It is possible that New Orleans, Louisiana, may be the model for the rest of the country when it comes to healing both racial and political divisions that have been building in America.
That’s what native son and LifeZette Editor-at-Large Raymond Arroyo believes. For two years, he’s worked on a labor of love, a CD and companion DVD that together illuminate the rich cultural history of the city best known as the birthplace of jazz — and world-class gumbo.
“In this moment in history, where we are so divided along racial lines, New Orleans tells a very different story — and I think has a lesson for the whole country,” said Arroyo. “The lesson is that when you pool the best parts of your traditions, and the best parts of who you are, you create a community that becomes unstoppable.”
He added, “Like our food and our music, our culture is so rich. Races and nationalities have blended together in this particular place over hundreds of years. It’s unique in the country and in the world. That is the mystery I wanted to unveil.”
Arroyo collaborated with his partners at Aim Higher Recordings to create “Christmastime in New Orleans,” an original soundtrack consisting of 18 of the best jazz sidemen in the city “exploding with Christmas joy,” as he put it.
“We recorded the CD at the Saenger Theatre earlier this year. It’s sort of Count Basie meets Basin Street in a snowstorm — and it’s already hit the Billboard charts.”
Arroyo wrote, produced, and hosts the companion DVD of the same title, which is now airing on PBS. “Christmastime in New Orleans” stars actors Wendell Pierce and Jim Caviezel, chef Leah Chase (James Beard Lifetime achievement winner), chef John Folse, and other notable New Orleanians.
“It’s all about how these diverse people rely on one another and support one another. It is about the power of family, community, and brotherhood despite our differences.”
Sounds like the rest of the country could use a little New Orleans magic right about now.
Actor Wendell Pierce appears in the DVD, and explains what keeps drawing him back to New Orleans, where he has a home. “We have taken the individual and lifted them up to a place of celebration, freedom within form,” he says of his beloved city. “That’s exhibited in New Orleans in its architecture, it’s exhibited in its food, and we take a little something of nothing, and build it up to this great this culinary masterpiece called gumbo — which has gone around the world. That’s why jazz was created here. It’s freedom within form — in spite of restraint, in spite of the difficulties I have, I will find my joy in what I’m doing.”
And 93-year-old chef Leah Chase agrees, saying on the program as well, “We have a blend of people, and a blend of food.”
New Orleans has gone through its difficulties — most notably Hurricane Katrina, which decimated the historic city in August 2005. But the city of 390,000 is not only surviving — it’s thriving.
“Why is there a renaissance in this city post-Katrina?” said Arroyo. “It [Katrina] made us aware of what we have, and how priceless that is, and how we need to preserve it for the next generation. And that is our food, our music, our rituals, our traditions, and our faith — and each other.”
Many people think of the Hollywood-ized version of New Orleans — Mardi Gras, beer, and beads — when they think of the city, but it is so much more to the people who call it home. “New Orleans is rooted in faith and tradition — that’s what keeps and sustains it,” said Arroyo. “It isn’t this wild bacchanal 24/7 — that’s just not how we live.”
Arroyo said NOLA does, however, have its own way of doing things. “We live large in New Orleans — nothing is understated. Our parties are huge, our parades are enormous, our festivals are big, and when you have a party you really have a spread. It’s not salacious, it’s expressive. We fly our colors boldly — which has the effect of pulling anyone in our orbit immediately in. All our welcome to the party.”
“Christmas has its own colors and rituals and dimensions — like New Orleans, which we wanted to capture.”
Christmas is a special time to revel in the sights, sounds, smells — think fried chicken and gumbo — of the city. “Walker Percy the novelist said he always loved the ‘liturgical rhythm’ of New Orleans — and I think he got that right,” said Arroyo. “Christmas has its own colors and rituals and dimensions … and yet it’s always new and always welcoming — like New Orleans, which we wanted to capture.”
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Apparent among those featured in the DVD is the sense of joy NOLA residents find in creating food, music — and a welcoming vibe. Here, neighbors help neighbors.
“Leah Chase — the grande dame of Creole cooking — her restaurant went completely underwater in Katrina,” explained Arroyo. “And John Folse, a renowned chef in his own right, showed up at Leah’s restaurant and said, ‘Look, I’m going to help you come back from this.’ He was literally in the kitchen at her side as a sous chef, helping to get her back up and running. That’s how people treat one another here.”
Though he has lived in several other cities, Arroyo says a part of him “always longs for New Orleans.” “My heart still beats in that shuffle-beat time of that city. We’re all united in the love of this place.”
The show is airing nationally on PBS and is distributed by American Public Television. PBS air times and a link to purchase the DVD and CD (Verve/Universal) can be found at raymondarroyo.com.