“Stop talking about culture and experience it!”
A prolific musician and composer—and founder of the Naked Orchestra and the New Orleans Klezmer All-Stars—Jonathan Freilich is widely known for his involvement in countless of the city’s most innovative bands.
Less well known is that he’s also made an exceptional contribution to its music journalism, conducting 20-plus lengthy audio interviews that are available on his website (www.jonathanfreilich.com). Discussing this project a few months back, he ended up offering some thought-provoking observations on music journalism and what he thinks is the precarious (although not irredeemable) state of New Orleans culture.
By approaching his interviews without any particular angle and remaining unconcerned over whether they’re easily digestible to a mass audience, Freilich has created the kind of treasure trove of insight into New Orleans musical culture that mainstream media can’t offer.
“The thing about music is, there’s always a reason why people choose to do things a certain way,” Freilich said. “A lot of what is missed in the journalism of music is what people’s ideas are. The things that cause them to do the things they’re doing. And since that question is rarely asked, the music becomes more and more meaningless. And, the journalist doesn’t go in with the mentality of ‘I have no idea.’ You have to go in as if you know nothing. You don’t, until they tell you.”
Freilich, as he put it, “was literally just asking them what they were up to.” Musicians explanations, attempted explanations, and even refusals to give explanations enrich the listening experience and together paint a kaleidoscopic portrait of scenes that Freilich was involved in or fascinated by, mostly in the ’90s and early 2000s.
Despite the stigma in contemporary journalism that familiarity impairs objectivity, Freilich hasn’t got a problem with the fact that many interviewees were friends or bandmates.
“Music is a social art,” he said. “If you don’t know the person … you’re adding another 45 minutes of process in trying to learn your way into the things they’re talking about. And in so-called objective journalism, they don’t even give you that time… You can pretend to objectivity, but you’ll never get that answer.”
He emphasizes that human fascination is legitimate, and the documentation of culture—even in its most niche, personal manifestations—is inherently important. Small scenes without mass commercial appeal are all too ephemeral, regardless of the great ideas that might be germinating within them. As Freilich put it, “American society is hard on culture.”
That’s especially true now. Since he arrived in New Orleans in 1989, he’s noticed major blows to the city’s precious and uniquely accessible musical communities. Slashes in arts funding, a raised drinking age that shrank audiences, the spontaneity-crushing nature of cell phone-and-Internet society, and tourism were on the top of his list.
“About half of the [interviewees] are from an older time period, before the phones and that whole thing,” Freilich said. “At that point, the scene really was a ‘scene,’ because the way people met up with each other was congregating around bands… All ages, every background, no matter what. Now people pass because they’re ‘old,’ when what they’re really saying is they want to stay home… When I first got here, it was extremely diverse.”
He remembers the music literacy of the general population being incredibly high in those days but now observes a growing and self-perpetuating sense of disconnection.
“Now people go on computers, because they think that they need an explanation,” he said. “But the whole thing with music is: It’s a language in and of itself. And think about it, when we learn language when we’re kids, the way we learn it is not by someone telling us what everything means, we learn it because we understand things in context.”
He recalled a conversation he had with Adé Salgado, where the former owner of Cafe Brasil explained why he’d closed his fabled Frenchmen venue.
“[Salgado] said, ‘People don’t want it’,” Freilich remembered. “No one was more right. These people don’t want it. In fact, they’re too ignorant to know their lives never contained actually having unregulated fun. You know the thing about that is they want regulation. They want someone in control. They want to know where they’re supposed to go, how they’re supposed to act, what time they’re supposed to be home. Who’s gonna be there. So that means if you provide them with ‘You can do whatever you want. Really, you can do whatever you want!’ they kind of freak out.”
A big part of the problem, he says, is rising tourism, which has caused a drastic change in the audience demographic in many areas. (He does note, however, the metal scenes and genre deejay scenes still seem genuinely vital among local youth.)
“It’s a loss of cultural meaning,” Freilich said. “It’s considered forbidden to just strike out flatly against tourism, but it’s flat-out destroying the life structure.”
Although not without certain positive effects, the tourism industry has devastating potential to brand, commodify, and overwhelm organic local music and culture if it’s totally prioritized.
“New Orleans becomes more similar [to the rest of the country],” he continued, “but it doesn’t need to.”
“Stop talking about culture like it’s a great symbol and go and see it.”