Suffocation of the Void: Hauntology, New Orleans, and Art Neville

Art Neville

I was in the airport heading back home to New Orleans when I was told Art Neville died. The lady next to me in the Washington-Reagan airport (where I passed Elizabeth Warren oddly enough) repeated the news to anyone kind enough to look in her direction. She kept this sentiment up on the plane (we shared a row, even more oddly enough) where she asked people in front and behind the two of us their memories of Art Neville: which Jazz Fest they saw him at, what Meters’ record was their favorite, which songs did they most certainly know but never knew he played a role in producing, playing, or writing. Maybe it’s the niceties of southern hospitality, as everyone smiled and granted her space for the moment. But she took up quite a lot of space for conversation. Made me think about what’s left of us when we leave is the space we leave. Maybe it was really Art Neville taking up the space, haunting the pressurized cabin on the way back to his home 33,000 feet in the sky.

The Meters – “Cissy Strut” Live at Jazz Fest 1993

2019 has been a deeply tumultuous year for the city of New Orleans. Many legends such as Dr. John, Dave Bartholemew, Leah Chase, and most recently Art Neville of the Neville Brothers have all passed to the great big second line in the sky. Neville started the band Neville Sounds, which became The Meters back in the early 1960’s alongside his brothers and friends. They gained massive acclaim through their various albums under this name, influencing the creation and rise of funk music with various artists such as the Rolling Stones, Paul McCartney, and Stevie Wonder as well known fans. As long as you live in New Orleans, or at least come down for Mardi Gras, you’ll never be too far from his voice with songs like “Mardi Gras Mambo” or “Hey Pocky Way” coming out of various cookouts, car radios, or festivals reverberating down and uptown. Art Neville unfortunately passed away last weekend at the age of 81 leaving behind a huge legacy that is impossible to properly deal with conclusively. Seriously, the man sang “Mardi Gras Mambo,” so he’s basically immortal. He takes up a lot of space. 

As most people already know, New Orleans has a beautiful perspective of the passing of souls on Earth. There is the formal funeral that we all know with the casket in front of the pulpit and the ceremonial grieving process alongside family, friends, and in celebrities case’s, fans most likely outside. But it is the aftermath that is unique to this city; a second-line starts outside with the casket in-tow. A joyous and raucous occasion to celebrate the life and next chapter of the passage of time. Umbrellas, trumpets, and footwork fill the streets for hours until the parade is over and the casket finds its way to one of the many cemeteries throughout New Orleans. And there are a lot of cemeteries. They take up quite a bit of space. 

The geology of New Orleans lends itself to quite a bit: fisheries, trade, fertile soil, and much more that’s all connected to the Mississippi. But it also has many setbacks. Most notably, that we are below sea level and because of that, as many people who grew up in Louisiana wanting a place to play shows or having our little cave at the house, we can not have basements since we’re very close to the water table. We also cannot have graveyards either in the understood sense but mausoleums, above ground graves of small buildings that form a still metropolis within and outside the city on various blocks both residential and commercial. You kind of can’t miss it, it takes up a lot of space.

Ok, now that the rule of threes is said and done I hope you understand what I’m getting at. New Orleans has a problem with space, both geologically and culturally. Probably because the two are inherently linked forever. The geography of this city, snug between a river’s bend and the Lake Pontchartrain placed it at a crossroads. Various demographics have intermingled in a way where people’s lineages can be so mangled up, we have to lean on which high school you went to or what road your grandma stayed on to feel a sense of kinship. This type of intersectionality brought a flourish of culture with the pinnacle widely understood to be the creation of jazz music in Congo Square. If you live in New Orleans, you almost certainly know this, as you can’t walk down the street or change the radio dial without understanding we are proud and loud of what happened here. Unfortunately, as it seems, those ideologies seem to hold firmly only within the past tense. It happened here. The only problem is, what happens here and how are we giving room for it to be its own?

There is a specter haunting New Orleans. It glides right above every street corner, in every bar, at every venue, and any instrument that finds itself within the city’s limits. It’s unavoidable and it takes up so much room. First coined by philosopher Jacques Derrida and expanded upon by theorist Mark Fisher in the mid-2000’s, hauntology communicates the idea of pining for a future that never was or the non-existence of a certain thing continuing its existence in the present. That what is no longer continues to take up space in its non-existence is the most prevalent idea to New Orleans today; this void increases and makes itself that much more obvious with each passing of the many monoliths of our culture. The void has become so bloated that I believe there’s little to no room for a culture of modern artists in the city to canonize themselves within their own narratives. Did the gate close right after Wynton Marsalis? PJ Morton? Maybe they’ll always be a backdoor for straight black men in the city to profit off of the haunting ghost of jazz still wailing away in every beginner’s guide and ghost tour. Hauntology is a concept that should be of great importance to this city, because it is our only currency in the 21st century down here. One could make the case for bounce music being true counterculture to this idea (I’ll get into this on another post soon !), but one listen to the same 3 samples that have been used in 99.8% of bounce tracks (links posted below, but shout out Drag Rap and Brown Beats) will quickly bring about the understanding that New Orleans bounce has its own little haint in the Crescent City that grows with each party bus and gas station shakedown on Elysian.  

A typical shakedown that usually ends up at a gas station

The definition of this generation is that there isn’t any. Temporal compression is the culprit to why many 20 somethings feel like we don’t have a collective pillar to connect with no matter where we are. Compression being the act of demonstrating multiple generations within one so that any boundary markers we use to delineate between one time period and the next are completely flattened on top of one another.  Whatever lines were brought about between clothes, cars, and styles every 10 years or so has folded on itself so many times in the past decade, there’s no heads or tails in figuring it out because there’s no body to decipher between them. All the markers signifying generations (flannel, film cameras, neon, vinyl, natural hair, bell bottoms, etc) are all found easily in the right now. Expanding this idea to music can be quite simple if you listen for it. Amy Winehouse’s soul singing, mastered with the Motown Sound and her acoustic instrumentation blurs any confidence of time and space. “Tears Dry On Their Own” could’ve been made in 2007 or 1967. Same goes for many various artists using techniques and samples from across time where the end result is not having a particular sound, but all of them; or at least in a way where you couldn’t tie a song to a year like you could in the 80’s per se. Another example to be used can be Bruno Mars. New Jack Swing 90’s revival? 80’s Cameo adjacent? Uptown Funk 70’s flip? It boggles the mind to think back to my 20’s decades from now and envision my nostalgia being nostalgia of my parents childhood, but rebooted and diluted (If I start talking about movies this essay won’t end). This, of course, isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but the double edged sword can be found when picking through the pieces and trying to make your own statement within the detritus of years passed. Of course, many have approached this idea with soaring success. Burial’s 2007 UK Magnum Opus Untrue is the first to come to mind for me. Bring the passage of time into a physical sense by creating rave albums from 90’s London underground culture, now long gone, with an immersible auditory fog that is impossible to weave away from and must be confronted. The deterioration and collapse is the subject. 

“Near Dark” from Burial’s 2007 album Untrue

Compression can often lend itself to a very solemn view of the world. When you play with detritus, things easily turn melancholic. However, you can also go the other way with the concept. When I Get Home, an album recently released by current New Orleanian Solange Knowles, approaches the ghost of Spiritual Jazz and her hometown haunt, DJ Screw (Rest In Peace) with love, adoration, and reverence. But she does this with a completeness that feels resonate to the gravity of a lot of the pain many people (most notably those of a black femme experience) are feeling right now. Within a collapse, a lot of love can happen in the rubble. This arrangement of music speaks quietly but powerfully so, to the collapse of a city nurturing a haunted space into a culture anew; adapting to the past, present, and future. (Also, for what it’s worth, WIGH dropped on the first day of the Mardi Gras holiday, so I’m rolling with the head-canon that this is just as much a Nola album as it is an H-town one). Shooting a visual album in the Rothko Chapel built in 1971 that houses works from 1964, Solange crafts melodies that include Youtube clips from 2007, Photo Booth audio, chopped and screwed samples from 1990, and Coltrane references. That’s to say, When I Get Home is pretty compressive and we’re all the better for it. We still have to adapt with the void that was already and will (was) already here, but sometimes how we approach this is often dictated by our own surroundings before we even choose to act.  

“Now we deal with the freakin’…but thats…..in volume two”

And it is here where the geology mixes with the hauntological understanding of culture. There is little room for true newness in the city due to their being no room in New Orleans at all. In fact, we’re losing land just like we’re losing figures of New Orleans. Can we restore this 300-year old city back to “the good days”? Well, for one that’s the problem and actually misses the point of this post. It’s not about restoration or even sustainability, as both of these acts are ripe for resulting in failure. It should be about adaptability. Part of that comes about through new ideas (look down for 2014 post on how the Netherlands, in a similar experience with deeply critical land loss and subsidence, deals with their issues). It’s not about putting up walls and slowly encasing the living population of New Orleans into its own leveed mausoleum, it should be about creating adaptability. That means pushing away the idea that the New Orleans narrative has been written and we’re only watching the pages wash away until its all gone from One More Hurricane. This city is beaming with artists so interesting and in need of support,  yet we cannot seem to escape a culture made for someone else’s survival. Someone that will never understand our particular problems this city and that its people face now. Jazz resonated with the folks of the 20th century because it spoke to the issues many of the marginalized dealt with. 80’s and 90’s rap outfits like Mobo Records, and Cash Money resonated with those of that time and forever made their mark on the city, although walking Uptown or past Treme airbnbs, some would try to say different. I’ll definitely praise the 2000’s being a beautiful second wave of bounce music with Sissy Nobby, Nicky da B (Rest In Peace), Big Freedia, and Messy Mya (Rest in Peace) grappling with the tragedy of Katrina by answering with a centering resurgence of one of the many things that made the city what it was before August 2005 and later months tried to erase. Moments like that need a haunting of beauty to show what was will always be was always-already. But what do we have in front of us today? A lot more transplants (more literal space being taken up !) a lot more traffic, and a reversion of culture that refuses to look forward due to that fact that so much has already occurred here culturally, geologically, and temporally that anyone here is suffocating from history. If there’s a call of action to be made here, it’s that we must become cognizant of the poly-consciousness that has taken place here in New Orleans for centuries and understand there’s always space to add just one more. As the void grows, we need to move within, around, and apart to find ourselves in the long lineage of what made this city was it is. If we can do that, maybe we just might have something kind to say about a future New Orleans legend at pre-check.

Lastly, here’s thats 2014 Netherlands Post on Sea level rise adaptability.

Peace be to Art Neville, Dr. John, Leah Chase and the many past and future leaders of New Orleans Creations.

-RC

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