HBO’s Treme – The Character of Music
Finally, the first season of HBO’s Treme is now out on DVD. I say “finally” because I feel like I’ve been waiting forever to discuss the show with friends and others who don’t have HBO (I don’t either, but I’ve relied on the generosity of friends and family to stay on top of the series.) Set in post-Katrina New Orleans, Treme is a far-reaching cultural survey of the Crescent City – its culture, politics, and history. Of course, music plays a central role in any exploration of New Orleans, and that is exactly the right way to describe how music is intertwined within Treme. It almost literally “plays a central role.” Music serves not just as a backdrop but comes awfully close to being a full-blown main character within the narrative. This is especially true as the series has hit its stride and has gotten all of its narrative exposition out of the way. Fans of politics or cuisine will find much to like in Treme. Those with a passion for music are likely to be most satisfied, and those who love all of the above (politics, cuisine, and music) will likely find the series addicting. As one of my friends said to me before the series started, “It’s like they created a show just for you.” I agree. Thankfully for the creators, I think there are a lot of people like myself out there who probably feel the same way.
David Simon is the creator of Treme. I should say right off the bat that I am an unabashed David Simon fanboy. His prior project, HBO’s The Wire, is not just the greatest television show ever made, in my opinion, but one of the best works of American art of the last century. I even wrote a blog post once stating that the MacArthur genius grant winner should be named America’s Secretary of Culture, an office that doesn’t even exist, of course.
David Simon has an axe to grind, no doubt, as an angry critic of American culture. The brilliance of his work is that he grinds the axe so methodically, to such a razor sharp edge, that he can delicately slice his targets to pieces while reserving the irresistible right to strike a full decapitating blow on occasion. The latter method seemed to be on display a little too frequently in the earliest episodes of Treme, as one felt Simon was slamming his audience over the head with his ideas about the political frustrations manifested in response to Katrina or the abundance of civic pride in some of the New Orleanean characters. However, once he got that off his chest and stated his thesis, Treme has settled down to explore the subtle nuances of its main themes. These early missteps are kind of like the shrillness of a singer’s voice nervously taking the stage for the first time before gaining a little more confidence, settling down, and finding that comfortable place that allows them to express who they are more naturally. Speaking of, let’s get to the music.
New Orleans is the heart of America’s musical heritage – literally pumping music and culture up the large artery of the Mississippi River through the delta region to cities in the south and midwest, which then find their way through tributaries as far ranging as the cosmopolitan northeast and the Appalachian mountains. The co-mingling of musical traditions from Africa, the Caribbean Islands, and Europe began in Congo Square during the era of American slavery, in the Treme neighborhood. Were it not for Treme and Congo Square, we would certainly not have jazz music and possibly not the blues, which, of course were the predecessors and influencers of rock and roll, R&B, funk, bluegrass, and countless derivations of all. To this day, Treme has remained a hotbed of musical exploration, which the series has exploited beautifully by including contemporary musicians from the area. Trombone Shorty and Kermit Ruffins were regulars during the first season, as was John Boutte, the creator of the series’ wonderfully funky theme song. The list of other musicians involved is long.
Just off the top of my head, those artists making appearances on Treme as themselves include Dr. John, Allen Toussaint, Galatic, Rebirth Brass Band, and Elvis Costello. Steve Earle is a regular on the show playing a street musician. Probably half of the shows many characters are musicians as well. What makes Treme‘s exploration of music and musicians so compelling is that the series is not bound by the constraints of the narrative bio-pic or the documentary. Music is simply one (very important) part of a larger fictional story. As a result, music is intertwined into the story organically and lovingly. Great effort is taken to record the music in a natural fashion, almost like field recordings when applicable. For instance, second line parades were filmed live in the streets rather than filmed on video with studio music piped in later. After all, the goal is to capture the cultural importance of music and tradition in one of America’s greatest cities, not to provide a sterile survey of “Important New Orleans Musicians.”
The many cultural roles embodied by music are explored in Treme as well. Whether the Bourbon Street tourist-oriented heritage gently poked fun at, the jubilation of Mardi Gras parades, the transcendent mourning of second line funeral marches, the political anger expressed through hip-hop, or simply the joy of a crowded club coalescing together amid the performance of world class musicians, music’s many functions are represented. The show’s rhythms are also wonderfully off-beat, sometimes lingering on a musical performance much longer than one would ever see in a traditional television drama or Hollywood film. Most importantly, however, the music always serves the larger story being told and is never just patronizingly presented for the purpose of relief or as a pandering showcase. Again, music is a central character, as fully formed and three-dimensionally realized as any others on the show.
Don’t get me wrong, Treme is not a feel-good story about a group of joyful southern musicians. It is an angry socio-political critique that also happens to have a large reserve of joy and celebration amidst the tragedy of America’s failing empire. Like the best of this country’s folk and popular traditions (certainly embodied by the traditional music of New Orleans) Treme manages to create compelling, enduring, honest, and uplifting art from the most difficult and painful of circumstances.
Dustin Ogdin is a freelance writer and journalist based in Nashville, TN. His work has been featured by MTV News, the Associated Press, and various other stops in the vast environs of the world wide web. His personal blog and home base is Ear•Tyme Music. Click below to read more and network with Dustin.