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The Spirit of New Orleans

Dicembre 2010
Difficile spegnere lo spirito di New Orleans: neanche il devastante uragano Katrina del 2005 ci è riuscito. Sarà la musica, il cibo, oppure il mix giusto di genti diverse, accomunate da un’inesauribile voglia di vivere.

di Martin Simmonds

File audio:

New Orleans
New Orleans
Mary LaCoste
Mary LaCoste

Jazz bands playing on street corners, all night dancing on Bourbon Street, or three hour breakfasts in the sunshine – there are good reasons why New Orleans is called “The Big Easy.” This is a city that prides itself on enjoying life to the full. And no hurricane or oil spill is going to stop the music.


This easy-going attitude comes from the mix of people who live here. The city was founded by the French in 1718, became part of the Spanish Empire, and briefly passed back into French hands before Napoleon sold it to the United States in 1803. The French and Spanish settlers were joined by African slaves, English-speaking Americans, as well as German, Irish and Italian immigrants. The different groups lived close together, and each brought their own musical and culinary traditions.
At the centre of New Orleans life is the French Quarter. The oldest neighbourhood in the city is a place where culture and architecture meet. Sitting on a bend in the Mississippi River, the area is above sea level and was relatively untouched by Hurricane Katrina.


The “Quarter” is all about enjoying life, particularly music and food. Bourbon Street is famous for its bars, nightlife and crowds of people. But if you explore a little further you’ll find restaurants serving rich portions of Creole and Cajun specialities, while musicians and mime artists perform on street corners.
Among them are blues and hillbilly bands, but New Orleans is most famous for its jazz. In the mid-18th century slaves would gather on Sundays and dance to traditional African drums. These rhythms combined with European instruments and melodies to form jazz.


Mary Lacoste (see interview), who was born in New Orleans and works there as a tour guide, told us about her favourite places for music: “The Maison Bourbon Jazz Club on the corner of Bourbon and St Peter’s always have good bands. Half a block away is Preservation Hall, where the really old-timers play. You pay 10 dollars, which goes to charity, and crowd into this room without enough chairs but with a great sound – a little uncomfortable but the most authentic jazz anywhere.”
She also describes how the feel of the city changes as you enter the Quarter: “You cross Canal St and suddenly you feel more relaxed, and maybe a little hungry. And then you hear the music on the streets and your toes begin to twitch and tap a bit. It’s hard to keep your dignity and not skip about!


There is, however, one time when it’s definitely OK to do a little dancing in the street. New Orleans’ Mardi Gras season is a world-famous carnival of parades and parties. It starts soon after Christmas and builds up to Mardi Gras, the day before the start of Lent. The celebrations climax with parades of colourful floats, elaborate costumes, masks, body painting and beads.
Even Hurricane Katrina couldn’t stop the festivities. A couple of bars in the French Quarter stayed open throughout and Mardi Gras went ahead just a few months later with flood-damaged floats. In a city dependant on tourism, the Quarter and the carnival became important symbols of survival. 


Christmas in New Orleans is described as “a month long celebration of the season and the senses.” The balconies of the French Quarter are beautifully decorated, and there are light displays in City Park. Throughout December historical characters such as Louis Armstrong and Buffalo Bill walk through the Quarter telling stories, and traditional Creole “Reveillon Dinners” are served all month. There are free concerts in the St Louis Cathedral and on Christmas Eve bonfires are lit along the Mississippi River.



Speaker: Chuck Rolando (Standard American accent)

New Orleans is one of the world’s favorite destinations, thanks to its constant party atmosphere, its wonderful jazz music and food. But five years ago it suffered a major trauma when it was struck by Hurricane Katrina. The city is still trying to make a comeback and the victory of its football team, The New Orleans Saints, in last season’s Super Bowl, was seen as proof that it was succeeding. Mary LaCoste was born and raised in New Orleans and today she runs tours of the historic French Quarter. As she explains, the French Quarter wasn’t directly hit by Hurricane Katrina:

Mary LaCoste (Standard American/New Orleans accent)

We were very, very fortunate. It had been flooded many, many years ago; we just made the levees higher, but it’s been sort of the anchor now for bringing back the city because it’s the tourist part that generates the funds. In flat land, the ground near our river is higher. And so we were just very fortunate that this was preserved, and, slow but sure, we’re getting back together.

In the past New Orleans was both French and Spanish territory and these influences can be seen in its architecture, while the presence of African slaves and their descendants helped give the world jazz. We asked Mary LaCoste what was the biggest change that she had seen in New Orleans during her lifetime: 

Mary LaCoste

Integration: I grew up in a white world and in the streetcars the black people sat behind a certain little barrier that could move from seat to seat. And then, slow but sure, with jobs and whatnot, you began to learn about other people. I was teaching: some of the teachers were black, but when I first started teaching I had to take a promise that I would not teach integration, to get a job! But things changed and then we began to realise that we had people with similar memories on both sides of the fence, and right now it’s working out, but we’re still discovering each other.

And, in spite of the destruction caused by Hurricane Katrina, Mary LaCoste thinks that New Orleans has a great future,  thanks to its relaxed lifestyle:

Mary LaCoste

I still encourage my children to settle here – and my grandchildren – because I think that you can get a lifestyle where you work so hard all the time, that you forget to enjoy and so maybe it’s better to forego some prosperity, so that you’re near water and fish and people and food and celebrations.

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