Treme: A Legendary New Orleans Neighborhood

by Sally Tunmer on April 4, 2012

in Food, GoNOLA Radio, Music

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Treme. The name carries a breadth of connotations that vary from person to person. Depending on who you talk to, it’s a neighborhood, a TV show, the birthplace of jazz music or a place where you can find some of the best fried chicken or gumbo known to man. Indeed, Treme is all of these things, and our hosts cover them all in this episode of GoNOLA Radio.New Orleans podcast

GoNOLA Radio’s fearless leader, Sunpie Barnes, steers this episode as our hosts talk food, music and television adaptation of the Treme. New Orleans Food Goddess Lorin Gaudin speaks to Na’imah Zulu who owns the Golden Feather Mardi Gras Indian restaurant and gallery on the edge of Congo Square with her husband, Shaka Zulu. George Ingmire speaks to an undeniable voice of New Orleans, John Boutte, whose “Treme Song” is the theme of HBO’s Treme. Speaking of the HBO series, Mikko chats with Henry Griffin, guest star on the show and screenwriter professor at University of New Orleans.

GoNOLA Radio is a free New Orleans podcast hosted by Sunpie Barnes, Lorin Gaudin, George Ingmire and Mikko about the food, music and culture of the Crescent City. Subscribe to GoNOLA Radio on iTunes or download to your mobile device on Stitcher. GoNOLA Radio features music by Cale Pellick.

Podcast Transcript 

Sunpie: Welcome to GoNOLA radio.

My name is Sunpie Barnes and I will be your host of hosts as we
explore New Orleans to learn about the city’s rich cultural
heritage, food and music. We’ll bring you experts, the real deal
experts. who will talk with you about the people who make New
Orleans such a wonderful place to live and visit. It’s GoNOLA
radio.

The HBO hit series, Treme, made the historic New Orleans neighborhood
famous. But it’s been a point of pride way before hitting the
small screen. In this episode of GoNOLA radio, our hosts talks
to some of the people who make Treme one of the most fascinating
places in the world.

Some of the tastiest love soul food anywhere can be found in the
Treme. New Orleans food goddess Lorin Gaudin, sits down with the
owners of the Golden Feather to talk about their Mardi Gras
Indian restaurant on the edge of Congo Square.

Lorin: We’re talking neighborhoods; Treme and the incredible part of
the City of New Orleans. This city isn’t disjointed. it’s
connected by all these magnificent neighborhoods and Treme is
one of them. It’s such an important neighborhood to the soul of
New Orleans that it has become the name of a television show
that we’re all excited about.

But more importantly it is a place where people live and eat and
it is phenomenal. And when you think of Treme you think of that
area, that is Rampart Street, and you think of Basin, and you
think of Esplanade, and going all the way into Miro and all the
area around famous restaurants like Ducky Chase, Willy May
Scotch House, but it’s more then that. It’s about the people as
much as it is the neighborhood.

And I’m really lucky today to be sitting down with Na’imah [SP]
who is one of the owners, with her husband Shaka Zulu. And they
have the Golden Feather Mardi Gras Indian Restaurant and
Gallery, right here on Rampart Street. Welcome.

Na’imah: Thank you very much, Lorin.

Lorin: Na’imah, we were talking earlier about the word Treme. We have
a family friend who’s last name, he said Treme, was how he
pronounced his last name and some people say Treme and some
people say Treme. And you have your way that when you grew up
how did you call this neighborhood?

Na’imah: Treme.
Lorin: I love it. That’s what I think makes it so funny within New
Orleans how many different accents there are. Tell us about this
Golden Feather. Why did you open this restaurant and what is it
about?

Na’imah: Well, we wanted to have a special experience with the Mardi
Gras Indians here in New Orleans and thought it was time for us
to tell our own story about the Mardi Gras Indians. And we
thought within that story telling time we would also have foods
and foods, basically, of Congo Square, Congo Square being
directly across the street from us, right in front of us.

Lorin: That’s Louis Armstrong Park, right?

Na’imah: Yes. Uh-huh. and the actual area of all of the performances and
dances and the rituals and the different corn harvest that the
natives had back 200, 300 years ago, that’s where we wanted to
be.

Lorin: So it’s part of our history of us as a people of New Orleans?

Na’imah: Mm-hmm.

Lorin: That and you wanted to bring more of that element to Rampart
Street. Back to the city.

Na’imah: Exactly. Those things, those wares, those foods that were sold
in Congo Square by the Africans, by the Americans, by the
natives, we wanted to give reverence to that. Our seafood, our
okras and things like that. So, that’s what we thought we would
bring within the restaurant.

Lorin: I thin it’s fair to say that New Orleans Creole soul food
restaurants, well, they wouldn’t be what they are without that
African food and the African experience. When you look at the
menu, and, of course, there’s also that whole, the natives
right? The native tribes that were here that embraced the
African people.

Na’imah: Exactly.

Lorin: Which then grew into these Mardi Gras Indian tribes that we
just love with the gorgeous feathers and the beads and the
rituals, and the, it’s magnificent. And I think if you’re
listening and you have not ever experienced whether it’s Super
Sunday or any, or just the whole Mardi Gras experience, Mardi
Gras Indian experience, you must make an effort to do soul. It’s
just, it’s soul stirring and the foods.

Na’imah: Right.

Lorin: So this restaurant embraces all of that. I mean it’s a whole
soul experience here. Let’s talk about it because you even name
some of your dishes that are very famous Mardi Gras Indian sort
of phrases.

Na’imah: Yeah. most of our dishes are named after something or some
saying of the Mardi Gras Indians or Congo Square.

Lorin: Right. So, I notice on here a great dish, stuffed shrimp,
butterflied and stuffed crabmeat, dressing and fry. That’s a
real New Orleans dish, we’re all comfortable with that. You call
that Hu Ta Nay. What does Hu Ta Nay mean?

Na’imah: Well, Hu Ta Nay is a word that the Mardi Gras Indians used that
I’m not necessarily going to say exactly what it means.

Lorin: Yeah, well, okay, we’ll be circumspect.

Na’imah: But, what I am going to say is that it’s a term that is used in
a lot of the chants that the Mardi Gras Indians say. And because
the Mardi Gras Indians still have their secrecy to them, we just
let our customers just imagine what it means from just ordering
their food. And, obviously, it means something good because
that’s our biggest seller.

Lorin: Oh, well, there it is. It’s great because part of the language
of the Mardi Gras Indians, there are chants, there are class and
there are things that have special meaning, and they’re very
secret to the tribes. And so we definitely want to be respectful
to that. So, let’s talk about more about what’s going on the
menu because people are going to be coming here and they come to
eat New Orleans and boy I don’t want them to miss this
experience.

Na’imah: Yes, yes. And most of our foods, they come from our family
recipes. We were able to bring a lot of our family recipes
because we do a lot of cooking at our family’s homes, both
Shaka’s family and our family, we eat a lot. And our
grandparents and our aunts, uncles, sisters and brothers, they
cook a lot.

Lorin: So you’d also have, we have a seafood gumbo which is classic.

Na’imah: Yes.

Lorin: So is this an okra gumbo?

Na’imah: It has okra in it but it’s all seafood. There are not other
meats in it other than shrimp or crab. Whole crab as well as
crabmeat. And there’s a lot of herbs and seasonings within that.

Lorin: Fillet yes, or fillet no?

Na’imah: We put a dash of fillet in there. A little bit, because you
know that mixture of fillet and okra is not necessarily supposed
to mix, from what I hear from a lot of our natives who were here
on this land originally. So, we kind of diverge from what’s
supposed to happen with that, just to give a little extra
flavor.

Lorin: Sure it’s a little artistic license. Right?

Na’imah: Yes. Exactly.

Lorin: Perfect.

Na’imah: And it’s named the Calinda and the Calinda is a dance that used
to be done in Congo Square. So I can tell you that.

Lorin: I love this.

Na’imah: Oh girl, that’s good.

Lorin: I’m glad you could share that one with me, that’s fantastic. I
love it when you get to the main courses, you have the Big Chief
and the Pretty Queen and Let’s Go Get Em and Queen Auset. Give
me the dish that’s the most popular dish on the menu right now.

Na’imah: The most popular of the main courses of course is the Big
Chief. Big chief is a dish out of west Africa, the Cosmos region
of Senegal. And it contains tomatoes and onions, a great deal of
onions, but most people don’t know that they’re onions. When
they’re eating it they’re asking me, “Oh, is this cabbage,
something else?” They have no idea that it’s just onions, but
it’s just the way that it’s cooked and the length of time that
it’s cooked.

Lorin: So, it’s a fish dish smothered in onions and tomatoes?

Na’imah: Yes. And it’s a whole fish. We wanted to keep the head on, but
you know, many of us Americans we can’t deal with the head of
the fish. So we cut the head off. So, it’s a whole fish but some
people insist that they have a fillet so we’ll do that for them,
as well.

Lorin: Amazing. I love that there’s, you have vegetarian things in
here as well for those people who want to have that vegetarian
experience.

Na’imah: Exactly because we did not want for people who have groups of
people, we get a lot of groups in this restaurant.

Lorin: Yeah, because we’re going to talk about lunch and lecture in a
second. So you get a bunch of people in?

Na’imah: Yes, we get a lot of groups and a lot of times there will be
one person in the group who says, man, you know, I don’t have
anything to eat. In the city it’s hard, in the French Quarter,
to really eat vegetarian, or vegan. And so, our let’s go get
them, and Queen Auset are vegan dishes that we make sure that
they have a little something to eat that is delicious.

Lorin: And even for those of us who are not vegetarians, I mean, pan-
cooked Tofu smothered in BBQ sauce, bashmati rice and
vegetables. I’ll take one please. That sounds amazing.

Na’imah: Yes.

Lorin: And the stuffed bell pepper, I was reading a review where
someone was just raving about the stuffed bell pepper. When I
think of stuffed bell peppers in New Orleans, of course, I’m
thinking meat or meat and rice or sometimes seafood and rice
depending on where in town you get your stuffed bell pepper, and
this is just veggie bread crumb stuffing, bashmati rice more and
vegetables, and apparently delicious. This is one of those
things I’m going to obviously have to get for myself the next
time I’m here.

Na’imah: Yes. It is definitely a delicious dish and we’re very glad to
have that one.

Lorin: And I love the fact that you also have the Bissap Breeze drink?

Na’imah: Yeah. The Bissap Breeze that is one of our very close friends
that we call our brother. His name is Tea [sp] , and his wife,
Esilama [sp], that they are locals who have this drink and that
is our only tea on the menu because we want to make sure that
people know about Bissap Breeze. It’s delicious, it’s a healthy
drink, it has loads of vitamin C.

Lorin: Isn’t it hibiscus?

Na’imah: It’s hibiscus. Yes. And there’s no sugar. It’s sweetened with
Agave.

Lorin: It’s so gorgeous. That floral and it’s perfect with this food
and so, so beautiful. We were talking earlier, you and me, about
the fact that groups come in and you do this lunch and lecture
series. Can you tell us about that?

Na’imah: Yes. Currently we are providing lunch and lectures so that
people while they are enjoying our cuisine, they can also hear
about the Mardi Gras Indians and it’s history. So that they
won’t have to go by word of mouth or what they heard here and
there about the Mardi Gras Indians. They’ll kind of hear
firsthand what is the true essence of the Mardi Gras Indians, as
much as we can give them on that information.

Lorin: Not like some of us it’s secret.

Na’imah: Uh-huh, but they’ll have that history, they’ll understand the
relationship between the African and the native here and how
they worked together and built societies here in New Orleans and
our homage that we pay to the natives for helping during
slavery. So, we get to tell that story.

Lorin: It’s fantastic.

Na’imah: Yes. We get to tell our story, and, of course, my husband being
a chief in the Mardi Gras Indian society, he tells that story
and he tells it well. So, we’re very glad to have him to be able
to do that.

Lorin: And it’s so important that education and that spirit and that
continuing to let that whole thing live on by telling those
stories. Story telling hasn’t died and you can live it, you can
see it and you can taste it. if you were going to describe for
us the flavors, the African flavors, the flavors of the foods as
they relate to the Mardi Gras Indians and the tribes, what are
those flavors that are central to the food that you’re serving
here at the cafe?

Na’imah: Spiciness and very herbal and grounded. and that’s pretty much
our taste of our foods. And that has a great deal to do with the
earth balance of the Mardi Gras Indians, as well.

Lorin: Such a beautiful thing. Well, I’m sitting here on Rampart
Street surrounded by the most exquisite Mardi Gras Indian
costumes. The hand beaded costumes and feathers with beautiful
colors and different symbols and representation. With these
incredible people, Na’imah and Shaka Zulu, in their incredible
cafe which is called Golden Feather Mardi Gras Indian Restaurant
and Gallery.

And, hopefully, soon upstairs, a shop, where if you were so
inclined and you wanted to buy your feathers and your beads and
whatever else you needed to make your gorgeous suit, you could
make that happen right here on Rampart Street, which is really
part of beautiful essence of this city and a very important
neighborhood that we call Treme, Treme and Treme.

Na’imah: Yes. Absolutely. Thank you, Lorin.

Lorin: Thanks a lot, Na’imah.

Sunpie: You can’t help but smile when you hear John Boutte’s voice.
Those smooth soulful vocals can be heard very Saturday night at
DBA on Frenchman Street. George Ingmire talks to the New Orleans
singer about his friends and neighbors in the Treme.

George: Talk a little bit about growing up in a musical environment,
both family and neighborhood wise?

John: Well, you know, I think neighborhood wise I would say it was
incredible man. Growing up on Derbigny Street, in the Seventh
Ward of New Orleans. Around the corner from me was Mr. Jack
Willis, great trumpet player. Down the block was Louis and Paul
Barbarin. I had to pass their house every day to go to my
grandmother’s.

Mr. Ferdinand, clarinet player who was right next to Mr. Willis
on Roman Street. And Callahan street there’s Mr. Alfonse
Picoult. And that whole area man was just incredible New Orleans
folks. Mr. Glass, the oldest drummer with Eureka. Remember
Mr.Glass?

John: No.

George: He was a base drummer. He used to visit next door to my
mother’s all the time. My dad would cut those cats’ hair. You
know, Houston’s music store was right around the corner on
Clayvon [sp] street. Louisiana Funeral Home which always had end
roads and everything. They always had big funerals coming out of
there. Proper Jazz funerals. So, yeah, man, I’ve been fortunate.
I could just run off the name and being privileged to being
around people like the Humphreys, or the Humphrey brothers, and
all those cats.

George: How about the church?

John: Oh yeah, they had a church man right around the corner and it was a
whole troop of God and Christ. That church is still there man.
They used to jam it in there and it would be jamming in there so
hard, sometimes I would be, you could hear them from my back
yard and also our home. The drums and the organ just starting
getting that groove, that frenzy. You know what I’m saying? That
sanctified riff. And being a cat, we ain’t Catholic, we didn’t
get much of that at church services. So, that was pretty cool.

George: Now you started playing instruments, I believe, was coronet one
of your first instruments?

George: Oh, absolutely, it was my first instrument, was a coronet,
which was given to me by my grand aunt, basically. It was an old
coronet, man. Made by Groove All. You know the Groove All
company was before Rolines. This one looked like Louis
Armstrong’s first coronet. You know with the oblong end there,
the curvature on it. It was silver, it was a beautiful horn.

And that was my first coronet, yeah. It was the first instrument
I was taught by Mr. Levine at [inaudible 17:22] Jones. New
Orleans has, we were so fortunate, man, and we still are, have
some great dedicated musical educators. I had Mr. Levine, I had
Mr. Houston. In junior high school I had Ms. Stamps. In college,
and you know I wasn’t a music major, I was just a kid who was
growing up in New Orleans who had good music teachers. Really
people who taught you the theory and how to read music and play
well.

John: What’s interesting is you’re not the first musician I talked to who
can name the lineage of teachers they went through to get to
where they at now. I can’t think of a single teacher from my
high school years.

George: Well you know what? To be honest with you, I can’t remember, I
can remember my Kindergarten teachers, forgive me you guys who
taught me in school, I can’t remember your names, but it was
music teachers who had a lot of influence on me throughout
school. Although I did extremely well in my other academics, but
it was the music teachers that I remembered because I enjoyed
it. I think it made me propel in all my other studies for sure
because you got to be smart to play music.

John: You have an unmistakable voice and when people hear it they know it’s
John Boutte. Now talk about finding that voice and using that
voice.

George: Oh, wow. You know what it’s funny because I’ve never had a
falsetto, man, coming up. I always had this really, really high,
and I tried to keep it from sounding shrill and girlie. To try
and keep it down, but I can’t help it, my voice is my voice,
man, and some people here me talk and they say, first thing they
say when I tell them that I do sing professionally is, they
think I’m telling a fib. They’re like, you can’t even talk, how
can you sing? and I’m like, right. But there’s something,
singing is different, it’s deeper.

Sunpie: Henry Griffin is a New Orleans writer and filmmaker. Recently
he appeared in episodes of Treme as himself. Mikko talks to him
about how New Orleans is portrayed in film and television.

Mikko: The writer Andre Kodresky [SP] wrote that the muse in new
Orleans is always half dressed, but I say even more then that,
the use is always singing. And she’s not only singing jazz.
Today we’re going to talk about someone who the muse has blessed
in two subjects near and dear to my heart, writing and acting.
I’m with Henry Griffin, screenwriter, filmmaker and actor on the
wildly popular Treme show. Welcome, Henry.

Henry: Thank you for having me here.

Mikko: Thanks for being here. By the way, I’m Mikko for those of you
how didn’t hear Sunpie bring me in, but, Henry, I’m glad you’re
here today because I’ve kind of admired you from afar for a
while. You seem to.

Henry: I look best from a distance.

Mikko: Although I think you’ve taken more than a couple of close-ups
on Treme. you play, every now and then you’re in as Steve Zahn’s
best friend or friend on the side. Is that how it works?

Henry: I’m his personal ethical compass.

Mikko: Nice. And what do you put on your resume to get that gig? Not
the acting gig, the personal ethical compass. Yeah, and but
beyond that, you are a writer and you’ve been doing it a long
time. In fact, we’re sitting here at University of New Orleans
and you’re the artist in residence here. So, you have the
experience of writing for actors and you have the experience of
acting for writers. Is there a fundamental difference here?

Henry: Yeah. Screenwriting is my backgrounds. The short version is I’m
from New Orleans. I’m a screenwriter and director and I lived in
Los Angeles and worked as a script doctor for a long time, where
I worked on Hollywood movies. And then I moved back home a few
years later.

I took my job here at UNO where I teach screenwriting and
directing and sort of out of the blue my acting career began
when they came down here to do a show about post-Katrina new
Orleans, and I was obviously a resident of post-Katrina New
Orleans.

But the character, Steve Zahn’s character, Davis McAlary, is
based on a real person. Davis Rogan. I have known Davis from
high school. He and I are good friends.

Mikko: And he’s going to be on my show soon.

Henry: Yeah. So, he’ll take up all the time.

Mikko: Yes, he will.

Henry: Anyway, so, Davis is such a central character on the show that
they brought in a professional, Steve, to sort of replace Davis’
large personality.

Mikko: Capture the magic.

Henry: Yeah. And bring a certain amount of theatrical gravitas to the
role. I think the role of Davis McAlary is so big that it would
be hard for one of us non-actors to pull it off. However, the
smaller role of Simply, which is the character that I play.
Where I just sort of appear every now and again. It’s a
character inspired by me, but not directly me.

So, I perform a sort of role. Davis is a sort of rogue soldier
in New Orleans. So, they always bring me in to sort of check him
in one way or another. I’m always listening to his new song or
helping him achieve one of his more elaborate goals.

Mikko: Do you get any input as to how it’s going to go, or do they
just basically tell you how it’s going to go?

Henry: I would say they tell me how it’s going to go. I mean, they
research the show extensively and so, even though they really
strive to make it lifelike, it’s not my place to say, “Oh, this
is what I would do if I were them.” Because there’s a lot of
things that I do in real life that don’t end up on the show. My
character on the show, for example, is not a college professor
and as a result gets to do things that college professors don’t
get to do.

So, no, it’s interesting, as a screenwriter I do have this
deific control over characters and their lives. And they don’t
actually need me to be a writer, they do need me to be a
character. So, I’m one of the puppets.

Mikko: One problem I used to have with some New Orleans depictions, I
remember the movie, The Big Easy, in which they put a disco ball
in Tipitinas, which really drove me crazy. Although now they
have one every now and then if you pay them enough, but the idea
is that, I didn’t like that there was this perception of new
Orleans that was kind of created outside of new Orleans and
imported here.

How do you think, not just Treme, but there’s a whole sort of
wave of a new sensibility of New Orleans, post-Katrina sense.
How do you think that’s playing nationally, do you think?

Henry: Well, I used to call the Big Easy, the Rosetta stone of bad New
Orleans movies. Because if you could figure out what made you
disconnect with that movie as a New Orleanean, it would help
explain all the movies about new Orleans that you don’t really
like. They basically, there is a sort of a, I guess they used to
call it a showboat mentality.

That they made New Orleans based movies for the people who
visits New Orleans. And so they wanted to show people things
that they could expect to see while they were here. And so, they
generally tended to crowd the mall in the same place at the same
time. You would see a midnight Jazz funeral, with flambos on
Mardi Gras day in Jackson Square.

Mikko: Yeah.

Henry: Which are all lovely things, but you wouldn’t see them all at
the same place at the same time, but they’re doing their best.
And even K-Ville, the television show that was shot here
immediately before Treme had a similar approach in trying to
sort of, put as much local color in. To crowd it with as much
local color as they could, past the point of accuracy.

Mikko: I remember a Clint Eastwood film where, I think they…

Henry: Tightrope.

Mikko: Yeah. Where they were on a ferry, they ate beignets, they were
in the super dome. They did what a typical tourist would do in
three weeks in like an afternoon and still made love before
dinner. It was just a great day in new Orleans.

Henry: Well, you know, New Orleans is full of people who slap their
forehead and say, you can’t jog over the industrial canal to get
to Buck town. What are you doing? That’s madness. Treme took a
fundamentally different approach which is that they cared a lot
about whether local people would recognize or like the show.
Everybody else who was making a show or a movie down here
thought, well, people in New Orleans will go. That’s not really
our target market. Let’s make our show for everybody else and
see if we can get them.

And Treme clearly tried to get it right the way we would
recognize it. With the idea that if they got it right for us
then other people would catch up. Because that’s exactly what we
do with music and our food and everything else. New Orleans as a
culture didn’t evolve out of market research to begin with. It’s
based on it’s individuality. So, I think they felt that if they
could honor the city, that the audience would show up.

Mikko: Yeah. Now, you have your irons in many fires, to use an old
cockneyed expression. I believe you have something coming up.
You do, you make films on your own. You have for a while. Do you
have any projects coming up now?

Henry: Golly, I have a number of projects coming up. I will say that
I’ve been working here at UNO for five years as an artist in
residence, which is to say that I teach the students
screenwriting and directing, but, also, they make, we make
movies together. So, we collaborated on a feature film a few
years ago that is not that New Orleans based. it’s a comedy
about eBay. It’s a revenge movie about people screwing each
other over on auction websites.

Mikko: Okay.

Henry: It’s called Flip Mavens. And so you’ll hopefully see that at
some point. I’m also the vice president of the New Orleans film
festival, so I’m always plugging away what we do. But I’ve made
a few short films. I’m about to make a documentary about the
Bach Around the Clock concert at Trinity Episcopal church.

Mikko: Which is great event. It’s more than 24 hours. They just
basically have music going.

Henry: It started with 24 hours and it was all Johan Sebastien Bach,
and they extended it. Now it’s 29 hours and it’s music either by
Bach or influenced by Bach. Which is to say everything in
western music.

Mikko: So, yeah, and if you’re a young composer, make sure you write
enough stuff, in case you get popular enough to fill 29 hours of
programming.

Henry: Also not a problem for Bach.

Mikko: Exactly. Well, thank you so much for coming along Henry. Good
luck to you and we’ll see you on TV.

Henry: Oh the pleasure is mine. Thanks a lot for having me.

Sunpie: GoNOLA radio is a production of New Orleans tourism and
marketing corporation in conjunction with FSC interactive. Music
by Kell Pellick [SPp]. My name is Sunpie. Tune in next week by
subscribing to GoNOLA Radio on iTunes or gonola.com.

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