If I depart from Carnatic music for the length of this column, it’s only because Treme so compels me to. Over the last fortnight, I’ve been watching the inaugural episodes of this marvellous new HBO series, set in a New Orleans still dizzy from being buffeted by Hurricane Katrina. The streets and houses appear as comprehensively ravaged as the souls of Treme’s characters, a motley group of New Orleanians who attempt to replant their roots and return to their lives. This process is the central force of Treme. It’s no coincidence that the pilot opens with a “second line”—a parade accumulating clots of dancing, singing residents as it moves—led by a New Orleans institution named the Rebirth Brass Band.
It would have been such a cliché to include snatches of jazz in a New Orleans show that the creators of Treme cannily push their gears into extreme overdrive. Treme is saturated with music; indeed, many of its characters can think of little else. A radio jockey, addicted to his city’s heritage, blasts the music of New Orleans rapper Mystikal out of his windows, at his newly gentrifying neighbourhood. A trombonist refers to his instrument (the musical one) even in the throes of copulation. A trio of buskers—including Lucia Micarelli, a violinist of heart-melting talent—scoffs privately at tourists’ requests. A father rebuilds his group of carnival revellers, with their hypnotic Native American chants, before he rebuilds his house; his son can’t stay to help, because he has to be in New York, playing trumpet in gigs. Musicians such as Elvis Costello, Dr John and Kermit Ruffins flit through, and every episode has a segment in a live-music club or a recording studio. At times, Treme feels like a series of music videos punctuated by sharp reminders of real life.
Jazzed-up: Wendell Pierce as the trombonist, Antoine Batiste. Paul Schiraldi/Bloomberg
Even better, all this music is curated lovingly and with great attention to detail. For amateur devotees of Dixie, jazz and blues, Treme functions as a fount of favourites but also of unfamiliar yet irresistible music. When the radio jockey nicked a box set of Dave Bartholomew from a defunct record store, or when a fiery New Orleans activist (played by John Goodman) unwound at home to a scratchy recording of the Boswell Sisters, I simply had to listen to more of their music once the episode ended (for the purposes of this column, let’s say that I walked over to the closest music shop and, incredibly, found CDs of both Bartholomew and the Boswell Sisters in the capacious and diverse “Jazz” section. Kids, downloading music is injurious to health).
And boy, is it vivid! “When…Ruffins blows his horn in a bar,” James Poniewozik wrote for Time magazine, “the scene feels so alive and hot and jostling that you half expect someone to spill his beer on you.” This isn’t token symbolism to show that the spirit of New Orleans will live on as long as its music lives on, or that joy returns with music; that would be lazy, and worse, it would be boring. This is music as a vital element of survival, like shelter or food—so vital that you don’t give it a second thought until you’ve truly lost it and have to struggle to wrest it back into your life.
Write to Samanth Subramanian at email@example.com