New Orleans 2006: music, hope and love in the ruins


New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival
New Orleans, Louisiana
April 28-30 and May 5-7


It was a long-delayed, emotion-charged journey for Johnny James this late April day, and he welcomed a chat with the pair of reporters seated next to him. The 22-year-old poet, musician and graphic artist hadn't been back to his native New Orleans since Katrina forced him to evacuate to Albuquerque. He's allergic to mould, and elders in his family had counselled caution, but Johnny had to help out a musician friend with whom he'd shared a low-ground New Orleans apartment "before the flood" and who also was en route back to their hometown. The young men's apartment and musical instruments were wrecked in the wake of Katrina. "You just don't let a pal face that alone", Johnny smiled wanly under his dreadlocks. He added, "There's a lot of clean-up we need to do. But, we may find time to drop into Jazz Fest — that might cheer my man up a bit."

Flying Southwest Airlines into NOLA (New Orleans Louisiana), we listened to Johnny's tale of Katrina survival and loss — one of many we would hear that weekend — and to his educated hunches about what is really happening along the Louisiana Gulf Coast in this time of uncertainty. "They're clearing people out so they can drill for oil closer to the coast and pump it out faster without so many poor Black folks, Houma Indians and Cajuns living in the way. Global warming and hurricanes actually benefit those oil companies!", he quipped with just the hint of a wry grin.

A grim hypothesis, offered half in jest perhaps, yet hardly outrageous in this time of "Helluva job, Brownie!" and President Bush's tragically botched FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) farce. Headlines in both the Times Picayune and the NY Times that Jazz Fest opening weekend declared that FEMA evacuees are facing imminent eviction from their apartments because FEMA has decided to renege on promised rent payments. A lawsuit in defence of evacuees' housing rights is planned. And Bush is expressing concern about the "security" of America's southern borderlands.

Maybe stoicism laced with black humour is one prescription for what ails us politically these days, in New Orleans as elsewhere. T-shirts on sale in the Bourbon street shops feature big arrows pointing outwards from New Orleans: "FEMA Evacuation Plan: Run, Motherfucker, Run!" Another popular design is a peace symbol overlaid with the NOLA fleur de lis and emblazoned "Make Levees, Not War!"

We parted with Johnny James at the NOLA airport and, sadly, didn't catch up with him again during Jazz Fest. Yet, we met many folks on the scarred streets of New Orleans who also had endured hard times since August 2005. There was the Cajun cab driver who said he'd managed to escape in his cab, but knew plenty of friends who hadn't been so lucky. There was the grey-haired older gentleman who runs a parking lot in the Gentilly neighborhood outside Jazz Fest and who sadly told us how the combined stresses of Katrina and the flood had ended the life of his beloved wife of 28 years. There was Henry — a former Jackson Square street portrait painter and muralist — who recounted standing chest-deep in fetid water for days inside a darkened, debris-blocked Ninth Ward house, pulling his relatives up, one by one, when they tried to drown themselves in despair. There was Mr Manuel Cousin, a proud elder and Gentilly citizen who vowed to stay in New Orleans, come whatever. He introduced us to Ms Gloria, a 71 year old Black grandmother. Ms Gloria calmly narrated for us her odyssey from flooded streets to a highway overpass, where levelled police shotguns turned her and her escaping companions back from the Mississippi bridge out of town. Ms Gloria and her friends eventually found a car that started and, after days of terror, drove to refuge in the small town of White Castle, just south of Baton Rouge. Ms Gloria ended her tale with a smile, blessing the memory of "those good people in White Castle."

That's just a select few of the heart-breaking stories we collected. The third-story watermarks, the power blackouts, the trash heaps, the blocks of abandoned cars with homeless families squatting inside, the ripped up streetcar tracks, the "help wanted" signs peppering the French Quarter — these sights also spoke volumes about what has happened to the former City That Care Forgot.

"That's not the half of it, man", advised N'awlins performance poet, political activist and painter Jose Torres Tama in an early May phone interview with this reporter. Tama, who himself escaped from the flood on a commandeered school bus, has since, with trepidation, returned to his beloved Crescent City. He explained that rents have sky-rocketed in NOLA since Katrina as landlords take hefty profits in a suddenly housing-scarce market. "Two thousand a month for a two bedroom", said Tama, disgustedly, adding, "New Orleans was perhaps the last true bohemia in this country — a place where working class artists could afford to live and create — but that is all over now." As speculators snap up properties at cut rates, as FEMA reneges on promises and ties itself in red-tape knots, as insurance companies equivocate on payments and as government rebuilding efforts bog down, the term "quagmire" seems as applicable to Bush-era New Orleans as to Bush-whacked Iraq.

Indeed, the diaspora of New Orleans refugees across the USA — as well as the remnant of non-rich New Orleanians still clinging to their home town as the Gulf heads into another hurricane season — seem together to have been cast by our callous Federal government into the ugly de facto role of defeated victims of conquest. The Lower Ninth Ward looks like a battle zone. The NOLA pump system is still disabled. The Pontchartrain levees are still weak. And the ominous threat of more flooding this summer hangs over the city like the apocalyptic threat of nuclear devastation hung over the Cold War world. In mid-May, the city government began running practice drills for a forced evacuation of the poor. It is assumed that the affluent will evacuate on their own when the next storm approaches.

It may seem an odd time to be dancing, but as Jazz Fest organisers and many Louisiana musicians themselves asserted, the traditional defence against debilitating grief in New Orleans has always been celebration. Celebration of survival itself, with hope for the future strongly implied in that very act. Inside the fest that first weekend the mood was festive, though hardly raucous, as tourists and locals mixed. During opening day, it was common to see both fans and performers with tears flowing. Many bands, including jazz, blues, Gospel and R&B groups, had been scattered over several states and this was the first time they had re-united. One fan, a woman from a NOLA suburb, told us she could not stop weeping as she moved from stage to stage, but that her heart was filled with joy to hear that sweet music once again. She had feared she might not ever hear it again.

The big-time national stars turned out in force at Jazz Fest 06 — Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Herbie Hancock, Hugh Masekela, Etta James, Ani Di Franco, Paul Simon, Yerba Buena, Elvis Costello, Dave Matthews Band — and they reportedly took generous fee cuts to be there. All poured their hearts into this gig. Dylan was even spotted by these Z reporters shuffling his wandering boot heels on the just re-opened dance floor at Mulate's Cajun Restaurant — just another fan digging BeauSoleil! And Springsteen, among other big names, let it be known in no uncertain terms that the people of this country hold our alleged "powers that be" in contempt for what was allowed to happen along the Gulf Coast this past year. Bruce's sneering song reference to "President Bystander" drew an audience roar.

Yet, it was the home-town and Gulf Coast regional acts that deservedly packed the strongest emotional punch at Jazz Fest 2006. They had been through it all, either personally or vicariously via relatives and close friends who had weathered the killer winds and endured the nightmare of flood and government bungling that followed. Fats Domino, Allen Toussaint, Dr John, Charmaine Neville, Juvenile, The Meters, The Subdudes, The Iguanas, Anders Osbourne, all the many legendary brass bands and "krewes" of Mardi Gras Indians, and so many others with deep roots and deeply flooded homes in the Crescent City. And the many musicians from nearby Rita-blasted, FEMA- mistreated coastal Acadiana and the Creole "back-country": Rosie Ledet, Mike Doucet et BeauSoleil, Lil Band of Gold, Steve Reilly and the Mamou Playboys, CC Adcock, D L Menard, so many more.

Putnay Thomas, a blues DJ and writer attending his 18th consecutive Jazz Fest, however, put the celebratory mood in perspective. "The music is great, of course, but the city itself is still very, very sad. So many deaths, and so many people who left and have not come back. The Neville Brothers themselves did not play Jazz Fest this year, though they always used to, and it really looks like they won't be moving back to New Orleans. That is a true source of sorrow for many of us", he sighed.

Dwayne Dopsie, the young zydeco-accordion dervish who set flame to the Fest's Fais Do-Do Stage that first weekend, told me that he had played the Bourbon Street dives for six years before Katrina took away his home and his gig, but that the terrible events proved a mixed blessing in disguise. "Now I live in Baton Rouge, man, and I got myself some good management and I have a national tour of paying gigs, even a few shows in Europe this year. Before the flood, I might never have gotten myself off Bourbon Street", Dwayne smiled.

Indeed, the recently established private non-profit Louisiana Music Export Office is busy. It's dedicated in part to helping musicians in the Katrina-Rita diaspora find paying gigs around the country. Yet even the personally optimistic Dwayne Dopsie shared his doubts about New Orleans's cultural future, noting that for a true "come back" the people who had to flee the city by their thousands would have to come back. And that just does not seem to be in the cards, at least as dealt by those in power at the present moment. Chatting outside Tipitina's just before a benefit show for distressed musicians, Mac Rebennack, the legendary recording artist known to the world as Dr John, offered a hopeful gris-gris blessing to these reporters but allowed as how, when he thinks about what government foot-dragging has done to his beloved hometown, "I am one pissed off mutha-fucka!"

With Mayor Clarence Ray Nagin — a close friend of big business and gentrification and a nominal Democrat who endorsed George W. Bush — re-elected on May 20, the political establishment seems to be gearing up to decide which neighbourhoods will be re-built and which won't be — what the "footprint" of post-Katrina New Orleans will be, and who will get to return. And who won't. Notwithstanding Nagin's refreshingly candid emotional outbursts against federal bungling, and his pledge that NOLA will remain a "chocolate city", much remains to be decided. And much remains to be done. And as of this writing, the hurricane season is upon the Gulf Coast again.

There are public voices of hope, resistance and even defiance among New Orleans' many traumatised souls, even as the dark clouds of this summer's storm season loom. The city's outspoken performers and their supporters have not shut down. Dave Brinks is the quietly powerful poet who has kept his edgy 17 Poets! weekly readings alive in the post-hurricane French Quarter, even while he struggles to rebuild his own flood- ravaged house. Brinks clings to faith that NOLA will rebound, and fellow poet Nancy Harris has gotten her own monthly Maple Leaf poetry gatherings going again in Uptown. The Maple Leaf Bar itself, one of the city's most famed and gritty music venues, never shut down through the storms. And Tipitina's Uptown not only survived the devastation, but has established a relief centre, assistance fund and temporary housing resource for distressed musicians, The Tipitina's Foundation.

Drunken tourists and college kids are back staggering on Bourbon Street, and, predictably, wealthy patrons are helping rebuilding efforts at the Audubon Zoo and the city's art museum. Yet, the less visible and less highbrow citizens of New Orleans have had to organise on their own to "get back". The assertive national community organising group, ACORN, has stepped to the fore of leadership among those New Orleanians who refuse to let economic disadvantage and lack of insider status intimidate them. According to ACORN, the Ninth Ward and other flood-blasted areas of New Orleans, are coming back, and there will be no compromise on that fact. Other encouraging signs of grassroots community survival and revival include The Promised Land, a community centre building project in the Lower Ninth and Katrina Warriors/Surviving the Storm, a citywide women's anti-domestic violence initiative that has evolved since Katrina.

Visual artists, too, are working in defence of their city and their fellow citizens. The Arts Council of New Orleans and the Cultural Economy initiative are focused on rebuilding the NOLA artistic culture. The surreal reality that is post-Katrina New Orleans can be seen in the extraordinary slow-exposure night-time photographs being shot by Cultural Economy activist photography artist Frank Relle and posted on his site <>. Relle himself a cheerfully die-hard champion of the people and culture of New Orleans, defied curfew and National Guard-Blackwater armed patrols to get his eerily beautiful Lower Ninth Ward photos.

"Where y'at?" — the traditional N'awlins homie greeting — has taken on an ironic tinge this year of dispersal and frustration. "How'd ya make out?" has become the new street hello within city limits. A popular bumper sticker urges, "Be a New Orleanian — wherever you are". Yet, more and more, there are indications that the people's living culture — and the determined working people of New Orleans themselves — plan to come back, no matter how hard it may be to do that. Nothing is easy in the Big Easy these days. It really never was for the poor there — or anywhere — despite the music and laughter. And the future is very unclear. "What we need", one proud New Orleanian told us, "is for the rest of this country not to forget us, and what we are going through down here. That's all we ask."

From Green Left Weekly, June 14, 2006.

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