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Trickster's tale

Triksta Life and Death and New Orleans Rap Nik Cohn Alfred A. Knopf: 212 pp., $22.95

November 13, 2005|Lynell George | Lynell George is a Times staff writer.

NIK COHN couldn't have known what was to befall the city of New Orleans. But like anyone who has spent time there, outside the quaint curio of the French Quarter, he knew that something wasn't simply going to give -- it was going to shatter.

This summer, of course, with the whole world watching, New Orleans and its vast laundry list of troubles experienced a biblical event, one that some stunned residents, grasping for meaning, unequivocally deemed "a cleansing."

In this light, Cohn's evocative new book, "Triksta: Life and Death and New Orleans Rap," becomes both an elegy and an explanation: a rare glimpse inside an inscrutable American city and an inadvertent eulogy to it.

Born in London and raised in Northern Ireland, Cohn is a venerable cultural witness; he wrote the seminal rock 'n' roll history "Awopbopaloobop Alopbamboom" and the 1976 New York magazine cover story "Tribal Rites of the New Saturday Night," which became the basis for "Saturday Night Fever." (Twenty years later, Cohn admitted that he made the whole thing up, too late to take back the Qiana pestilence it unleashed on the world.)

"Triksta" begins with an epiphany, a flashpoint, a moment that shames Cohn -- he of the streetwise resume. On a visit to New Orleans in 2000, he finds himself wandering beyond the safe borders of the Quarter. "No outsider, white or black, with a lick of sense would choose to go strolling through the Iberville [projects]," he writes. What unfolds is a near miss: A group of young black men advances on Cohn. As suddenly as they appear they vanish, scared off by a sweep of headlights. Cohn is left in a cold sweat, astonished at the depth of his fear. It isn't the incident itself that traumatizes him but the residue, what has been revealed.

"I had never known worse fear .... [W]hat was most shameful of all, I knew my deepest dread had not been of getting robbed or even shot. I'd been afraid of blackness itself." Black music and culture had long been part of Cohn's life; there were black friends, lovers too. But, those friends and lovers had argued, racism goes deep. "I refused to believe [this]. Other whites, maybe; not me. That poison couldn't be in me. Yet it was."

Cohn, the witness-chronicler, steps back to face the territory of New Orleans as both psychic and physical space. "Triksta," then, is as much about Cohn's attempt to map both his own soul and the topography of the city; it is a dual memoir, of a man and a scene, both of them tracing futile circles, having lost their moorings, their sense of self.

"Triksta" is a book of alter egos. First, there is New Orleans, with its two faces, the tourist trap and the day-to-day desperate grind. Then there are the rappers: the real gangsters and the wannabe Gs. Finally, there is Cohn himself, with the vast wardrobe of multiple personas he's been tinkering with for decades. "Nik da Trik" or "Triksta" is the latest, a nickname bestowed on him by one of the wary rappers he encounters on this journey. Cohn understands the irony: "In African folklore, the trickster is a central figure ... the joker, the storyteller, the liar. The one who wears the mask."

Cohn knows New Orleans, in the biblical sense. This is a love affair, and it resonates in the cadences of his prose. But New Orleans hasn't been easy on him. It's a city of gestures, subtropical rhythms, with its own arcane, bedeviling language. It's a city that has an estranged relationship with hope. Cohn had long seen New Orleans as his "spirit mirror": a destination whose map he memorized as a child, a "city of beautiful lies."

For Cohn, of course, the central filter here is music. Though jazz is the historic power source of black New Orleans, by the late 20th century, the insurgent voice had become rap. Orleans' spin on it -- "bounce" -- is patterned on the call and response of Mardi Gras Indian chants. "I'd caught the Triggerman beat up close," Cohn writes, "in the soles of my feet, in my gut ... the effect was baptismal."

Cohn's narrative seamlessly stitches together fragments of vivid memoir with reflections, originally written for various magazines, on the bounce scene. The story winds through the clubs, the parties, the backroom studios, offering a guided tour of the impoverished wards that would be hit hardest after Hurricane Katrina. People "scuffling" in nowhere (or no) jobs, trying to hit it big, though many had never been out of Louisiana, let alone Orleans Parish.

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