I wrote this in 2002, as a tribute to my good and deep friend the bluesman and Choctaw Indian medicine man Coco Robicheaux, who suddenly and without warning moved on to The Next Gig on Friday 25 November 2011, while sitting on a barstool at the Apple Barrel, undoubtedly enjoying his usual chilled shot of Patron Silver tequila. I met him as he rode up to that very bar on his bike last week, and we spoke about his coming by my house to pick up the young fig tree sapling I had rooted in a pot for him. He wanted more life in his back yard.
He was smiling as we said goodbye and he went inside.
This story was about another gift. And Coco’s.
* * *
I went to give Coco Robicheaux his birthday present last night.
I’d missed his real birthday last week, but knew he was scheduled to perform at the old version of the Voodoo Fest, in Congo Square. Under the moss-draped arms of half a hundred massive, dark-limbed live oaks. On the very ground where whip-scarred slaves used to dance. Where animal-skinned drums filled the dense night air with the rhythms of an even darker continent. Where sweating traiteurs illicitly practiced medicine, and offered to wreak mayhem on errant spouses.
They sell mustard-covered weenies in white-bread buns to tourists there now. During the daytime.
This was the last Fest that would be celebrated under a full moon for some time. The next will be in 2020, according to the staff astronomers of the Times-Picayune, who failed to note that the power of the big bright sphere was amplified even further as this was also a Blue Moon, one of those rare months in which a full moon appears twice.
It was already up, its color mixing with the fading sunset, when I drove into Armstrong Park, which now surrounds Congo Square. I sat near the stage on my bicycle. The sun had set, and the stage lights were already on. And there was Coco, authentic Choctaw medicine man, healer of hearts, musician.
He was singing a song about his grandmother’s - his Granmere Philomene’s - favorite chicken, La Petite Poule Noire. Her Little Black Hen. He says his grandma loved that hen, carried it around like a cat, because the tiny bird took on all the hoodoo, all the bad stuff that was floating around, absorbed it, reflected it, and protected the family. The chicken was the family’s talisman and guardian, and while it lived they felt safe.
The song is a slow, eerie, blues number. I think the bird and his grandmother would both have enjoyed it.
I dismounted, walked up to the front of the ground level stage, and smiled at my friend. He was in that state of spiritual transport that comes over him onstage. He always offers an audience something real, something not to be confused with mere performance, but on this rare conjunctive night he was radiating energy. I wasn’t able to tell if he could see me, because he had on very dark shades and the lights were right in his face. He was drinking deeply from a bottle of Tabasco hot sauce between lines, as he does, to keep his voice healthy, and nodding to his frottoir -- rubboard – player Chaz. I took the sack with Coco’s wrapped birthday present, a pair of very old alligator-shaped salt-and-pepper shakers, out of my backpack and laid it on his monitor speaker. He saw me then and smiled, but never missed a line.
Coco signaled for a harmonica solo, and a tall hairy fellow started up a wail that was almost human. At that very instant, there was an intrusion – the siren of an approaching ambulance grew and grew until it passed right behind the stage. The odd thing was that it blended perfectly into the solo. It was even in the right key. A deeper, strange, urban blues. I pulled out a pen and scribbled, hen-scratched, on my note pad – you need to carry one in this town or you could lose valuable bits of your own life to faulty memory – that a siren would make a great addition to the Black Hen tune.
I waved back to Coco and moved out of the lights. The crowd was small, but the vibe was intense, the smoke of a dozen different incenses filling the space between dancers and vendors of mojo paraphernalia, dolls and potions and oils and ritual clothing.
I felt safe, somehow, hearing the sound of an urban emergency defused in the comfort of low and slow blues. And I thought: Coco Robicheaux may well be New Orleans’ own Petite Poule Noire.