New Orleans’s Street Music Is at Risk

by Quin Hillyer

After Hurricane Katrina, when so many people nationwide (and even worldwide) rallied with such fervor to find ways to resurrect New Orleans, it was obvious that one of the biggest reasons so many people care so deeply about the Cradle of Jazz is that, indeed, this city’s rich culture of indigenous and often spontaneous music is a treasure that must not be allowed to die. But somehow, New Orleans’s City Council seems to have forgotten everything its members ever knew (or at least should have known) about how that musical culture develops. It doesn’t come from pre-planned, top-down, carefully managed set pieces. Instead, it arises from the streets, and from the small clubs and the less-than-official clubs that emerge organically from a mélange of neighborhood influences. 

And sometimes it is loud.

Gee, what a surprise. Who ever imagined that exuberant street music might be loud? Next in line for discovery: Cayenne pepper is hot! Who knew?

Anyway, five members of the seven-member City Council have proposed a new noise ordinance for the city that opponents say will drastically curtail the ability of the organic musical culture to keep developing and flourishing and that ignores recommendations of the very professional the Council hired to study the issue. To fight back, a group called the Music and Culture Coalition of New Orleans (MCCNO) is pulling out all the stops to block the proposed ordinance, and is sponsoring a huge public rally against it this Friday.

Normally, a local dispute about a sound ordinance would not be worthy of national attention. But this is different. This is an ordinance that could seriously damage the future of a national treasure — a treasure recognized as such by millions upon millions who donated in various ways to the city’s now-impressive recovery.

As a native New Orleanian (now living two hours away), I am absolutely baffled by the Council’s cultural myopia. The MCCNO’s effort is worth watching, and worth cheering for. While this is a fight that should be decided by locals, not via national interference, it is certainly one where some national attention might serve to help bring the City Council to its senses. The MCCNO makes a strong and valid case that even if a new noise ordinance is needed, the one now before the City Council would be akin, culturally speaking, to deliberately smothering a beautiful baby in its Cradle.

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