I’ve never seen a television show like David Simon’s Treme, which debuts Sunday night. Some viewers, accustomed to the relentless pace of most shows, might feel that not much happens, plot-wise. But nothing could be further from the truth. It’s a compelling and nuanced piece of storytelling, one that utilizes music like no other, and that’s a key point.
In Treme (pronounced truh-MAY), the music isn’t reduced to functioning as a soundtrack that cheaply triggers this or that emotional response. Quite the contrary. In fact, it wouldn’t even be fair to call it the centerpiece of the show, because music is actually the essence of Treme. And it’s an elusive essence, one that dances around notions of creativity and, ultimately, what it means to be human.
The show takes place in New Orleans’s Treme neighborhood, which is considered the heart of the city’s Creole and African-American culture and the birthplace of jazz. Over the years, lots of music and musicians came out of Treme, and the place retained a keen sense of regional identity, unlike the city’s Bourbon Street tourist Mecca. But that rich heritage and the neighborhood itself were threatened by the floodwaters of Katrina in 2005.
The disaster gave Simon the dramatic premise he needed to set a show in New Orleans, and he focused on the lives of Treme’s musicians and residents three months after the hurricane. Knowing music would be key to understanding what the show’s all about, he made it part of his original pitch to HBO executives. “I sent them each a disc,” says Simon, so they could get a feel for it.
And what was on David Simon’s New Orleans mixtape? He lists some of the artists and styles: “Brass band music. New Orleans R&B, mostly from Cosimo Matassa’s shop. Mardi Gras Indian chants. John Boutte, Lil Queenie. Louis Armstrong. Traditional jazz.”The execs liked Simon’s pitch and green-lighted the show.
In the first three episodes, residents return to their devastated neighborhood, sift through the wreckage, search for loved ones, and consider how to proceed. They stare down this bleak reality, looking towards a future that’s precarious, at best. Simon handles these scenes with nuance and grace, never losing sight of the humanity and the spirit of creation and re-creation at the core of this story. It brought to mind when Allen Toussaint told me that Katrina “wasn’t a drowning; it was a baptism.”
We see exactly that, as the characters populating Treme reconnect with cultural touchstones—and with one another. And here’s where the music comes in; it’s a link to the past, a reminder that previous adversities were overcome, a reason to celebrate the present, and a reminder that the future is loaded with possibility. Great art can do that, all at once. New Orleans music succeeds on that count, and so does Treme.
To reinforce that point, the first few episodes feature cameos by Toussaint, Dr. John, Elvis Costello, Kermit Ruffins, Galactic, Trombone Shorty, Rebirth Brass Band, Treme Brass Band, Coco Robicheaux, Donald Harrison, Jr., and Deacon John. And The Wire’s Wendell Pierce and Clarke Peters play a trombonist and Mardi Gras Indian, respectively.
As the first episode (titled “Do You Know What It Means”) opens, we hear the sound of children, laughter, and people greeting one another, punctuated by clipped blasts of trumpet and trombone. And we see fingers pressing the keys of various brass instruments, a fan fluttering in the heat, a dangling cigarette, hands clapping, ice in plastic cups, and an open liquor bottle. Soldiers and policemen look on, as the scene unfolds, and we move into the shadows where a deal is in progress. A few men haggle over money, and, this being a scene comprised solely of black men in a blighted American city, one might jump to the conclusion that it’s a drug deal. But they’re actually negotiating pay for horn players.
Once the deal is sealed, we see the players gather on the street, where music soon erupts into a party that proceeds down a block littered with rusting appliances and heaps of junk. The parade gathers momentum, participants, and power as it moves. People jump atop abandoned cars to dance. It’s a powerful image and a beautiful moment, and it informs everything that follows.
It brings to mind snippets of the liner notes Ned Sublette wrote for the new Galactic CD: “This is some post-flood music reality from a city that’s had a near-death experience…. New Orleans music is above all about community. You see your friends and there’s music there. It’s a social process…. It’s all related, and all the times and genres are present at once.”
Simon gets all this and is attempting “to pull it through the keyhole of network television.”
“New Orleans is a city that still creates,” he says, in an HBO interview. “Even in its damaged state, even amid a shocking continuum of national indifference, it remains a city that continues to build things. What it builds—its very product, in fact—is moments. Extraordinary moments in which art and ordinary life intersect. At its best, this is a city that can take a singular, unexpected instant and transform it into something rare and startling. Then the moment passes, and another moment—equally sublime or jaw-dropping—is manufactured.”
Something similar happens in Treme. It’s comprised of small, but extraordinary, moments, reminding us of our potential to create meaningful art and resilient social structures that function under the harshest conditions. Overall, the show implicitly prompts a connection to our higher, ascendant selves.
Do you know what it means to miss New Orleans, when that’s where you left your heart?
Tune in to Treme, and you’ll know.