Jay Meehan: Preservation halls
December 2, 2014
The thought that my sister Mary Beth’s hillside digs in the windward Kauai town of Kapa’a shared a spiritual vibe with the New Orleans "trad-jazz" club Preservation Hall arrived with the subtlety of a trombone emerging from a ukulele case.
It occurred somewhere during the New Orleans episode of HBO’s "Sonic Highways," musician, bandleader, and filmmaker Dave Grohl’s latest excursion into the cinematic arts. The series, which explores the musical roots and identity of eight American cities, is both the brainchild and love child of the ex-Nirvana drummer and now 20-year Foo Fighter front man, and he flat-out fell in love with "N’awlins."
When excited, which, for Grohl, is mostly all the time, he jabbers in starts and stops without, seemingly, blinking or breathing, as when he spoke to The New Orleans Times Picayune newspaper: "The hospitality that Preservation Hall showed us .Ben Jaffe, I consider the guy a saint That place really got under my skin. And what Preservation Hall represents sums up a lot of the premise of ‘Sonic Highways.’
"That we have this incredible musical history, and it needs to be not only remembered, but preserved so that generations to come can appreciate it just as we did growing up ..The fact that Preservation Hall is still putting on three shows a night so that the rest of the world can experience that real New Orleans sound .Not even Mother Nature could wipe that out."
Grohl’s reference to Hurricane Katrina, with its subsequent devastation of the Crescent City and the role of music and, especially, of Preservation Hall, in its ongoing rebirth, probably triggered the connection I felt between the traditions Ben Jaffe keeps alive on St. Peter Street in the French Quarter and those Mary Beth preserves up Aliali Road above Old Kapa’a Town.
With her and her late husband Billy, it was Hurricane Iwa in November of 1982 and, a decade later, in September of ’92, the big one, Hurricane Iniki, that they had to dig out from under. Photos of the aftermath of Iniki in Kapa’a appeared the next day on the front page of newspapers throughout the world — not unlike those of Katrina in late August of 2005.
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But, of course, it’s not the comparison of hurricane damage but, rather, the similar depths of soul in two disparate cultural preservations that is at the crux of this epistle. Where Ben Jaffe preserves traditional jazz, Mary Beth preserves traditional rituals of a quite quirky yet close-knit Irish clan.
If one were to interview members of Mary Beth’s family or close associates of hers in both work and play, they too would stammer and stutter as they attempted to come up with the properly poetic turn of phrase in which to encapsulate this humble chick.
From the moment the clan rallied around her flag prior to her annual Thanksgiving feast and bash until the final extended-family casualties, stuffed to their eyelids with all manner of holiday fixings and liquid embellishments, retreated out the door, it was once again obvious to all that her space and her holiday notions were blessed and worth preserving.
Within both preservation halls, the one in the French Quarter and the one reposing upon the hillside of Kapa’a, the holiness is manifested in the wood. In Preservation Hall itself, both the intimacy of the small venue and its historic timeline live on in the grain of the floor planks and the walls and the few old butt-polished church pews. At Mary Beth’s it’s in the native Hawaiian hardwoods of the floor and exotically detailed cabinetry and countertops.
And then there’s this other piece of native Hawaiian wood that makes up an altar of sorts out on the garage roof deck. It’s nothing less than legendary, this irregularly shaped 15 by 4 foot tabletop fashioned from a slab of a giant Koa tree and mounted upon some very heavy-duty underpinnings. Many visitors from the Park City area still speak of it in reverential tones.
Of course, it’s not about either edifice but, rather, what is being preserved within the respective walls of each that bestows upon these particular spaces their collective sacred condition.
In New Orleans, it’s the longtime dying genre of New Orleans traditional jazz, known in the vernacular as "trad," that is being showcased and preserved. Above Old Kapa’a Town, it’s the respective arts of improvised family structures and ornate Hawaiian woodwork that are on display.
Not unlike exotic woods, families also flaunt a grain that runs throughout and, when carefully maintained and frequently polished, reflect its past. Oftentimes, it’s even beautiful.
Jay Meehan is a culture junkie and has been an observer, participant, and chronicler of the Park City and Wasatch County social scenes for more than 40 years.
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