A member of the musical Boutté family, Arséne DeLay uses her true voice as a performer, a songwriter - and a community activist.
- by Christopher Romaguera
- photos by Andrew Simoneaux
I have seen DeLay turn a restaurant into a party with people dancing in the aisles. I’ve seen her turn a music club into a sanctuary, singing New Orleans classics that conjure up city ancestors.
DeLay lives a life engaged.
I met DeLay before her regular Monday night gig at Buffa’s Bar & Restaurant. Buffa’s is a few blocks from the loud music clubs of tourist-congested Frenchmen Street. A few blocks from the top-40 looped soundtrack of Bourbon.
Buffa’s is a homey place; it subverts expectations.
The front bar, with an opening on Esplanade, is open all hours, with darker tones and baseball on the televisions. When DeLay came to fetch me, I was having a beer, watching as people stopped in who were getting off or heading into work. We walked through the hallway that makes a U around the kitchen, the Esplanade version of the Goodfellas path through a club.
She and Charlie Wooton, the bassist for Zydefunk, were setting up for the gig. The back room bar opens to a quieter street. It is a small, well-lit music club and restaurant, replete with red curtain behind the stage. Anyone on stage can see the street entrance. DeLay’s wide smile lets you know when a friend is coming in from the street.
I lived with DeLay as a roommate for a couple of years. Lived in the house that the family matriarch occupied for decades. I listened as DeLay worked on her songs in that house. I saw her turn her backyard into a beautiful garden.
Living in that house was the first time I lived in a house that felt like a home outside of Miami. A place where I could work on my writing. Because it was a home of love. Because it was a home where she worked her ass off on her craft. I feel and hear and remember as I sit back and listen to her sing.
Arséne DeLay's musical heritage runs deep - she's the niece of well-known siblings John and Lillian Boutté. She started writing music and lyrics in high school and earned a graduate degree in acting. She cited Greek classics and Shakespeare as we sat in Buffa’s before her gig. She told me she loves “the use of heightened language to express these universal concepts that all of us can connect with regardless of what walk of life we come from.”
DeLay wants to write with such a force that her own words add to those universal stories. She wants to add a verse. And you can hear it when she starts the title track of her album, “Comin’ Home”: Tank is full, the car is packed, been too long since I’ve been back….
DeLay was born in New Orleans, but has lived all over the United States. “One can’t be a hero in their hometown,” she said. She had to leave. She had to “figure out my voice.”
She went to graduate school in California. She did Shakespeare in Oregon. And when she came back home, she came with her voice, with a purpose. Living in the matriarchal home of her family. Rejoining the rest of her family in town. Being a voice for her community.
She came back to New Orleans and sang and wrote her own music. “By the time I came home, I knew what my voice was.” The return home was the obvious subject for her first album, Coming Home was the main theme - lyrically, sonically, vibe-wise.
DeLay didn’t want to come home for coming home’s sake. Didn’t want to sing for singing’s sake. She needed to find her voice and use it to get her message across.
“You could sing the phone book and it could be awesome,” she said. “But who the hell wants to hear that? If someone is going to listen to my voice ‘cause it’s pretty, why don’t I use it for something more.”
DeLay sings black southern rock. She talks about how black women are often silenced in southern rock, but you can’t silence DeLay’s voice. She is too loud, too engaged, to be silenced. She also sings New Orleans classics. She was born and raised in a family of New Orleans singers who sing gospel tunes, who sing the classics, who added to the New Orleans canon themselves.
DeLay is also politically active in town. She attends city council meetings and defends the neighborhood and the musicians who contribute to the soul of New Orleans. She is conversant on topics such as short-term rentals and recent arrests of street musicians.
Like many New Orleanians whose families have been a fabric of this town for many generations, DeLay seems to view time differently, move to a distinctive rhythm. It is why she makes time for the city council meetings and for her garden. It is why she shares with me how a little girl once walked up to her and told her she was excited because she’d never seen a female play a guitar before.
That is the kind of story that makes DeLay proud. It is what she brings up when I ask her about the moments that make her happy.
At Buffa’s, DeLay’s been able to curate her performances as she sees fit. She loves the venue, and has “been able to build a very local and loyal following.” As she said about the French Quarter, there is still “a neighborhood and Buffa’s is a neighborhood bar.”
She says sometimes people come up to her and tell her that they “needed this today.” The feeling such a comment brings is satisfying.
When the bartender unlocks the door, it’s showtime. I take a seat next to the stage. DeLay plays with Wooton. After one particularly great song in the first set, the crowd is so quiet, the venue so intimate, you can hear Wooton tell DeLay: “We need to start recording these Mondays; we never know when that’s going to happen.”
DeLay is a New Orleans treasure, and she brings something so nice it brightens up even a Monday afternoon. She shares the kind of moments you want to bottle up and keep with you, so you sing or hum the tunes in your head and keep the verse alive until you get to see and hear her again, when she gives you another one to hold onto.