A couple of years ago Strong asked if ‘The Wire’ wasn’t “Our Best Ethnographic Text on the U.S. Today?” Well David Simon and Eric Overmyer are at it again in Treme, which is full of nuanced detail about New Orleans music and society. I’m still catching up, but after watching five episodes of the show I feel that Treme is less ethnographic and more immersive than The Wire.
I find myself constantly wanting to know more about the culture and musical traditions of the city where the AAA will be holding it’s annual meeting this November. Without a policeman character to stand in for us as outsiders, the show instead plunges us directly into the middle of an ongoing story. Which isn’t to say that there isn’t a lot of hand holding in the writing – just that the anthropologist in me finds myself turning to Google much more often. For instance the word “lagniappe” is casually mentioned in one episode in a way that implies the meaning without giving much sense of the import or the origins. Fortunately, friends on Facebook and Twitter have forwarded some useful links, like the NOLA.org explainers for the cultural references in each episode.
Of particular interest was this article about the history of Mardi Gras “Indian” suiting (you can skip the introduction):
Clearly, the historical background suggests that the idea of “masking Indian” is over two hundred years old. Rather than an anomaly, the Mardi Gras Indians are in fact simply a manifestation of a much broader and older cultural trend than is often supposed. Rather than unique to New Orleans, Mardi Gras Indians are better understood as representative of the historic merging of African and Native peoples–a merger which happened throughout the so-called “new world” both because of as well as in spite of African enslavement and Native genocide.
Know of other useful resources for fans of Treme? Share them in the comments!