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Treme: A community using jazz and carnival to survive

Judith Orr relishes Treme, a new drama about life in New Orleans since Hurricane Katrina, from the makers of The Wire


Davina (Edwina Findley), Delmond (Rob Brown) and Albert (Clarke Peters) in Treme

Davina (Edwina Findley), Delmond (Rob Brown) and Albert (Clarke Peters) in Treme


Treme exposes New Orleans’ corrupt legal system and the despicable political response to 2005’s Hurricane Katrina. It explores the rich culture of the city and its deep inequality through a multitude of interlocking stories and characters.

I drove through the city two years after the hurricane and witnessed the great injustice that was still being suffered by the poorest inhabitants of this famous city.

While the tourists enjoyed the music and bars in the French Quarter and Bourbon Street, swathes of the city remained nothing more than wrecked homes and rubble.

Some houses still had holes hacked in the roofs where people had tried to escape from the rising waters.

The markings of the emergency services remained on doors—showing which buildings had been searched, the number of bodies found or survivors rescued.

Even today, hundreds of thousands of mainly black residents have not been able to return.

Scandal

The scandal and human tragedy of Katrina has been explored in documentaries, including the stunning When the Levees Broke by Spike Lee. But Treme, by the makers of The Wire, is the first TV drama on the subject to hit our screens.

Sad then that it is yet another quality US TV series that has been bought up by Sky and so will get a limited audience until it eventually comes out on DVD. If you don’t have Sky yourself why not invite yourself round to someone who does!

Treme definitely deserves a big audience. For fans of The Wire this is a very different drama. Its scale is smaller, the plots and characters are less complex but nevertheless it is a rich and powerful account of a community fighting for survival.

Treme (pronounced “Tremay”) is an old working class neighborhood in New Orleans that holds a special significance in the history of New Orleans and the origins of jazz.

It is home to Congo Square, where slaves would congregate and make music rooted in the culture of the continent they had been snatched from, now renowned as the birthplace of jazz. It later became the first community of free blacks.

Treme opens with a “second line”—a parade of revellers following a band of musicians. It is three months after the hurricane. As we meet the cast we build up a picture of a city that has been ravaged, but not just by a natural disaster.

Every encounter is coloured by the impact of Katrina—the people stuck in government trailers for homes, the woman whose brother has never returned—after last being seen on the bridge in police custody—and the jazz musicians who have lost their precious instruments.

Some characters don’t work—the DJ who is a shallow creep is one—but one of the most convincing and moving storylines is that of the Mardi Gras Indians.

Flamboyant

They are part of a long tradition of musicians who create the most flamboyant and colourful costumes with feathers and sequins for Mardi Gras, Different neighborhoods have their own competing tribes.

Albert Lambreaux (played brilliantly by Clarke Peters) is a “chief” fighting to bring his tribe together after they have been scattered across several states.

His son, Delmond, a jazz musician more comfortable in New York than his home city, can’t understand why his father wants to return to New Orleans and stay in a building with no water or power so he can prepare for carnival.

Delmond’s comfortable lifestyle and music are a world away from that of his dad, as he mixes and plays with a whole host of musicians who pop up throughout playing themselves.

The credit sequence almost deserves its own review.

A beautiful collage of archive footage of Mardi Gras and photos of New Orleanians is interspersed with film of Katrina’s impact and images of the water damage that have become abstract art.

This will be some of best TV you’ll see this year. It’s an example of how art can engage with current political issues and show how humans can fight to resist being crushed by the system at its most cruel.

Treme is showing on Friday nights, 10.15pm, Sky Atlantic


Article information

Reviews
Tue 1 Mar 2011, 18:46 GMT
Issue No. 2241
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