Perhaps it doesn’t seem like five years since we were all running from a hurricane roughly the size of the entire Gulf of Mexico. For some, it seems like even more time. Much less for others. Just the first six dreamlike months after the flood—when you could leave your bike outside, unlocked for days—felt like a lifetime in itself.
Some have by now painted over Katrina with the Saints Super Bowl win or, more realistically, with our newest, possibly even worse catastrophe, the BP oil spill. But in the face of this newest disaster, it is valuable to reflect upon the ways in which we’ve bounced back from the last calamity: Some figures have the worst flooded neighborhoods back at 60 percent of their population, though you can still hear a plastic grocery bag flap in the wind down in the Lower Ninth Ward (not that there’s a grocery store there).
Even as rescue workers were air-lifting survivors from roofs, other New Orleanians were busy making sure that the city’s music also did not die. Between then and now, lots of our musicians trudged on, playing music in town for their neighbors to come home to, while other musicians moved away to carry New Orleans’ flame in other cities. The story was, and continues to be, different for everyone.
OffBeat spoke with members of New Orleans’ music community who retraced their steps and the city’s. How far have we come?
Deacon John, New Orleans R&B legend: When the city was intact, Mayor Nagin was in his grace period and everyone had great hopes for him. The city was on the move, moving forward. I was also enjoying a surge in my popularity after releasing the Deacon John’s Jump Blues album and DVD. I had a lot of gigs, the Jazz Fest and the Jump Blues Orchestra was about to go on tour. It just seemed like there was no limit to what we could do culturally, economically, politically.
J. Yuenger, guitarist/studio owner: New Orleans before the storm was still the fairytale place: the economy so out of whack that you could work two days a week and just make art. People I knew were paying $100 rent.
Richard Bates, program director, Young Audiences Arts for Learning: We’ve been in New Orleans since 1962, originally set up to make classical arts available to all children without charging for the services. Our performance roster had grown to include all music up to rock ‘n’ roll and hip-hop—all with educational content as well. We’d done some residencies with teaching artists and workshops, but finally we felt that we had some ideas on how to run our own afterschool program. We had applied for our first afterschool grant before the storm and been awarded it.
Trixie Minx, ringleader Fleur De Tease burlesque troupe: Before moving to New Orleans in 2001, I was a ballerina. Before the flood I was in a big dance ensemble and wasn’t performing burlesque at the time. People were bugging me to do it, but I was very hesitant. My boyfriend was in school. I had a very happy but organized, mellow life. Then after we finally evacuated, I kept thinking of how I’d never gotten a milkshake at Camellia Grill, and of all the things I’d never gotten around to doing in New Orleans—like burlesque. I remember in my big heavy evacuation backpack I had no real change of underwear or clothes, just my pictures and journals, and a pair of pasties that I was given, to learn how to twirl with.
Chris Watson, label head, Park the Van Records: I’d moved here from Sacramento in early 2002, where I’d been working at another label, and now had the chance to put out a release by Dr. Dog, and that’s where Park the Van really started. I remember before the flood sitting at Handsome Willy’s with Leo from Antigravity, talking about how awesome shit felt, and how we were going to finally have an indie rock scene that supported itself and wasn’t just scraping by. The city, from my perspective, had a weird sense of ‘Hey, we could be really good at this,’ rather than just someone doing something because they could.
Ben Jaffe, Preservation Hall Leader: 2004 and 2005 were great years. I was incredibly optimistic. The city felt very youthful and energetic. New Orleans had really begun to hit its stride. Pres Hall was finishing up an album and I had another one I’d worked on with King Britt. I had also been building a company for a year with two business partners of mine, and we were moving into our new offices the weekend before Katrina. We ended up calling off the moving trucks. Our company never came back.
Bethany Bultman, program director, New Orleans Musicians’ Clinic: We had a very nice clinic where we referred our patients into specialty clinics at LSU. We could get our patients at the front of the list if they needed a liver biopsy or CAT scan, and we had great dental care. We had great grants, like from the Grammy Foundation. We evacuated thinking we were pretty solid and safe, especially being up on the eighth floor of a medical building on Gravier.
Jordan Hirsch, executive director, Sweet Home New Orleans: Before the storm, I was trying to open a record store and that didn’t get off the ground. Then after the storm, I had a chance to get involved and start Sweet Home New Orleans. I was really thankful for that because after I was done accounting for people I cared about and my belongings and all of that, the next thing I wondered was, “What’s going to happen to the music? What’s going to happen to the culture?”
Bethany Bultman: Within days we’d lost access to our bank account, lost all of our patient records, lost track of our doctors and each other. There were patients who’d been in the middle of chemo, people in the middle of finding out what type of cancer they had, and we were unable to reach any of them. But we were able to station in Lafayette and get musicians there to take New Orleans musicians into their homes. We got hold of a small donated clinic with no furniture, and our nurse practitioner and everyone else just sat on the floor, manned the phones and helped people hook up with health care partners in other areas. I was also able to borrow money and open a bank account, and I sent hundreds of emails telling people about what the Musicians’ Clinic was trying to do. Two weeks later the bank calls and says, “You have to come in right away.” I thought, “Oh shit, I overdrew the account!” It turned out people had wired in money and we had over $200,000 in the account!
Chris Watson: My apartment, my car and all that shit were gone, and since a few of our bands were from Philadelphia, we moved there and became a Philadelphia label for a while. My girlfriend is from New Orleans, so we were back as much as we could. When I first came back and visited in October, I remember meeting up with some friends at Le Bon Temps, one of the few places with live music, and they were grilling. It felt really different than at Handsome Willy’s right before the flood.
Deacon John: The city services were in shambles, there was a cultural diaspora, people having a hard time returning and getting their lives back together. When they did return, there was acute lack of affordable housing, landlords raising the rents. Personally, my career also took a slight downturn. Some of my bookings were cancelled or postponed, but I had to honor all these contracts that I had, and my hardest thing was bringing the musicians back in town for our gigs. A lot of times it wasn’t economically feasible for me to fly guys in. I couldn’t even find my piano player. It was a real hard time to be a bandleader, but then I also found some extra work, being one of the only guys in town, filling the void.
Richard Bates: My house didn’t flood, so it was my job to try to find work for Young Audiences’ teaching artists so they could come back and have steady income. There was a lot of recovery money in the school system and in Louisiana-based organizations, and such national sympathy that certain groups opened and expanded chapters in New Orleans. We might have had these opportunities anyway without the flood, but the Department of Education—which had a different name at the time—recognized that we were doing a good job. And we maybe had a little less competition because were able to be here working when other organizations were not, so we grew after Katrina.
James Singleton, bassist/composer: I’m one of those rare people who, really, my entire life took an upswing after Katrina. New Orleans always seems to bounce back and profit from adversity by the creative nature of our community and how we ritualize our lives and turn it into something positive. My wife evacuated to Los Angeles and got a great job and a free car. That definitely facilitated us staying in Los Angeles. Plus, I had a big house on Bayou St. John that I rented out to three of my friends, and their rent helped pay for my travels. So for me, the main story was I got the opportunity to live in two towns at once for three years and just come back to New Orleans every month to play music with my friends.
Truth Universal, rapper: Impulss came back and started his MC battle and relit the fire in terms of hip-hop in New Orleans, getting people out and congregating. And you also saw big New Orleans bounce movements in Atlanta, Dallas, Texas. So that was the good thing about getting out. I started to have some stuff going on in Houston, had people who helped me navigate some important things, and we hit the road more. Then when all the members of the rap community would meet at New Orleans MC battles, we would all link up and started asking, “What are you doing now?” I started to see more unity in the hip-hop community. Before, some people wouldn’t work together; now they were collaborating on shows and music, recording.
DJ Quickie Mart: Me and Impulss did that first thing at One Eyed Jacks, and that was great, 300-something people. Me and DJ Real and Soul Sister were capitalizing, then Black Pearl came back, and it was a very family, united DJ scene. We were all scooping up gigs. I was playing five to 10 gigs a week for a year. But there’s only so much you can do as a DJ in New Orleans, so I moved to L.A. in 2007. Plus, after losing my house, I felt more comfortable elsewhere, where you aren’t going to lose all your shit.
J. Yuenger: I wanted to come back as soon as possible, but a lot of my friends realized they could do better for themselves other places, or they’d been in the New Orleans holding pattern. I know a lot of people who didn’t come back. Most people I know who left are happy.
Ben Jaffe: The flooding of our city made life crystal clear to me. The experience of being in New Orleans for the hurricane and being part of the Musicians’ Hurricane Relief Fund, and to see that still going on today is amazing. New Orleans has some of the most progressive advocacy groups for musicians in the world, and that was a result of Hurricane Katrina. But more than that, it told me exactly what is important, and that’s our history, our traditions, our culture, our way of life. Those were the things I wanted to see preserved and protected.
Trixie Minx: From the moment I stepped back into the city, I felt like I was on borrowed time. That’s when I started doing burlesque full time. It was refreshing, almost like being reborn. It was complete confidence. I had faith. I needed to get as much as I could out of the city because there was no guarantee. Everything was fresh.
J. Yuenger: Since Katrina, it’s never again been as happy-go-lucky a place. People seem more cynical now. Since moving here in summer 2004, I’d been hearing about how fun hurricane parties were, so I was surprised when people started seeming genuinely really scared and worried as Katrina approached. Now people have a little fear in them. All the new stuff that’s happening is great: the Super Bowl, the Hollywood South, the TV show. A lot of people are moving here, there’s lots of new creativity here, celebrities are sniffing around, but there’s also a real sense that if it happens again, all that will go away and there will be no future. I now balance my love of New Orleans with a cynicism about what might happen in the future.
DJ Quickie Mart: I played recently at the Roxy in L.A. with Rebirth Brass Band and Dumpstaphunk and we sold it out, had a line down Sunset. Especially since Treme, there’s been a little buzz here about New Orleans music.
Jordan Hirsch: Our revenue is less than it was in ’08. It’s a different kind of money that’s available now. It’s not money that lasts as long, so what we’re doing now is supplanting [recovery programs] with other types of programming. It’s harder to get heard nationally by a wider audience, and people who might care a lot about this aren’t hearing about it anymore. We want to keep doing this to the extent that we can afford to do it. We’ve given out three million dollars since the flood, but it’s going out at a slower rate now because we aren’t able to raise money that we were able to raise after the storm. But we’re going to keep talking, no matter who’s listening.
Richard Bates: A lot of the funding has dried up, the national support. The Recovery School District just went through a series of major cuts. It’s good because it cleaned out a lot of the bureaucratic blocks that were there before, but no one can relax because everything is always new.
Trixie Minx: Five years ago, I wasn’t doing this and now I am getting the chance to really bring it to people every week with Irvin Mayfield’s Burlesque Ballroom. On Bourbon! With live musicians! I get my pick of all these wonderful dancers for an entirely free show! I’m really excited about our collaborations with the New Orleans Bingo! Show and everything else because it’s an exact result of how I feel about New Orleans, and my attitude since the flood. My values quickly changed after Katrina; I have a different lifestyle now. I left a comfortable lifestyle in pursuit of a more artistically rewarding one. I have a problem now where I take on too many things thinking that I am going to miss something, that it’s not going to be there for me one day, so I want to work with as many wonderful people as possible, and I need to get these ideas in my brain out because I am afraid there won’t be another chance.
James Singleton: The main thing to me is the huge visual arts centers in our town now, all the new galleries, Prospect 1, new clubs to play in, the TV show, three different booking entities that are presenting the weird kind of music that I like to listen to. I’m in new bands now with extremely creative people, many of whom have moved to town since Katrina—the latest crop of improvising geniuses.
Chris Watson: About 2007, we started working with this band, the Peekers, from Shreveport. Since we already had a national following, we thought we could operate our label from anywhere. By December 2008, we were back down in New Orleans operating out of an apartment in Lakeview. Since then, we’ve had some great success with bands from Louisiana: The Generationals, Giant Cloud, Brass Bed. We’re known now as a New Orleans label; we’re very proud of that, and I don’t think we’ll ever leave again. And still, after everything we’ve been through, everyone who comes and visits us leaves saying, “Man, I want to move here.” I don’t feel that way when I leave any other city.
Deacon John: We’re making tremendous progress, but it’s not enough. There are still thousands of abandoned houses, so many uninhabitable places. They had all these visions of grandeur that are still unfulfilled—the sports complex the mayor promised us. The Hyatt Regency hasn’t been restored. Plus that ugly head of corruption, our politicians going to jail. We have new leadership in City Hall with tremendous budget problems left over from the last administration, but I think the city is behind the new mayor, who I think we can trust, and who won with unified support from people of all races. I feel we are on the right road now for a speedier recovery, but now new problems have occurred with the oil spill to add to everything else. The seafood and tourism industries are being negatively impacted. Chef Susan Spicer even filed a class action suit because they can’t get seafood. This will all trickle down to musicians. I have a friend who came to the Musicians’ Union meeting. He depended on tourism and now he’s experiencing a lot of unemployment. Luckily, my thing is sort of recession-proof. Weddings, private parties, Carnival balls, and those things are still going on despite what’s going on in the Gulf. Still, it’s really depressing and I am afraid I won’t be around to see the rebound, or even the raw oysters that I love. Everything we’re famous for is being constantly eroded.
Bethany Bultman: Right now the Musicians’ Clinic is at the most absolutely catastrophic point. It is really what I work on night and day. We have a lot of things we have to pay for now that we didn’t right after the flood. Our three-year Primary Care Access and Stabilization Grant runs out in August. We had 800 patients before the flood and now we have 2,000. We are desperately seeking other funding, but it’s a terrifying time. We don’t have any resources we can call upon because the hospital system never came back. We are going to have to ration care and cut hours. We’ve had to cut employees and rely on volunteers more. There are more mental health beds in Orleans Parish prison than anywhere else in the city. We can often no longer provide the premium care we would like. We do, however, still have pots of money that only go toward gigs, so we are not taking away from health care to pay for the gigs. We feel that funding musicians to perform is still a vital mental health service, and we’ll continue to do so as long as we have the money.
Ben Jaffe: It’s strange that we’re even having this conversation, really. To me, it’s more important to ask what the fuck are we going to do for the next 50 years of our lives. Up until a couple months ago, it felt great being here, being part of a city that has a world championship football team, so many great musical organizations. And it’s amazing that all we’ve accomplished is now being compromised by this oil pouring uncontrollably into the Gulf. It’s hard for me to even talk about Katrina with this new situation, especially now that oil is washing up into Lake Pontchartrain. After the flood, there was painful struggle—happiness, sorrow, death and birth, frustration and exhaustion, panic and stress and fear and helplessness and abandonment—and our city overcame all of that, only to be—I wouldn’t say kicked when we’re down, I would say kicked when we’re up. I’d never seen New Orleans on such a high before. All the people who came back to rebuild our city and their lives brick by brick, such a testament. I really felt like a city that could overcome Katrina could overcome anything. But this oil spill is going to overshadow Katrina for the next 50 years, and that’s what we need to be focusing on. Fuck Katrina, seriously.