Photos by stanslist.com
By Chris Ricci
One of the things that makes the holiday season so unique for this area is, of course, tradition. The North Shore Music Theatre has its classic production of “A Christmas Carol,” and the tree lighting in Salem has always garnered a large crowd, but sometimes it’s even more important to see how other cities celebrate the season. For the past three years, musician Henri Smith has been bringing a taste of New Orleans to the North Shore area, and it’s quickly becoming a traditional show right here in Beverly.
This year marks the tenth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina’s landfall in the Gulf Coast, which displaced Henri along with thousands of others who called New Orleans home. Legendary New Orleans musician Allen Toussaint referred to the event as a “baptism” that made the Gulf Coast even stronger, and he referred to those who were displaced as “ambassadors” of the city. Henri was one such ambassador, and even Allen Toussaint expressed personal love for Henri’s work in the North Shore area. “Moving to the East Coast has been so difficult first of all with the weather” said Henri, “but we endured that, and I’m thankful I have Amadee Castenell and Charles Neville to give me a lot of support.”
Henri has been working close with the New England Conservatory in the Berklee College of Music, and his passion for the sounds of New Orleans made his relationship even stronger. “I had an obligation to present the music of New Orleans to New England” he said. His experience with Allen Toussaint also served as a firm backbone for his understanding of music. “In my early development, Mr. Toussaint was a great mentor, and no-one could ask for a better role model” he said. “I learned so much from him as far as performance and also etiquette on stage.” Last month, Allen passed away at the age of 77, and the public mourning for him has been overwhelming. Ranging from Paul Simon to Dr. John, it’s hard to deny his influence. Upon attending his funeral nearly a decade after Hurricane Katrina, Henri noticed that things in New Orleans are still difficult. “When I attended the funeral, I noticed that the city was still torn” Henri said. “Gentrification is causing the rent to be so high now, and some people are still suffering.”
Despite the pain the city is still facing, Henri hopes to always bring the spirit of the city to life to not only entertain the crowds in Beverly, but to also help people understand what the spirit of New Orleans really is. “As Allen said, we need to bring New Orleans to the audience wherever you are” said Henri. “Not only are we bringing Christmas music along, but we’re also going to present the sounds of New Orleans.” Playing the Larcom Theatre in Beverly, according to Henri, always brings a new level to the sounds of the city. “It’s great to know that those theaters (the Cabot and The Larcom) have been around for such a long time” he said. “But it’s the ambience and the acoustic of the theaters that have the feeling yuou need when you’re singing New Orleans music.”
Allen brought an all-star crew with him for his performance at The Larcom.
Grammy-award winner Amadee Castenell and Mercer Ellington and Lionel Hampton Orchestra’s Stanton Davis helped Henri Smith pay tribute to Allen Toussaint and the spirit of Christmas. “I have a real close relationship with both of them” said Henri. “Stanton and I went to school together from elementary school to high school, and I remember when he left New Orleans to pursue a carrer, and I had the privilege to teach Amadee’s daughter in school. I appreciate their loyalty to me and the music.
“My hopes for this production were that everyone would sing along with us and that people are dancing in the aisles to the music” exclaimed Henri. “We want everyone to be in the choir because we develop choirs wherever we go. So, if that can happen, I’ll be very excited.”
Henri's wish came true to a rhythmic and jubilant crowd in the heart of Beverly as people danced in the aisles and sang along in a show of joy and unification.