Music is accessible in New Orleans in a way that many cities do have space for—every street corner hosts a local band or ensemble playing hip-hop, pop, jazz or classical tunes
Many cities have distinct sounds—from the blare of horns or the call of street hawkers in India, to the wail of ambulances in New York, or the drumming of the ever-present rain in London, but none that immerse you in a symphony of song like New Orleans. This city comes with its own soundtrack. The New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival in May or Mardi Gras in January-February add their own soundscape to the city, but in June too—a quieter time and usually considered off-season—music pervades.
The first thing that welcomed us to the neighbourhood of Bywater was a brass band practising in a house for an upcoming show. Music is accessible in New Orleans in a way that many cities do not allow—every street corner seems to host a local band or ensemble playing everything from grand brass and marching bands to hip-hop, and pop. Music is free for everyone, though this practice has dark origins in when slaves would gather in public parks and spaces, like Congo Square, to play instruments or sing together to draw strength from one another.
While Bourbon Street in the French Quarter, home to bars and clubs, might be best known to most, it is Frenchmen Street that hosts two of the city’s finest live music spots. The Spotted Cat and Blue Nile attract renowned artists, making it a haven for music enthusiasts. While I was there, some of the most prominent local bands were scheduled to play at the Spotted Cat like the Jelly Roll Stompers whose name was inspired by jazz legend Jelly Roll Morton. Morton is one of the forefathers of jazz in New Orleans, having taken a highly improvised music style and created one of the first written compositions, Jelly Roll Blues, which came out in 1915.
The Spotted Cat is a small venue, with an intimate stage, while its neighbour down the road, Blue Nile has a larger stage and space for dancing. In fact, The Spotted Cat was featured many times in one of the most popular shows created about New Orleans, Treme. Treme showcased dozens of local and real musicians in its fictional show, using music as a thread throughout the series, with stories on how musicians and communities survived post Hurricane Katrina.
A local night market on a side street close to the Spotted Cat welcomes people with bright lights and local artwork. Vendors have on display their knitted wears, paintings, small sculptures, and some even selling tarot cards and other magic paraphernalia. One local vendor spoke about how they make their own cards based on dreams that they have had because the magic in the city is strong.
A visit to the New Orleans Jazz Museum gives you an in-depth and comprehensive view of the history and influence of jazz. It also showcases many current musicians. Music has shaped this city and this museum helps to understand the history, the people, and the instruments. It also has free performances during the day, so make sure you check out the website to enjoy those.
LACE UP YOUR SHOES
One of the best ways to experience New Orleans is walking through the city. Take a guided walking tour through the Garden District, a historically significant area of New Orleans well known for its opulent homes and architecture, homes of Hollywood celebrities, and for being the location of films such as American Horror Story.
You could also take a self-guided walk through the different neighbourhoods of New Orleans. One of the most delightful and cost-free activities is admiring its homes, ranging from grand mansions to charming shotgun houses. These residences often reflect the unique personalities of their owners, who decorate them with a diverse range of items, from dinosaurs to witches. This leisurely exploration is also an excellent opportunity to stumble upon local coffee shops.
Walking through these neighbourhoods also gives you a glimpse of the amazing street art that can be found throughout New Orleans. From complex murals to graffiti, the street art is creative and impactful. From there, head to the Ogden Museum of Southern Art. This museum was established in 1999 and holds the largest collection of Southern Art in the world, and is a chance to immerse oneself in the cultural and political history of the southern states of the US.
New Orleans has something for everyone, from beautiful parks to immersive cultural experiences and a rich history. Whether you can manage three days or three weeks, it is a destination worth the journey. Your ears will thank you.
Sweta Daga is an independent journalist based in Bengaluru.