For the Love of NOLA
The HBO series Treme takes its name from a neighborhood adjacent to the French Quarter, but its canvas extends to every corner of NOLA (New Orleans, Louisiana) in the months following Hurricane Katrina, which struck on August 29, 2005. The program movingly communicates the nearly inexpressible hardship all New Orleanians endured, but its underlying drama centers on the hard-won survival of New Orleans culture in Katrina’s aftermath. This map elucidates some of those cultural connections.
HBO’s Treme (pronounced treh-MAY) is an ensemble series that follows the lives of a dozen-plus New Orleanians in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. The show’s true main character, though, is the music of New Orleans—the whole wide range of it, from ragtime to rock ’n’ roll to rap. No TV drama has ever been so suffused with music or musicians. Two of Treme’s featured actors, Michiel Huisman (Sonny) and Lucia Micarelli (Annie), are accomplished performers. Dozens of others have had recurring roles or made guest appearances, as themselves or in fictional guise. They include national and international stars (Steve Earle, Elvis Costello), New Orleans living legends (Dr. John and Deacon John, to name but two) and younger New Orleans performers carrying on the city’s musical traditions, such as singer John Boutté and bandleader Troy “Trombone Shorty” Andrews.
Trombone Shorty isn’t short (he got the nickname as a six-year-old), and he doesn’t just play the trombone—he’s a master trumpeter and a gifted jazz-funk vocalist, too. His repeated appearances on Treme are especially apt given that Andrews grew up in the Treme district, the home of Congo Square, considered by many to be the birthplace of jazz.
Trombone Shorty’s “Where Y’At?” is an energetic funk-rock tribute to his hometown. The title of the tune, from Shorty’s 2010 album, Backatown, is a greeting New Orleanians—especially those who speak the city’s distinctive Yat dialect—offer friends when they meet. It means more than just “How you doin’?” A better translation may be “How are things really going for you in your life right now?”
Yat is what linguists call a non-rhotic form of English—the consonant r goes unpronounced in many words. That characteristic, along with Yat speakers’ pronunciation of th as d, can make Yat sound surprisingly like a Bronx or Brooklyn accent. The similarity comes through in the chant shouted at football games by New Orleans Saints fans: “Who dat? Who dat? Who dat say dey gonna beat dem Saints?”
The Saints play in the Louisiana Superdome—where so many victims of Hurricane Katrina found miserable refuge in the week following the 2005 storm. The refurbished Superdome opened on September 25, 2006, for a game between the Saints and the Atlanta Falcons. Among the pregame music festival’s performers, who included U2 and Green Day, was none other than NOLA’s own Trombone Shorty.
Four years before Treme premiered on HBO, the cable network broadcast director Spike Lee’s documentary about Hurricane Katrina, When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts. Lee’s title is instructive. Although New Orleanians speak of the 2005 catastrophe as “the Storm,” they remember well that the devastation was caused not by the hurricane but by a series of failures of the levees built to protect New Orleans.
The damage wrought by the ensuing flood was monumental—and most severe in the lower-lying, eastern parts of New Orleans. Especially hard hit was the city’s Ninth Ward, a place with which the rest of the world became achingly familiar in the days and weeks following the disaster. Largely poor and African American, the Ninth Ward was a crucible of New Orleans culture: It was where Fats Domino lived and trumpeter Kermit Ruffins—who has appeared on Treme—grew up. The Ninth Ward was also the place where the city’s Yat dialect originated. As Lee’s elegiac film documents, the cost of the levees’ failure could not be measured in lost lives and property alone; it could also rightly be calculated in terms of the threatened extinction of an entire way of life.
One of Treme’s most appealing characters is trombonist Antoine Batiste, portrayed by Wendell Pierce, who played a lead role as Detective Bunk Moreland in The Wire (2002–2008), an HBO series by Treme creator David Simon. As Antoine, Pierce is a put-upon Everyman who dreams of musical glory but has trouble landing a steady gig. While he thinks of himself as a lady-killer, he’s mercilessly, relentlessly henpecked by his live-in girlfriend, Desiree, played by Phyllis Montana-Leblanc. Antoine is always strapped for cash, and his diehard resistance to getting a “job job” is a constant bone of contention between the two.
Both Pierce and Montana-Leblanc are native New Orleanians, and both were among the dozens of people interviewed by director Spike Lee for When the Levees Broke. Montana-Leblanc’s appearances in Lee’s documentary are especially memorable: She’s a natural storyteller, and her profanity-laced accounts of the indignities she suffered in Katrina’s wake are both appalling and laugh-out-loud hilarious. In 2008 Montana-Leblanc published a memoir, Not Just the Levees Broke: My Story During and After Hurricane Katrina; Lee contributed the book’s foreword.
When the Levees Broke first aired on HBO on August 21 and 22, 2006, just shy of the first anniversary of Hurricane Katrina’s landfall. Shot during late August and September 2005, director Spike Lee’s film focuses on the horrors of the storm and flood and on the overwhelming problems—exacerbated by governmental ineptitude—that New Orleans faced in the weeks immediately following Katrina. Those problems, of course, persisted (and in many respects they still do); especially during that first post-Katrina year, many doubted NOLA could ever recover.
One strong, early sign that New Orleans had not given up the ghost came in February 2006, when the city managed to host its annual Carnival, culminating in Mardi Gras (Fat Tuesday), a centuries-old tradition at the heart of New Orleans’s identity. The city was in financial ruins, was still missing more than half its pre-storm population and hardly seemed a tourist draw, but the show did go on (though the festivities were greatly pared down). Proving that New Orleans remained its ecstatic self, Mardi Gras 2006 was in some ways sassier than ever, with many parade floats lampooning discredited government officials, FEMA trailers and other emblems of mismanagement.
One of Treme’s subplots concerns the travails of Albert Lambreaux, a master plasterer who returns to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina intent on rebuilding his damaged house—and on ensuring the survival of the Guardians of the Flame tribe of Mardi Gras Indians, of which he is chief. Essential players in NOLA’s Carnival festivities since the 19th century, the “Indians” are African Americans who don plumed, bespangled costumes—elaborate variations on Native American dress—and wage fierce battles of one-upmanship on Mardi Gras.
Lambreaux, played by actor Clarke Peters (a veteran of Treme creator David Simon’s series The Wire and miniseries The Corner), is not an agreeable man. Stubbornness and pride mask his desperation, and he makes life unpleasant for everyone who’s close to him, especially his son, Delmond (Rob Brown), a New York City–based jazz trumpeter who flies home periodically to aid his father—and suffer his abusive temperament. But Albert Lambreaux’s orneriness contrasts with the delicacy of his artisanship. A tradition-bound Mardi Gras Indian committed to having the “prettiest” costume, he laboriously handcrafts a new outfit each year, sewing on hundreds of feathers and thousands of sequins.