Kermit Ruffins, who appears as himself in the new HBO series Treme, says he feels rooted when he plays trumpet in Congo Square, the plaza in New Orleans where slaves once gathered on Sundays to eat, drum and dance.
Kermit Ruffins, who appears as himself in the new HBO series Treme, says he feels rooted when he plays trumpet in Congo Square, the plaza in New Orleans where slaves once gathered on Sundays to eat, drum and dance. Debbie Elliott/NPR
Treme, the new HBO series from the team that made The Wire, has rooted itself deeply in New Orleans.
Creators David Simon and Eric Overmyer tell the story of post-Katrina life through the eyes of the musicians, chefs and Mardi Gras Indians that you'll only find in New Orleans.
And just like The Wire, locals are heavily involved in Treme — which they pronounce trah-MAY.
A Jazz Revival?
Venture just outside the tourist-packed French Quarter, amid the shotgun-style houses of the Faubourg Treme neighborhood, and you'll find a character on just about every corner — and maybe a church or a barroom.
That's the New Orleans that Treme is trying to capture.
Trumpet player Kermit Ruffins gave NPR a tour of the neighborhood in his big black pickup truck. Ruffins, who owns Sidney's Saloon in the Treme, invites folks to come by in the afternoon for a big boil of crabs, potatoes, corn, sweet potatoes and asparagus. He and his mobile barbecue grill appear in Sunday's pilot episode.
Ruffins is also a co-founder of the Rebirth Brass Band — and plays himself in Treme — as do other local musicians.
Ruffins says he feels rooted when he plays his trumpet in Congo Square, the plaza where slaves once gathered on Sundays to eat, play drums and dance.
Treme is one of the oldest African-American neighborhoods in the U.S., populated in part by refugees of the Haitian revolution.
"Congo Square is the heartbeat of America as far as I'm concerned," Ruffins says. "Because this is where our only true art form was invented — jazz. Took those European instruments and mixed it with the African culture and there it was, jazz. Crazy."
He says he hopes the HBO series, which debuts Sunday, will spark a jazz revival.
Signing Up Excited Locals
It's significant that the show features a neighborhood long neglected by the city's elite, says Lolis Eric Elie, one of the local writers working on Treme.
The elite "don't invest in it, they don't take it seriously, they don't respect it," he says. "To have people like David Simon and Eric Overmyer come here and go to the heart of a community that is emblematically black — and also considered an area of high crime and high blight — is a hell of a statement about what is really important about New Orleans."
Some New Orleanians are concerned about how the city will come off in Treme, in part because there have been so many bad portrayals of New Orleans. Others have grown weary of the TV crews and traffic disruptions. But mostly, locals are thronging to be a part of the production.
Karen-Kaia Livers signs up extras at Bullet's, a bar where Ruffins plays on Tuesday nights.
"Why not work in the place that you hang out every Tuesday?" she says.
Barbara Trevigne is one who signs up. She's excited about the show.
"It's a good thing for New Orleans — for Louisiana," she says. "It's employing people. And it's talking about the culture here ... the food, everything. It's bringing New Orleans to the world!"
The Underappreciated Side Of New Orleans
Some locals have recurring parts, including Phyllis Montana LeBlanc, who gained notoriety for her profane observations in Spike Lee's documentary When the Levees Broke. In Treme, she plays Desiree, the girlfriend of New Orleans native Wendell Pierce's character.
Susan Spicer, pictured here in December 2009, is the chef and owner of Bayona restaurant in New Orleans. She says Janette Desautel, the Treme character played by Kim Dickens (below), is based on her — just "younger, saltier and a little prettier than me."
Susan Spicer, pictured here in December 2009, is the chef and owner of Bayona restaurant in New Orleans. She says Janette Desautel, the Treme character played by Kim Dickens (below), is based on her — just "younger, saltier and a little prettier than me." Cheryl Gerber/AP
"It's easy; the lines that I'm reading, the episodes that I'm doing is stuff I might say to my husband every other day or so," she says. In the show "my boyfriend is a musician, so I'm giving him hell. So I'm Phyllis. I'm Desiree, but I'm Phyllis."
Another character, Janette Desautel, is loosely based on New Orleans chef Susan Spicer of Bayona.
"She's younger, saltier and a little prettier than me," Spicer says.
In the show, Desautel is trying to reopen her restaurant after the storm. Both food and staff are hard to come by.
"One of the first things I did when I went on the set was the sous chef was chopping vegetables and he was going chop, chop, chop really loud and banging the knife," Spicer says. "And I was like, 'Oh no, you would not last 30 seconds in my kitchen with that racket!' "
Spicer believes Treme highlights an underappreciated side of New Orleans.
"The street musicians, just the people who make up this very interesting cultural mix, and it was so much a part of what we were afraid of losing after Katrina," she says.
Ruffins thinks that spotlight will be revealing.
"The storm brought a lot of bad and a lot of good," he says. "It took the mask off everything. Everybody could see what the city was for. And who was running it. And the corruption and the good. The reefer-smoking musicians are so good. The politicians are so bad. They were telling us we were bad."
Ruffins hopes Treme will show the rest of the country what the truth really is.