In search of: Rhythm in New Orleans

Blues, jazz, cajun, zydeco - the music is as hot as the local cuisine. Anna Goldrein traces the cultural mix that makes the Deep South so toe-tappingly seductive
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The Independent Travel

New Orleans (pronounced "Nawlins") is a mix of African, Caribbean, French, Italian, Spanish and American cultures and the place that gave birth to jazz. Reclining on the wrought-iron balcony of my French Quarter hotel, I heard a horse and carriage clop by and a lone sax calling in the distance. Mint julep in hand, I eased myself into the rhythm of the city.

New Orleans (pronounced "Nawlins") is a mix of African, Caribbean, French, Italian, Spanish and American cultures and the place that gave birth to jazz. Reclining on the wrought-iron balcony of my French Quarter hotel, I heard a horse and carriage clop by and a lone sax calling in the distance. Mint julep in hand, I eased myself into the rhythm of the city.

Go on, tell me about New Orleans' musical roots

On the east coast of America's Deep South, rescued from the swamps, New Orleans stands a few feet below sea level, between a crescent bend in the Mississippi and Lake Pontchartrain. The French explorer La Salle named Louisiana after King Louis XIV in 1682, and around 40 years later Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne founded Nouvelle-Orléans, in honour of Philippe, Duc d'Orléans.

In the following years, thousands of African slaves were shipped in to work in cotton and cane plantations, making up half the population by the 1760s. Old New Orleans was remarkable for being the only city that allowed slaves to sing in their own African languages. They also played native instruments, one of which was the progenitor of the banjo, a vital contributor to that authentic New Orleans jazz sound.

So where's the party?

The French Quarter, or Vieux Carré, was a square inhabited by settlers from France in 1718. Twice devastated by fire, it was rebuilt by the Spanish after Napoleon gave Louisiana to Spain in 1763. French Arcadians from Nova Scotia, hounded out of British-ruled Canada in the same decade, were also welcomed here, further enriching its culture. In 1803 Napoleon regained Louisiana, and promptly sold all 828,000 square miles of it to Thomas Jefferson for $15m.

These days, America goes to party in its heart, on Bourbon Street, but it's really a theme park of jazz, blues and soul night-spots largely designed for tourists. In spite of the tourist tat, good music can still be found here, so just follow your ears. But if you want authenticity you'll have to dig a bit deeper.

I want jazz, baby

I went to the Old US Jazz Mint Museum to find out about New Orleans barber Buddy Bolden, who is said to have defined the city's unique jazz sound in the 1890s. Here, you can also see Louis Armstrong's bugle and cornet alongside Sidney Bechet's soprano sax. Later, I took a walk in Louis Armstrong Park, which was originally called Old Congo Square, a traditional location for music-making and the true birthplace of jazz.

Then I abandoned the tourist trail and took a taxi to Basin Street, once the heart of sleazy Storyville, in whose legalised brothels the jazzmen loved to play. Now there are just housing projects and dilapidated, Caribbean-style "shotgun houses" (so called because rooms were arranged one behind the other in a straight line, so it was said a bullet fired through the front door could exit by the back door without touching anything).

That evening, I rejoined the crowds to catch some old-school jazz in the Preservation Hall, set up in 1961 to keep traditional jazz alive. And later, on Frenchman Street, found some great jazz venues, such as Snug Harbour and the Spotted Cat, offering traditional sounds. This is where the locals hang out. Nearby, the funky Wild Magnolias were playing in dingy Donna's Bar & Grill, on North Rampart Street.

Let's do some more sightseeing

It costs $1.25 (80p) for a jerky ride in the wood-panelled St Charles Avenue's streetcar, built in the 1920s and still trundling along. We lurched through the Garden District with its vast Victorian mansions, stopping off to see a jazz-themed photographic exhibition featuring brass band funerals and Professor Longhair, aka Henry Roland Byrd, who pioneered rhythm and blues here in the 1940s. I dined on deep-fried po'boy sandwich and shrimp étouffée at Jacques-Imos on Oak Street, a popular local eaterie. Then on to the Maple Leaf, for R&B, funk and blues all night, dancing and drinking Dixie beer.

You're making me hungry

At the New Orleans School of Cooking on St Louis Street, devotees learn how to make shrimp creole, bread and butter pudding and pralines under the tutelage of Big Kevin. Creole, a term used to define children of French or Spanish immigrants, later came to refer to the French-speaking, mixed-race population and its urban cuisine. I learned that the basis for most savoury creole dishes is a roux, to which is added the holy trinity of bell (green) pepper, onion and celery. Pupils' queries were dealt with succinctly: "Should I use red pepper or green pepper?" "What you got at home?" boomed Kevin. "Green pepper," came the reply. "Use that." A tie-dyed couple from California asked: "Should we use salted butter or unsalted?" Kevin replied: "What you got at home? Use that. Are you with me?"

What other music can I hear?

It's perfectly possible in downtown New Orleans to hear cajun and zydeco (African beats added to the cajun sound), but I was keen to experience Louisiana's folk music in rural surroundings. So I headed for the Bayou, where the Arcadians (hence Cajuns) settled.

In Houma, 50-odd miles over marshland from the Bayou capital Lafayette, I chanced upon a Cajun wedding at the Downtown on the Bayou Festival. The newlyweds jumped the broomstick as locals sang the Cajun "national anthem", "Jolie Blonde", in French. Guests ate soft-shell crab po'boys, huge turkey legs and anything fried, including alligator on a stick.

I left to explore the swamps, where Black, a local musician and boatyard boss, takes passengers out on his tourist boat to see the watery, moss-festooned cypress forests. Owls, alligators, blue herons and egrets blended with the eerie landscape, while pelicans swirled above. Alligators approached the boat and, alarmingly, were encouraged by Black to jump for food. In the dark swamp, Black picked up his handmade accordion – with bullets for keys – and sang traditional cajun country songs, flavoured with a French twang.

Also, the goddess of gospel, Mahalia Jackson, was born in Louisiana. Back in New Orleans, at the Praline Connection, in the up-and-coming Warehouse District on South Peters, we tourists tucked into grits (cornmeal porridge) and gumbo while listening to a gospel choir loudly and joyously praise the Lord. As newcomers we were a bit shy at first, but we were soon joining in with the audience, waving our handkerchiefs, clapping and dancing along with them.

Let's get back to the party

In New Orleans, it is always party time. The annual highlight is Mardi Gras on 4 March, but the best events take place the preceding week. Other music celebrations include the French Quarter Festival ( www.frenchquarterfestivals.org) from 11 to 13 April, Jazz Fest (www. nojazzfest.com) from 25 to 27 April and 1 to 4 May, and Satchmo Summerfest ( www.satchmosummerfest.com) from 1 to 3 August. Next year marks the Louisiana Purchase bicentennial celebrations ( www.louisianapurchase2003.com).

So how do I get there?

For Mardi Gras, book a year in advance and be prepared to pay premium rates. For Jazz Fest, six months' prior booking is advised. I travelled with Delta Vacations (0870 900 5001; www.deltavacations.co.uk) and stayed at Soniat House Hotel on 1133 Charters Street in the French Quarter (001 504 522 0570; www.soniathouse.com) which offers double rooms from $195 (£125), and the Hotel Monaco at 333 St Charles Avenue (001 866 685 8359; www.monaco-neworleans.com) which offers double room from $99 to $430 (£64 to £276), depending on the time of year you visit.

Delta Vacations offers package deals in November from £826 per person, based on two sharing, including return mid-week flights from Gatwick or Manchester to New Orleans, via Atlanta, one week's car hire and seven nights' b&b accommodation at the four-star Hampton Inn. The price drops to £732 in December.

For further details contact the New Orleans and Louisiana Office of Tourism (01462 458696; www.neworleanscvb.com; www.louisianatravel.com).

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