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Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans?

I just got back from my first visit to New Orleans. Like a lot of people, the city's musical history had been swirling around my mind for a long time. Buddy Bolden, Jelly Roll Morton, Louis Armstrong and the beginning of jazz. R&B and rock'n'roll with Fats Domino, Allen Toussaint, The Meters, Irma Thomas, The Neville Brothers, Dr. John, and so many others. Zydeco. Lil Wayne and Juvenile. The list goes on.

But despite the efforts of the folks selling Voodoo dolls and gris gris bags to convince you otherwise, New Orleans is a real place, not a fantasy. Walking along the Mississippi and seeing how little the river needs to raise for another catastrophe to happen was proof of that.

Still, New Orleans didn't disappoint. In New York, where I live, I most often encounter buskers in Subway stations and on trains. In my experience, they tend to fall into one of four categories: Mexican balladeers, Peruvian dudes playing the pan flute, and scraggly white guys with acoustic guitars caterwauling through classic rock standards. Not so in New Orleans: I saw a skinny white biker in black leather with a handlebar mustache playing a mournful blues version of "Old McDonald Had a Farm," a nattily attired trio of black gentlemen singing tightly harmonized doo-wop, gloriously buoyant trad jazz bands, the clarinet player sending curlicue melody lines dancing out in front of swinging brass. Then there were all the blues and jazz bands whose music I could hear simply by standing outside the French Quarter bars where they were playing.

I also spent an afternoon at the Bayou Boogaloo Festival in the Mid-City neighborhood listening to local rock and funk bands. None of whom were amazing; all of whom had the crowds dancing. (Unfortunately, unless you count playing it on my iPod, I missed out on N.O. rap. Not for lack of trying though. Any readers have any suggestions for where to hear that music in the city?)

Maybe I'm engaging in a little post-vacation romance, but the relationship between music and New Orleans felt different than any other city I've been to. Rather then exist as a mere thing to hear or see (instead of seeing a movie, say), music seemed like an integral part of the city's life, and not one of many possible entertainments. But am I seeing the city through bourbon-blurred eyes? Did I get suckered by the blushing pinks and reds of the French Quarter buildings? Is the city as musically magical as I think it was? Share with us your thoughts on the Crescent City.

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