Tuesday, August 28, 2007

The day the music died

Here's an interesting article on the New Orleans music scene which was on the BBC website today. The writer gets a few things wrong - I particularly like the reference to 'Ernie K-Doe's Working in a Coalmine, and 'Sung Harbour' - but it's worth a read.
The day the music died?
By Caroline Briggs BBC News, New Orleans
When Katrina blew her fury across New Orleans in August 2005, she ripped the very heart out of the city. The music. Before Katrina, music had pulsed through the veins of New Orleans. It spilled out of every club, seeped into every street, and nourished every tight community. But it was those tight communities - places like the Lower Ninth Ward, St Bernard's, and Treme districts - that were engulfed when the levees broke. And it was those communities that many of New Orleans' musicians were forced to flee. Katrina scattered them far and wide - to New York, Houston, Atlanta, Dallas.
Thousands, it is thought, are yet to return. Ben Jaffe, director of New Orleans' venerable Preservation Hall, says his jazz band was hit hard. "Our trumpet player stayed in New Orleans, our clarinet player stayed, our pianist stayed, but our drummer left town, and our banjo player left town. Most of them lost their homes."
'It knew where I lived'
Officially, New Orleans' population is half its pre-Katrina level. According to the Renew Our Music Fund - one of a number of charities helping musicians get back on their feet - of the 5,000 full-time, professional musicians who lived in the city before Katrina, about 3,000 are still displaced.
Veteran musician, songwriter and producer Allen Toussaint, known around the world for songs like Ernie K-Doe's Working In A Coalmine, was one of those forced to leave. A veteran of Louisiana's long legacy of hurricanes, he weathered the storm in the Astor Crowne Plaza Hotel on Canal Street, before leaving for neighbouring Baton Rouge. Toussaint eventually settled in New York, where he is living while his house is rebuilt.
"The Hurricane Katrina knew exactly where I lived," he says. "It knew exactly where all the important things that I lived with daily were, and it found them and it baptised them all." Despite the impact the exodus of musicians had on the city's music scene, Toussaint says he is confident it will come back. "New Orleans hasn't died. At this very moment there are musicians playing in Jackson Square, out in front of the Cathedral, all up and down the French Quarter and many other places."
Quieter streets
To the casual visitor, seeing clubs like Vaughn's, the Spotted Cat, Donna's, d.b.a, and Sung Harbour writhing with live music, it would seem the scene is already back there. But, nearly two years after Katrina, the reality is very different. As the tourists have begun trickling back to the French Quarter - but at half pre-Katrina level - so have the gigs.
And those who go looking will still find the same quality music in the shape of bands like Glen David Andrews and the Lazy Six, Joe Lastie's Lil' Jazzmen, Trombone Summit, or Kermit Ruffins. But the streets are a little quieter these days. Fewer venues are offering live music, and those who do are not open as often. Musicians claim they are also being paid less.
It is down to the fall in tourists and poorer locals who feel they can no longer afford door charges or tips for the band. Even Preservation Hall, a Mecca for visiting jazz fans, now only opens four nights a week. Glen David Andrews, trombonist and leader of The Lazy Six, admits Katrina's legacy is still hurting musicians.
"This is my second gig this month - two gigs in one month - you can't pay rent like that, but I'm going to make it work."Before Katrina I was a living musician, since I was 16 years old. I'm 27 now and I feel like I'm ten years back. Literally." But even if work can be found, the fact remains that many musicians' homes are still in ruins. The rebuilding so far has been ad-hoc, like a sticking plaster on a severed limb.
Ghost towns
Most of the areas flooded two years ago are a mixture of renovated properties, and gutted homes awaiting repair while their owners live in trailers in the garden. Others remain untouched, and every few metres an empty site tells its own sad tale. Many of the poorer areas are still like ghost towns.
Even middle-class areas like Eastover, with its 4000 sq ft homes, are still lifeless. The floods did not distinguish between rich and poor. It is only money to rebuild the homes that can ultimately help. Musicians - like anyone - need somewhere to live. Until then, locals say, the communities will remain shattered, and the music scene weakened.
"This is supposed to be America. The great America and look at what's happening," says Andrews, who himself spent 18 months living in a trailer after his house was flooded. "It's not just about the music, it is about the music community, the people who play the music. You've got to be at home. You've got to do jazz funerals, you've got to play Mardi Gras, you've got to do Jazz Fest."
'Where is the money?'
But thousands of people are still waiting for cash from the Road Home Programme before they can start to rebuild. It is coming through, although painfully slowly for many, and not without a little controversy. The question on most people's lips is: "Where is the money?" Many are angry. and fear it will never come through for them.
In the meantime, musicians have been helping themselves in an attempt to rebuild their fragile livelihoods. Non-profit organisations, many run by musicians, have sprung up, helping other artists to replace lost or damaged instruments, find gigs, provide transport and accommodation, or cover health care and housing costs.
The Tipitina's Foundation, the charitable arm of the world-famous New Orleans music venue, has distributed about $1.5m, while Renew Our Music, and New Orleans Musician's Relief Fund (NOmrf) are also there. The aim is simple: to get musicians back working and living in New Orleans. The musicians who are yet to return are mostly elderly who need access to healthcare, or younger musicians with families.
"Ultimately it may mean we lose an older generation," says Jaffe, who co-founded Renew Our Music in the days following Katrina. They are the ones I learned to play music from, learned how to cook from. Those are the ones I feel saddest about losing."

For more, and some quotes from musicians, have a look at this http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/entertainment/6944941.stm


At 11:55 am , Anonymous Tony Papard said...

It is disgusting that USA, the richest country in the world, has left many areas of New Orleans a devastated ruin two years after the floods. Yet they can afford Star Wars, a new generation of nukes which will lower the nuclear threshhold, and escapades like Iraq.

I can't help thinking the reason New Orleans has been left to rot is a) it is a Southern city and more importantly b) most of the badly affected areas are black neighborhoods.

You can bet if it was the affluent suburbs of Miami or New York which were affected, they wouldn't still be in ruins two years later.

But the first priority is to rebuild the levees, which apparently were built to such a bad design on bad foundations that the rising water just pushed them aside or went underneath them.

At 4:22 pm , Blogger Nick said...

I agree. It's a form of ethnic cleansing: they won't rebuild the poorer neighbourhoods so the blacks are unable to return to their former homes. This has attracted Hispanics who are now doing jobs that used to be done by the native black New Orleanians.

At 5:59 pm , Blogger Smitty said...


I don't completely agree with your comments. New Orleans has been struggling to return to normalcy because until recently, many of the people did not return. Only 60% of the population has returned to the city. After Katrina 19,000 small businesses were lost. That is A LOT both in citizens and businesses to expect any force to restore. It is taking some time. In the mean time, however prospects are good. There is a recent USA Today story talking about the brain gain that New Orleans has experienced as a result of this tragedy. Hey, they just aren't rebuilding the city, hopefully they are building it better.

At 5:04 am , Blogger Alex said...

I live in Metairie, a suburb of New Orleans, and trust me when I say that there is a seething anger that is running beneath the surface in all of us here in the city. Most of it stems from the frustration we have to deal with regarding our elected leaders starting from 'King George' our clown prince leader to our inept mayor who has a knack for sticking his foot in his mouth on a regular basis. We're dealing with scandal after scandal involving corrupt officials, lack of funds, red tape by the ton, and crime that is flourishing in a small, but significant area of the city due to a shrunken NOPD and the worst District Attorney in the country. Regardless of all of this, there is a sense of pride and knowledge that we will bring our city back. Progress is indeed happening, even if it's in spurts, but it's happening. The greatest help anyone can give us from outside of NOLA is to come visit and help out our tourist economy. Come to Mardi Gras, JazzFest, the French Quarter Fest, Satchmo Fest, or any of the million other reasons to visit what I consider the best city in the country (I've lived in NYC too). Come for our food, our hospitality, our music, our culture, our architecture, our museums, etc. I myself am a physician, and I know that I could have better opportunities elsewhere, but I didn't tattoo a fleur-de-lis (our city's symbol) on my right shoulder blade for nothing. I'm determined to do what it takes to make NOLA what it was, and I hope that all of you who read this blog and my comments consider coming to my city to help us out. Come experience our motto: 'Laissez les bon temps roulez.' (Let the good times roll.)

At 9:48 am , Blogger Nick said...

Thanks for the comments. It's good to know that the blog is read. I visit New Orleans regularly - I was there for Jazzfest this year - and I love the place. I read the NOLA webpage regularly too. It saddens me to see so little progress since the horrors of Katrina, but I can only hope that in time this great city will recover.

At 9:11 pm , Blogger Nick said...

To mark the second anniversary of Katrina BBC4 is showing Spike Lee's When the Levees Broke tonight. It brings back memories of those pictures that I watched in horror at the time and shows the incompetence and sheer callousness that those in authority showed in failing to deal with this disaster and with its victims. What an indictment on the US system and the Bush government.


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