One is, you have seatmates. And for reasons gone through in a previous thread, American seatmates are inclined to talk, and I was too polite (and too alcohol-fuelled) to say “no, I don’t think you’re going to have a revolution here to take back your rights, the Feds are always going to have more guns than you.”
Oh, hang on. I *was* alcohol-fuelled enough to say that. But I said it in passing and quietly, and this was the kind of bar discussion where everything gets assented to and affirmed, so there was not much point staking my social-democratic ground.
That’ll learn me to lug my eeePC along to the bar. I was actually halfway minded to liveblog my food, but mercifully I was out of battery since (a) I had mistaken the plugged in cable for the not plugged in cable at the hotel; and (b) the eeePC was drawing comment. Not adverse comment, or “mug you later in the alley” comment. It did draw “huh, that’s a tiny computer”, but not of the knuckle dragging “wot iz computer so small” variety; it was either “I’ve got the next model up” or “that makes more sense than a Blackberry”. The randoms across from the Convention Centre may have looked random, but were savvy about their hardware, and the aesthetics of the iPhone user interface. Of course they were: they were from the Convention Centre.
The iPhone has conquered this country, btw. Anything that keeps Cupertino afloat is fine by me, but I will still try to resist the blandishments to buy one. Which will be difficult, now my boss is a convert.
The other downside to eating at the bar is, it was the opposite side from the music, and what with the din of diners (and the stream “right-on, I hear ya brother” from my seatmate), I didn’t hear the band well enough. In the second half, once my seatmate took off to see if Bourboun St had changed any in the last five years, I managed to get a seat up close.
The band was not on fire. I don’t really blame them, they were playing three nights a week for bored conventioneers. In truth, I’d say they were playing more for the two elderly white couples that were two-stepping to pretty much everything they played. I’m assuming they were Cajuns, keeping on doing their Cajun thing, and that’s great. (My seatmate certainly thought so; then again, my seatmate thought everything about the venue was authentic.)
But with the crude dichotomies that underinform my understanding of the States, I felt they should have been playing more for the black waiter in dreads, who did a little cakewalk to the music at the start, and (I couldn’t really see, but I think) two-stepped a round with a colleague soon after.
Because black people have rhythm or something. OK, that’s indefensible of me, and given the latest brouhaha about Australian insensitivities to race involving a New Orleanian, I should not be making that kind of surmise in public. But, I plead, they should also have played for this guy because this guy had humour and liveliness about his approach to the music; he wasn’t being reverent and slow-mo, he was going to let his toes tingle no matter how sedate the pace of the music. And of course his dancing was likeliest all part of the show and not spontaneous; but he still had an energy about him that the others didn’t. Not least because the others were in their 70s.
My seatmate asked what this music was, and was answered it was Zydeco. Now, I didn’t know the difference between Cajun music and Zydeco music until I read some CD liner notes yesterday. All I knew about Zydeco was from the TISM song (Leo’s Toltoy), about a Melburnian musician anxiously trying to keep up with the latest musical fad, which this month was Zydeco—only to find out that the fad had already moved on.
Now everyone’s playing Cajun – Zydeco – whatever you call that thing.
I go off and buy the records, learn how to cook Jambalaya –
Then everyone’s dropping Ecstasy; the dance clubs are on fire –
I start talking about Louisiana, everyone tells me to stop:
Just like the coming of click-clacks comes something called Hip-Hop.
Still, I could tell: this was no Zydeco.
Cajun music is what the white Acadiens brought with them, violins and guitars and triangle—and accordions thanks to German immigrants, who passed it on to Louisiana music like they passed it on to Mexican music. Zydeco started as the same music, only played by black people instead of white people. (There are plenty of black French-speaking Creoles; I wonder if they too go to the Congrès Mondial Acadien.) When they turned up to the recording studio, they found themselves typecast with R&B backing bands. The liner notes say the first such recording was a mess, the Cajun and the R&B not communicating with each other. But Zydeco ended up cohering, with more rock, funk, less violin, and I’m pretty sure no triangle: it became more black, you could say. Cajun by contrast became more white: more influence from Country music, to the extent of steel guitars.
The band didn’t have steel guitars, and the triangle was probably a deliberate statement of oldschoolness. But it was still more sedate than what little accordion-based popular music from Louisiana I have heard; and I’ll have to work out whether that ability to set the dancefloor alight is common to Cajun, or only a Zydeco thing. I made a point of buying both a Zydeco compilation and some ’60s Cajun recordings, and will render judgement at an appropriate time, along with my review of the Royal St Doo-Wop. (Unless I’ve lost the CD already.)
I don’t know whether the band was also playing for the middle-aged balding gay couple, who waltzed half-way through the set. I’m glad they did though, and I’m glad that noone stormed out or picketed them. The world is changing, and it doesn’t always change for the worst.
And that was an early night for me. I had to keep drinking at the bar to justify my presence there (and to distract me from my seatmate). And the other thing I’ve learned on this trip is, any more than my usual one drink an hour, and I fall asleep. Why I then wake up at 6 am, I haven’t worked out yet.