The stellar trajectory of New Orleans Airlift's landmark project, The Music Box, began with a bang, when an old cottage on bounce impresario Jay Pennington's Bywater property collapsed in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. A co-founder of New Orleans Airlift, Pennington brainstormed with fellow founders, visual artist-curators Delaney Martin and Taylor Lee Shepherd, and the result was the transformation of the wreckage into a dozen or so shanties designed to function as oversize musical instruments. Christened The Music Box and often described as "a fairy tale in a junkyard," it premiered to rave reviews amid global coverage of the Prospect.2 international art biennial in 2011, when it often was mistaken for an official biennial component. But since there is no zoning category for fairytale shanty towns in Bywater, the mythic structures became migratory, and later turned up in New Orleans City Park like a settlement of musical follies conjured by elfin troubadours, among other venues as far flung as Shreveport, Louisiana and Kiev, Ukraine. Then this year, they no less mysteriously were reborn at their permanent new site on Rampart Street at the Industrial Canal. The recent offical grand opening concert, L'Union Creole, took place at the Rampart Street reincarnation Nov. 4-5.
A big part of the Music Box mojo is the way the shanties resonate with a wide range of performers, and in L'Union Creole they became spirit houses as Bruce "Sunpie" Barnes and the Louisiana Sunspots, Dede Saint-Prix, Seguenon Kone and OperaCreole celebrated the extraordinary legacy of Jean St. Malo with blusey riffs, ecstatic drumming and incantatory Creole-French vocals. A legendary 18th-century freedom fighter who escaped plantation slavery and led raids to free other slaves who joined him at the maroon village on Lake Borgne that bore his name, St. Malo and his followers eventually were caught and killed by Spanish colonial authorities. Remarkably, his shantytown soon was occupied by escaped Malay galley slaves who transformed St. Malo into America's first Asian settlement – proof, if any were needed, that shanties have a long and magical local history.