A warm night, palm trees, people happily chatting to strangers. It could almost have been the Marigny and not Hackney. The dive bar in a dilapidated building certainly had a New Orleans “we just threw this together ourselves” kinda vibe, but then these types of venues are oh-so-Hackney too, which also has a love-hate relationship with a shipwrecked-at-the-end-of-the-world reputation. Other clues we were in London not Louisiana: the palm trees were plastic and the temperature outside dropped rapidly once the new June sun went down, but people really were talking happily to people they didn’t know.
Normal London rules for dealing with strangers, in case you’re not familiar with them, are as follows: eye contact – weirdo; smile – get off at the next stop; and unsolicited conversation – run! In New Orleans, on the other hand, strangers will stop in the street to talk and introduce each other to their dogs.
I was at an event called Meet Me In New Orleans, which took place last Saturday and was organised by an excellent organisation called New Orleans in London, which aims to bring the music and culture of the Crescent City to the UK’s capital. I would say their mission is a valid one; all things NOLA are relatively unfamiliar to Londoners who, in common with most Brits, tend to think that the US starts with New York and finishes with California, with not much in between. But the New Orleans magic was certainly making its presence felt here. As well as engaging in friendly chit-chat, people were actually dressed up, with many girls in actual dressy dresses (a rarity in London), which made this habitual overdresser happy – I’d made what I thought was a daring last-minute decision to don my party skirt and purple beads.
The venue had made an effort to show some Louisiana hospitality and brio too, serving gumbo and pralines alongside the east London tipples on offer – gin and tonics, Japanese beer. The gesture reflected the slightly mystical affinity in New Orleans between music and food. Somehow they’re always connected there, and once you have one, you never have to go far to find the other. Louis Armstrong always used to sign his letters “Red Beans And Ricely Yours” after the classic New Orleans Monday night supper and, in the modern day, one of the city’s biggest jazz stars, Kermit Ruffins, can often be found cooking up outside Bywater bar Vaughans on a Thursday night in between his sets with his band, the Barbecue Swingers.
Which leads me nicely on to Saturday’s music. It was provided by trad jazzers Dixie Ticklers, the rocking Fallen Heroes and DJ Lil’ Koko. Early on, there was some awe-inspiring swing dancing going on, but as I can’t manage any kind of dancing that requires me to remember the difference between left and right or turn at a set time, I was much happier when proceedings descended into a free-for-all Mardi Gras mosh pit.
We heard classics like Tipitina’s, When The Saints Go Marching In, and even some Mardi Gras Indian-style call and response. But what stayed in my mind most was chief Dixie Tickler Dom James’s rendition of the eerie St. James Infirmary Blues. As I listened, I remembered being in Blue Nile on Frenchmen Street a couple of summers ago, and hearing New Orleans trumpeter Irvin Mayfield play it. Afterwards, he said it was strange that, even though the song was so linked to the city, he’d never been able to find any trace of the hospital to which it referred.
That’s because the St. James Infirmary was in London, a medieval leper refuge that’s now St James’s Palace, though, according to most accounts, this place isn’t even the true birthplace of the song. It’s supposed to have originated in an Irish ballad cycle entitled The Unfortunate Rake. My mother’s family come from Ireland, and I can confirm that you can rely on strangers talking to you there, maybe even stopping you in the street. However, the nights, even in summer, are likely to be chilly. So on balance it’s probably a good thing that none of us, myself included, are obliged to stop in the place where we started.