Due South: EMP Conferences Explores New Orleans' Musical Geography

  • James Andrews performs at the 15th anniversary of "American Routes"
    Photo: Nick Spitzer

(Launched by the Experience Music Project in Seattle in 2002, the EMP Pop Conference is designed to convene academics, critics, artists, and fans in a collective discussion. This year's EMP Pop Conference took place April 17-21 in Seattle, Cleveland, Los Angeles, New Orleans, and New York.)

By Ben Sandmel

For 10 years following its launch in 2002, the Experience Music Project's annual Pop Conference was held in Seattle, the home of the Experience Music Project Museum. The 2011 and 2012 events were held in Los Angeles and New York, respectively. This year the conference unfolded simultaneously in Seattle, Cleveland, Los Angeles, New York, and New Orleans from April 17–21.

The Crescent City gathering, titled Due South: Roots, Songlines, Musical Geographies, was held at Tulane University. It was co-produced by EMP's Eric Weisbard and Tulane's New Orleans Center for the Gulf South, and led by center director Joel Dinerstein, senior programs manager Karen Celestan and ethnomusicologist Holly Hobbs. The center recently established musical cultures of the Gulf South as a new interdisciplinary undergraduate major at Tulane, in conjunction with a new program, Music Rising, which receives funding from the Gibson Foundation.

EMP's New Orleans event took a big-tent approach in terms of both musical variety and far-flung Southern locales. A total of 15 panels involving more than 40 participants explored topics such as go-go music in Washington, D.C.; the New Orleans bounce scene; "The South's Blues: Singing It, Selling It, Crossing It Over"; Memphis rap, the Muscle Shoals sound and the chitlin' circuit; live music and noise ordinances in Austin and New Orleans; the historic and contemporary interaction of jazz, Cajun music and zydeco; and New Orleans' long-standing tradition of trans-gender and cross-dressing African-American male entertainers. Participants included academics, journalists, independent scholars, and musicians. Some panels took a decidedly academic approach, while others assumed an informal tone.

In conjunction with the conference, Tulane folklorist Nick Spitzer produced a concert to celebrate the 15th anniversary of "American Routes," the public radio program that he created and hosts. A packed house at Mid-City Lanes, better known as the Rock 'n' Bowl, enjoyed performances by the Treme Brass Band, celebrating New Orleans' rich traditional jazz scene; popular young Cajun group the Lost Bayou Ramblers; and the Absolute Monster Gentlemen, an R&B band led by pianist Jon Cleary. Cleary and company performed original material and also served as the backing band for New Orleans R&B icons Irma Thomas, Walter "Wolfman" Washington, Ivan Neville, Robert Parker, and trumpeter James Andrews.

Live music also figured prominently in EMP's on-campus programming during a discussion/performance titled "The Banjo In The African Diaspora." Senegalese xalam player Demma Dia and his band performed, demonstrating the African roots of the banjo.  Carl LeBlanc and Don Vappie — musicians known for their traditional jazz-banjo prowess — expertly showed how this African-rooted instrument has evolved and flourished in New Orleans. For the finale, LeBlanc and Vappie called Dia and his band back onstage for a Senegal-New Orleans jam. This cultural connection will be explored further as one of many topics at the conference "Saint-Louis, Senegal, And New Orleans: The Comparative and Linked History Of Two Port Cities On Each Side Of The Atlantic From The 17th To The 19th Centuries," taking place April 22–25 at Tulane. Many EMP conference participants will attend this event as well, proving it's high season for musicologists in New Orleans.

(Ben Sandmel is a New Orleans-based journalist, folklorist, drummer, and GRAMMY-nominated producer. The author of Ernie K-Doe: The R&B Emperor Of New Orleans, and Zydeco! (a collaborative book with photographer Rick Olivier), Sandmel also produced and performed on the Hackberry Ramblers' GRAMMY-nominated album Deep Water.)

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