In New Orleans, A Young Organization Fights An Old Battle For Culture (Happy Anniversary, MACCNO)

If you’ll be in New Orleans on Monday night (October 13), you’d be wise to get down to Café Istanbul. The musical lineup is reason enough—among others, singer John Boutté, drummer Herlin Riley, trombonist-singer Glen David Andrews, and the Treme Brass Band. The club, co-owned by Chuck Perkins, a spoken-word artist with a resonant voice and a big heart, is a particularly welcoming space with good sound.
The real draw is the Second Anniversary Benefit Party for the Music and Culture Coalition of New Orleans (MaCCNO). For more details, look here.
If you’ve been reading my accounts of the fight for New Orleans jazz culture, you know just how important this young organization has been; if you haven’t, you can find some good context here and here. These days, as I try to track the machinations surrounding a new Comprehensive Zoning Ordinance and other legislation that will directly affect music and culture in New Orleans, I regularly look to MaCCNO executive director Ethan Ellestad. Beyond its work in galvanizing a community and instigating activism, MaCCNO is a source of open and good information.
In her Louisiana Weekly column, Geraldine Wyckoff gave some valuable background on MaCCNO’s beginnings, and the need for its work:

The attack on live music has been achingly long, pervasive and ongoing. It dates back decades and has led to the elimination of music clubs throughout the city – think places like Donna’s Bar & Grill, the Funky Butt, Little People’s Place and so many, many more. There was even a move to take brass bands, including the legendary Tuba Fats, out of Jackson Square and later the young, To Be Continued (TBC) off the corner of Canal and Bourbon Streets. Recently, Buffa’s Bar & Restaurant, which has been operational at the corner of Esplanade Avenue and Burgundy Street since 1939 and has long presented live music, is struggling to keep the music alive.
After a particularly strong onslaught on the music several years ago, Kermit Ruffins called a meeting at his then Kermit’s Tremé Speakeasy to gather and unite folks in the music community for a common cause. That effort became the birth of the MACCNO.

And here’s something I wrote two years ago:

“…what has emerged is a movement to turning the volume down — not of the music, but of the rhetoric surrounding it. Those weekly gatherings at Ruffins’s club have become meetings of the Music and Culture Coalition of New Orleans (MaCCNO), an organization bent on educating its members about city policies and building bridges with local government more so than fomenting protest. Hannah Kreiger-Benson, a freelance musician and Tulane University graduate student, refers to herself as “facilitator, planner, and representative” for the group. “MaCCNO represents something new, a broader coalition which formed in an organic, grassroots fashion,” she said. “We’re trying to change the public perception of musicians and culture-makers, who want to be seen as valid participants in the policymaking that directly affects them.”

The other day, I asked Hannah to reflect a bit about MaCCNO. Here’s what she wrote back:

The Music and Culture of New Orleans happened by accident—no one set out to form an organization in September of 2012. But it was clear that there was a lot of work to be done around the ways that laws can affect or quash culture, and so what was supposed to be a one-time meeting turned into MaCCNO.
I attended the initial meeting at Kermit Ruffins’ Treme Speakeasy bar with my nerd hat firmly on my head. I was a Musicology M.A. student at Tulane, exploring a new-found interest in the Geography of music in New Orleans, and the ways that systems and structures like Zoning Law could shape the where and the how of music/culture throughout the Urban Landscape. When I heard about the initial meeting, at noon on a Wednesday with lunch provided by Kermit, I went without having any idea of what to expect, but hopeful that I would meet some people I could interview, and gain some ideas for research questions.
There were dozens and dozens of people packed into that not-very-large space, and my memory of that first meeting is of yelling. Lots and lots of people expressing anger and frustration and exasperation about a variety of interconnected topics— music venues being told to stop having music, music venues losing or being denied permits, street performers and brass bands being harassed or shut down, and the general feelings of: ‘if you don’t like the culture/want it to flourish, why did you move here?’ ‘It’s like moving next to the beach/the airport and complaining about the sand/the planes’, and ‘our culture is special— New Orleans is not Akron/Kansas City/Louisville/Columbus/Des Moines!! It was an electric space, full of obviously large personalities and strong feelings and opinions.
I don’t remember how it was decided, but there was so much potential energy and power gathered in the room that people decided to come back the next week, same time. It was at that second meeting where I stood up to make myself known. “Hi everyone”, I said nervously, “I want to introduce myself so you have a face to put to the name— I’m a grad student and will probably be contacting a lot of you in this room for interviews in my work about how legal structures shape the cultural landscape….” And to my infinite surprise, someone in the back of the room said, “hey, do you want to help lead these meetings??” I became the MaCCNO Facilitator, and later spokesperson, and have served in those capacities since.
MaCCNO has taken on a broad and deep scope of work, picking up on and continuing the past efforts of many other local people and organizations. A large part of what we deal with is information, and access to it. We make legal information that affects musicians and cultural practitioners clear, condensed and accessible (information that is often very obtuse, dense, obscure, sometimes contradictory and daunting to laypeople). We act as a central point for information gathering/dispensation, and have worked hard to become known as an organization that vets information so that people can come to us to quell rumors and ask questions. We work with the various city officials to update old and/or poorly written laws that can or could have negative impacts on various aspects of the culture. And we advocate explicitly for the needs of the cultural community in conversations on law and policy, working to ensure that those viewpoints don’t get left out, overlooked or ignored.
For me, MaCCNO represents the perfect opportunity to combine my deeply nerdy love of law/geography/musicology/anthropology/urban studies with my day-to-day identity as a working musician. It is an organization that I am proud to be a part of, and a cause that I deeply believe in. I am not a native New Orleanian, but I adore my adopted hometown and want to fight to make it the best that it can be, in all its complexity.
For the record, I have not actually been able to finish my Master’s thesis, yet. The story I want to write is still unfolding.

So is the story I’m working hard on writing now. MaCCNO has become an important part of that unfolding process, and a character in its essential narrative.

Leave a Reply