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The whole gumbo: Notes from lovers of New Orleans’ Jazz Fest

Blues guitarist Sonny Landreth plays the slide guitar at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival in New Orleans, Friday, May 5, 2017. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

NEW ORLEANS (AP) — For seven days, the blare of trombones, tubas, washboards, guitars and soul-stirring vocals washes over this city as artists perform at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival. Jazz Fest features an assortment of well-known out-of-town artists such as Stevie Wonder and Maroon 5 as well as the zydeco, jazz and blues music Louisiana is known for. This year The Associated Press talked with festival-goers, musicians and vendors to find out why they come to the festival and what it means to them. Here are their stories:

THE ‘HOW YA GONNA CLAP?’ GUY

Ray Hackett is the “How ya gonna clap?” man. His beverage holders on a strap enable festival-goers to keep their beers or other beverages cold while clapping to the music at the same time. He’s a New Orleans native who now lives in Buffalo, Missouri, and has been selling his items at Jazz Fest since 1983. Why? “Income. Income opportunity. And I’ve done it so long that people come by and say. ‘It wouldn’t be Jazz Fest without you.’ So it’s fun. I see a lot of people that I’ve seen for a long time. Everybody is in a good mood and relaxed.”

Hackett grew up in New Orleans, came up with his product and once his business took off, he was able to move.

“I have a farm up there (Missouri) and manufacture these in my barn. … It’s too much fun to quit.”

GUITAR MAKERS

Gilberto Mendez Lainati and his father, Gilberto Mendez Mendez of Santiago de Cuba, the island’s second-largest city, brought their hand-made guitars, ukuleles and laúds to the tent at Jazz Fest where Cuban arts, crafts and music are on display. Apologizing for his English skills, the younger man explained why he came: “We’re here for demonstration of our job for United States people. We are musicians, but apart from that, we make instruments. My father has his group and I have my group in Cuba. Sometimes we play outside our country.”

“It’s our opportunity for present our job to United States — mix together with people who come here and ask about our job. Interesting exchange of cultures,” he said.

THE MUSICIANS

Drummer Jayme Romain, of Lake Charles, tried to explain his love of Jazz Fest while he walked around the festival grounds ahead of the set he’d be playing with his friend, guitarist Randy Ellis, of Thibodaux, and the Chubby Carrier and the Bayou Swamp Band: “Everything. It’s the whole gumbo and I love gumbo baby. Yes, ma’am. That’s what it means to me. Love. Freedom. Peace. Music.”

Ellis, for his part, says they play the festival “pretty much every year … I remember when it was cheaper to buy a ticket and get in here than it is to park now. That was a long time ago!”

“It’s the biggest festival in the country, music festival-wise. I don’t think there’s anything — and I’ve been touring for almost 30 years — and there’s not much comes close to Jazz Fest,” he said.

JAZZ FEST NEWBIES

Many New Orleans residents grow up coming to Jazz Fest every year. Not Lakeisha Jolivett and Francesca Bermudez. Bermudez came for the first time last year and enjoyed it so much she brought Jolivett. The big draw for these two was Nas, the New York rap artist: “I came for her birthday (pointing to Jolivett) and I came to see Nas,” Bermudez said.

“Last time when I came to see Red Hot Chili Peppers I really liked the atmosphere, the food, just everything, how the culture gets together. … We all get to be here in this melting pot and just enjoy music and music transcends all cultures, religion, race, and I think that this is something special, where you can actually forget what is going on and actually embrace each other and enjoy the atmosphere.”

SO MANY CALORIES

For many festival-goers, the food is just as important as the music and for them, Crawfish Monica, is often the star. Chef Pierre Hilzim and his team of workers cook up the delicious food each year: “For food, this is fun to do,” he said.

“It’s been a great time. My children have grown up here, literally. They were not even a year old when they first started coming to Jazz Fest, and now they’re here pretty much running the food, with me getting in their way,” he said.

He said Jazz Fest really launched the dish: “It’s allowed us to meet people we never would have met. We’ve fed three presidents, two popes, a whole bunch of heads of state, all kinds of celebrities and people, and they wander back here. I mean, we fed Francis Ford Coppola here one day.”

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