I haven’t been on any Route-66 style cross-country adventures, but I think I’ve seen a fair amount of America’s main attractions. New York, Los Angeles, The Grand Canyon, Niagara Falls, those sorts of things. I’ve loved just about everywhere I’ve visited, and each place has been totally different. Wherever I’ve gone, I’ve been sure to take a ton of pictures, and although I’m not a great photographer, they always serve their purpose as strong mementos. But during my spring break last week, I traveled to the first staple of U.S. tourism that couldn’t be sufficiently captured in any visual way.
New Orleans is known for a lot of things, but its food and its music are the two really distinguishing elements of its culture. With this in mind, my family and I decided to spend the majority of the vacation either seeing live music or eating, and frequently both at the same time. While the cuisine itself was incredibly delicious and unique (I enjoyed some alligator, crayfish and okra) the general dining experience was fairly standard. Except for the fact that every restaurant had a band entertaining the patrons, the overall process wasn’t exotic; you just sit down and get served like any other American eatery. The music, however, was distinct and captivating not just in the way it sounded, but also in the way it was presented.
Most cities have some population of street performers, but that whole culture was markedly more vibrant in New Orleans than anywhere else I’ve visited. There weren’t just a few talented people drumming on buckets or playing saxophone by public transportation stops. There were full bands of professionals on every street corner, to the extent that some roads were blocked off so that the musicians could occupy all the space they needed. In many cases, you could walk down several blocks and hear a dozen different jazz groups fading in and out and melting into one another at any given time.
So as colorful as New Orleans literally is, the aspects of it I really wanted to remember were those that made up that unparalleled musical atmosphere. So rather than focusing a lot on taking pictures, I used my phone to make some bootleg recordings – a sort of “audial snapshot.” That feeling of walking down the street through so many different soundscapes fusing into an awesome atmosphere – that’s what I really wanted to take home. And luckily I was able to get it, along with the scores of other sounds – birds, multilingual hollers, street magicians addressing a crowd of onlookers – that make up the atmosphere of a boisterous, culturally exciting city.
Rather than being preserved in a photo album, my trip to New Orleans will occupy an album in my iTunes library, a medium far more appropriate for a city whose every nook and cranny constantly emits great music.