Sunday, September 14, 2008

Guelph Jazz Festival 2008: Wither New Orleans

In 1979, the NBA franchise known as the New Orleans Jazz was relocated to Salt Lake City, dubbing itself the Utah Jazz in the process. In trading Congo Square for Temple Square the metaphor of New Orleans giving to the world a deep Afrological heritage of music and culture to a nation and a world that has given indifference in return took on an unusually literal form as the dynamic, cross-roads pollinated music and dance of a people was exported into the rugged isolation of the American West in name only.

The tale of two cities is filled with contrast. While the story of Salt Lake is one of abandoning the practice of legal polygamy to attain statehood and adjusting cultural practice and perceptions to achieve acceptance, New Orleans has continued to confront questions about who and what we are as a people from its position as a crossroads filled with dangers and vitality often at odds with middle-class sensibilities. In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina's devastation the organized abandonment of the black working class community of New Orleans has been accelerated toward the grim goals of "gentrification." The same "gentrification" that has transformed the once vital Manhattan island into the nauseating "safety" of yet another shopping mall environment in North America.

The morning keynote address of professor George Lipsitz (UC, Santa Barbara) at the Guelph Jazz Festival and Colloquium - titled Improvisation and Diaspora: Why New Orleans Matters - conveyed a powerful cry for help and trans cultural understanding from a community in crisis. A message that is often not welcomed both within and outside of the United States as professor Lipsitz detailed the friction and harassment he has personally experienced from the state department of his own government.

The theme of willful neglect and arrogant ignorance was woven into several papers at the colloquium as the work of applying academic standards of research to the subject of improvisation confronted the culture of malfeasance that permeates the ruling party that exacerbated the humanitarian disaster of Katrina. Sally Booth, a PhD student in the English department at the University of Guelph, began her paper Cityscape: David Wojnarowicz, Camouflage and Recognition with a quote from former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani that underscores the anti-Democratic impulse that allows - even rewards - a policy of ignoring its own citizens. With a statement that regards laws as a tool for protecting citizens from those who would "annoy" or "harass" them, Giuliani willfully imposes his view of a two-tribe nation of citizens and "non-citizens." Conveniently downplaying the proud tradition of dissent and civil disobedience (practices that righteously "annoy" in the larger cause of justice and human rights). It is under this mindset that the rights of society's most vulnerable are ignored. The AIDS crisis was effectively ignored under Giuliani's stewardship and the gentrifying efforts of making the city "safer" came at the expense of displacing anyone too far afield of "real citizens." A coward's way of "cleaning up" spaces without confronting or even acknowledging the real problems of poverty and disparity of economic and education opportunities.

It is this often blatant policy of dividing society into tribes that continues to rot at the core of the GOP platform. It is the mindset that allows Dennis Hastert (R - IL) to openly consider not rebuilding New Orleans from the floor of the House of Representatives. A city with 65% of its populace living below the poverty line, a city that is 67% African-American is a city full of the "non-citizens" this party chooses not to represent. An evacuation effort that included separating family members to distant parts of the country in an eerie echo of the slavery practices that forcefully relocated so many to this same city is the moral equivalent of the Trail of Tears. One can only speculate about the difference in attention and competence had a Katrina-level disaster hit the city of Salt Lake. It is this mindset behind the sneer of dismissal when "activist" and "angry left" were lobbed as derogatory words at the recent Republican convention in the Twin Cities. Is the slow fight toward social justice through activism ignoble? Or is this part of the culture wars vocabulary of identifying and vilifying that "other tribe?" The Katrina disaster was more than incompetence from "heck of a job" Brownie. It was an extension of a policy of exclusion accelerated under the disguise of catastrophe.

The panel discussion "Rebuilding Community: New Orleans Perspectives" that included poet Sunni Patterson of the 9th ward and legendary saxophonist Kidd Jordan offered wisdom and thoughtful reflection along with the righteous "anger" fueled more by truth than left-right divisions. A perspective that drives home the value of New Orleans as a spiritual center and an origin of the music traditions passionately celebrated at festivals all around the world. In the celebration of a music that feeds the soul - a music that rises above the confines of mere entertainment - comes the responsibility to do right by the people of this city. The cry for help and understanding from these voices is easy to understand when these voices are heard.

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