To those who have not been to New Orleans, descriptions of it may include the syncopated beats associated with most cosmopolitan cities, a unique cultural amalgamation reduced to the proverbial “melting pot,” or vague impressions gathered from popular television shows. To Assistant Principal and Louisiana native Cara Couvillion, the special rhythm of life in New Orleans cannot be so easily defined.
“Louisiana is unique in that it’s been under Spanish rule, French rule, English rule, Native American heritage — there were a lot of different nations that came through there for different reasons,” Couvillion said. “So there’s different settlements all over Louisiana, [and] New Orleans is kind of the hub of that. You feel that through the architecture, which is very Spanish, but also has a lot of French influence. You see things in New Orleans that you won’t see anywhere else in the United States. [It is] like San Francisco or Miami in that it has its own identity … I don’t know if people can fully understand unless they have actually been there.”
While New Orleans is well-known for its historical role as an early European settlement and the reason for the Louisiana Purchase, and for the iconic tourist destinations like the French Quarter and Bourbon Street, Couvillion said life there is often less grand and far more intimate than outsiders imagine.
“If you’ve been to the parts [in New Orleans] where people live, it’s actually a very poor city, but people don’t necessarily complain about being poor,” Couvillion said. “They live off one another, off the land. There’s a very big sense of community when you go to those areas. And it really is similar to what I think is unique about the South, in general.”
According to Couvillion, this interconnectedness, along with New Orleans’ rich concoction of different cultures, including an influx of black musicians, is partially what fueled the evolution of jazz music there. Minji Kim (12), a singer who performed in New Orleans two years ago with Jazz Band, was strongly impacted by the city’s rich jazz heritage.
“I was in my first year of Jazz Band, so I didn’t really expect much,” Kim said. “I wasn’t too into jazz, but when I went, it became so much more … It was really cool to see real musicians so into their music. It was a new perspective of jazz; I could tell that New Orleans was the birthplace of it just by walking around.”
Kim, now in her third year of Jazz Band, was also struck by the lengths to which performers went to create music.
“One of the performers … started playing music out of a trashcan, and they made a violin out of scraps of things that they found,” Kim said. “They weren’t real instruments, but [the street performers] were playing them, and it was really cool.”
Maria Ginzburg (12), who spent two weeks in the city several years ago, still remembers the New Orleans culture as musical and vibrant.
“The culture there was very different,” Ginzburg said. “I hadn’t had a lot of chances to [see] American culture … but New Orleans was completely different. When foreigners think of the United States, they don’t necessarily think of New Orleans. It was like Europe combined with the United States — it was really interesting.”
Although Couvillion agrees that New Orleans has a rich and lively culture, she believes that San Diego is “where [she is] meant to be.”
“Most people who are born in New Orleans, or around New Orleans, or who were born in Louisiana, do not want to live anywhere else,” Couvillion said. “They might move as far as Texas for their jobs, but the majority of people want to stay there. It is a very family-oriented community … I was actually very unique in that I went as far as I did.”
While Couvillion would not necessarily live in Louisiana again, she is “passionate” about her childhood home. Kim, who will return to New Orleans with Jazz Band this year, is excited at the prospect.
“We’re going to the festival for three days, and we’re just going to be watching,” Kim said. “It’s going to be amazing … It’s amazing what people can do with [jazz].”
Now, Couvillion tends to return to New Orleans once every couple of years to visit her family. Although she now lives permanently in San Diego, she believes that growing up in Louisiana has made her who she is today.
“[People in Louisiana] are fiercely loyal people, and I think I carry that with me,” Couvillon said.
Although shows like “Duck Dynasty” attempt to exploit Louisiana, and New Orleans is renowned for its culturally diverse and musical culture, life in both places is clearly full of rhythms deeper and more soulful than popular depictions would suggest.