In Spain, As In New Orleans, Culture Finds Trouble With The Law

Maybe brass band players in New Orleans should sit down and have a talk with the flamenco musicians of Seville, Spain. There’d be some shared rhythmic legacies to discuss, sure. But more to the point, some common and pressing problems with local governments and police.

As readers of this blog know, I’ve been writing consistently about tensions between the celebrated jazz culture of New Orleans and the powers that be in that city—about efforts to inhibit or even shut down cultural expression in ways that reflect not just the forces of gentrification and commercialization but also long-simmering political and social divides.

I’ve also been looking into similar dynamics in other cities—say, when the Giuliani administration in New York City began shutting down rumbas in public parks as part of its “Zero Tolerance” policing program.

A friend just forwarded an article at Truthout by Yossi Bartal that begins like this:

Recently recognized by UNESCO as Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity and increasingly used by communities in southern Spain to attract tourism, flamenco music and dance seem to enjoy an unprecedented revival all around the world. But the public spaces and social centers that play a major role in the formation of flamenco culture are increasingly threatened by gentrification, newly legislated municipal ordinances and heavy policing.

I’d literally just written these lines:

Now—as a yet undefined “new” New Orleans rubs up against whatever is left of the old one—a revival of rarely enforced ordinances has met a fresh groundswell of activism. Brass bands have been shut down on their customary street corners, where they play for passersby. Music clubs have increasingly been hit with lawsuits and visited by the police responding to phoned-in complaints. All this has happened in the context of swift gentrification of neighborhoods such as Tremé, long a hothouse for indigenous culture.Bartal’s piece describes the scene in March in front of Seville’s city hall:

…more than 50 people, most of them middle-aged, circled a man playing guitar, joining with accompanying hand-clapping, while women of all ages occasionally entered the circle and broke into dance.

Although many of the tourists passing the square had mistaken the gathering for another street spectacle, this public Tertulia was in fact a political demonstration organized by members of the Peña de los Torres Macarena, an association dedicated to the performance of flamenco in response to being shut down by the police for noise violations.

In the piece I’m working on, I describe this New Orleans scene, which was in part simulated by brass bands getting shut down due to noise violations:

In January, dozens of musicians led a crowd of hundreds into New Orleans city council chamber. “We’re here to bury the noise ordinance,” announced a trombonist before raising his instrument. The protest took musical form—a dirge-like rendition of the hymn, “Just a Closer Walk With Thee,” a standard played at any local jazz funeral procession.

Bartal explains that local “Flamenco Peñas” are “ neighborhood associations of flamenco adherents” that “have played a significant role in teaching the traditions of music and dance to younger generations, providing crucial space to rising artists and strengthening the social fabric of flamenco in a noncommercial way.” All of which reminds me very much of the Social Aid & Pleasure Clubs of New Orleans that mount Sunday second-line parades.

In New Orleans, there is a persistent fear that, as one musician told me, “that some of our older cultural institutions are in the way of progress and don’t fit in the new vision of New Orleans, that they should only be used in a limited way to boost the image of New Orleans, as opposed to being real, viable aspects of our lives.” And there’s worry, made more powerful by a pending draft the city’s Comprehensive Zoning Ordinance, that culture will be stripped of its meaning and context. Those advocating for a fundamental rewrite of the zoning ordinance argue that live music should not be singled out as a behavior, and thus confined. “In most cities you have culture zones,” said one prominent civil rights attorney. “We have a living culture grounded in neighborhoods.”

That concern is prominent in the Southern Spain of Bartal’s story, where, he writes, “tourists now walk through the picturesque allies to the river and gain easier access to the authenticity of the neighborhood by paying entry to packed flamenco bars serving expensive drinks.”

In a 2010 piece about the situation in New Orleans, I wrote:

“I used to get worried that this specific law or that policy would crush the music,” one attorney said recently. “But I’ve found some relief in finally and deeply understanding that these laws are problems—they are obstacles, irritants—and they are problematic—unjust, unequally enforced. But the thing is that the music and the culture survives despite it, and finds its way around, over, and under these laws.”

She’s right, and yet this deep and abiding truth perhaps invites a dangerous notion: that a culture developed in opposition to subjugating force requires or is somehow served by or at least lives well in spite of the occasional, capricious and overriding slap-down.

And Bartal writes of Spain:

Nevertheless, the story of flamenco is much more than just its appropriation and commercialization. Some claim it is exactly out of this contradictory position that it could have survived and developed, even though Spanish society has radically changed since it first appeared.

In any city, gentrification raises questions: What happens when those who spark redevelopment built upon cultural cachet don’t want that culture next door? Or bulldoze what distinguishes an indigenous scene?

Bartal’s piece describes laws that allow “cops to confiscate musical instruments and levy aggressive fines for playing or even just singing in public,” and he concludes with this:

Against the processes of artistic commercialization and gentrification, their performances seem to declare the known lines of Federico Garcia Lorca’s poem: The weeping of the guitar begins. Useless to silence it. Impossible to silence it.

Which reminds me of a 2007 piece I wrote for Salon, which reported on how police shut down a brass-band procession—grabbing at horn players’ mouthpieces, seizing drumsticks out of hands, and stopping even the singing of a hymn. I ended that one with this:

Glen David Andrews put down his trombone and sang “I’ll Fly Away,” as Derrick Tabb snapped out beats on his snare. A tight circle surrounded the musicians, as a middle-aged black woman turned to the man next to her. “They say they want to stop this?” she asked softly. “They will never stop this.”

Let’s keep our eyes on both stories.

Photo: Carlos Lorenzo

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