With sweat pouring down the ebony face of the elderly woman, soaking her Sunday frock, her hefty frame convulses with the fervor of the Lord and the beat. As the gospel choir behind her joins in a rocking chorus of heavenly praise, the woman emits an unearthly but perfectly in-tune howl that billows to the roof of the huge tent. Her eyelids flutter and her eyeballs roll back in her head as she swoons backward and is caught by three scrambling male choir members in suits. They drag her -- now oblivious -- to a chair at the side of the stage, where several women in white dresses and flowered hats fan her madly with white handkerchiefs.
The thunderous cascade of gospel music, meanwhile, thumps on, the choir and a good portion of the audience clapping hands and dancing to rhythms at once venerable and bristling with vitality.
The scene is inside the Gospel Tent at the annual New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, an event that has grown from relatively modest beginnings in 1970 into one of the world's great music festivals.
Outside, a brass band chugs through the crowd, the sunlight gleaming on trumpets, trombones and tubas blaring toward the blazing Louisiana sun. A sizable contingent of dancers, known as second liners, trails the band, churning to the syncopated beat of the snare and bass drums, while they twirl banners and umbrellas festooned with gaily colored ribbons and beads.
Nearby, a zydeco accordionist pumps out the wheezing R&B of southwestern Louisiana, a Cajun fiddler spews out wild two-steps for hotfooted couples, be-bop drifts out of a far-off tent, rockers hold forth at one end of the 34-acre Fair Grounds racetrack while some neglected icon of classic New Orleans R&B like Irma Thomas or Earl King or Allen Toussaint commands the other.
In the Crescent City, only Mardi Gras rivals the Jazz Fest in the amount of money pumped into the local economy and as a celebration of the unique and eccentric culture that entrances the most distinctly European city in the United States. For the thousands of music fanatics who flock to the city every April to indulge in a satiating ritual of phenomenal music, spicy cuisine and communing with the spirits of Louis Armstrong, Jelly Roll Morton and Professor Longhair, it is an essential pilgrimage that renews faith in the power of music as expression, community, art and exultation, not commercial product.
Experiencing the Jazz Fest, this year April 26 to May 5, is vastly different from simply trudging off to some anonymous arena for a bout of lip-syncing.
It is breathing the same muggy elixir that drives musicians to the brink of unconsciousness, like the gospel singer. It is getting caught up in parading second liners and letting the music entwine your soul and electrify your backbone. It is indulging in boiled crawfish, oyster po' boys and beer, and spurring yourself to exhaustion in futile pursuit of every note played by the 60-odd acts a day onstage at the Fair Grounds.
In a broader sense, it is immersing yourself in the peculiar rhythms and idiosyncratic charms of New Orleans, a city whose very soul is defined by music: Stumbling out into the morning sun after an all-night blues session at Tipitina's, the uptown club named for the signature tune of the late Professor Longhair, patron saint of the New Orleans music scene; crowding into Preservation Hall, a dingy, poorly lit, sparsely furnished room packed elbow to elbow with loud, Hurricane-guzzling Rotarians from Texas to hear the "Muskrat Ramble," "St. James Infirmary" or other traditional jazz played by octogenarians who still blow superbly; sipping potent daiquiris or mint juleps at an outdoor table in the French Market while a visiting band from England stomps up a Dixieland storm or local pianist Amasa Miller and saxophonist Reggie Houston explore South African jazz by Abdullah Ibrahim; or simply encountering one of the new breed of funky brass bands like the Rebirth holding forth on some street corner.
New Orleans streets seem to breed music and celebration spontaneously. It's not unusual for a full-fledged parade complete with a band and ecstatic revelers to suddenly sprout somewhere uptown in the Irish Channel, for instance, then quickly disappear into a neighborhood bar like Parasol's for shrimp loaves and iced mugs of Dixie beer.
One time, years ago in midafternoon, a familiar shuffling beat and unmistakable piano triplets emanated from the yard behind a grammar school. Further inspection revealed the great Longhair, set up next to a banana tree, energetically playing for a couple of dozen 10-year-olds.
The rhythm of New Orleans is not that of 20th century America, despite the cement stumps that elevate Interstate 10 through the heart of town, some of the ugliest suburbs this side of Cleveland, and the handful of sterile skyscrapers leering across Canal Street at the French Quarter's narrow streets of aged brick buildings, wrought-iron balconies and leafy courtyards.