How do we talk about Hurricane Katrina? Chris Rose has referred to it as “The Thing,” as if saying its name would somehow bring it back. In OffBeat and elsewhere, John Swenson pointedly refers to it as “the Federal Flood,” reminding people that Katrina didn’t flood New Orleans; the breach of governmentally neglected levees did. On Bourbon Street, T-shirts take the low road and personify the storm, unpleasantly naming it “Katrina—You Bitch.”
There’s a logic to those references and all the others, and though “The Thing” borders on being melodramatic, it hearkens back to the basic issue: How do we name destruction on a previously unimaginable scale? Musicians have tried to address it with mixed results. Many post-Katrina songs have good sections or good lines—lines that capture resonant thoughts or give words to feelings we’ve struggled to express—but the effort to frame it in a conventional rhyme and rhythm scheme frequently makes the hurricane seem smaller and more manageable. In retrospect, it’s clear those songs were made as much for the maker as for an audience—a publicly performed version of self-help. If they spoke to or for the audience, all the better.
The New Orleans Klezmer AllStars’ new album, Maelstrom: Songs of Storm & Exile, has its origins in therapy of a slightly different order, but the circumstances of its creation kept it from falling into some of the aesthetic pitfalls that other post-Katrina recordings have faced.
Poet Andrei Codrescu refers to the days after Katrina as “the time outside time,” and he echoes the taxonomic question du jour in the first poem in his new book, Jealous Witness. “did something miss new orleans?” begins:
what do you call this this catastrophe sonnet
used to be called n’awrlins now it’s simply
the greatest engineering disaster in U.S. history
Each copy of Jealous Witness has a copy of Maelstrom inside the back cover. The album is a collaboration between Codrescu and the Klezmer AllStars, and it has its roots in the first weeks after the storm. “Jonathan [Freilich] wrote me an email saying we need some poems to get the band back together, so I wrote some,” Codrescu says, talking from the kitchen of a Greek restaurant in Tupelo, Mississippi. Like so many bands, the Klezmer AllStars were scattered by the storm. Rob Wagner would end up in New York City and Glenn Hartman would settle in San Francisco.
Freilich may have had the immediate, post-storm context in mind, but he could have been speaking about the band in a larger context. Even before the storm, it frequently seemed like the band members had other musical priorities, and the Klezmer AllStars was a safe, home-like project to return to more than their principal outlet for artistic expression. And to some extent, Freilich’s plan worked. The process of turning Codrescu’s writings into music engaged the band to such a degree that it pursued funding from B’nai B’rith—a Jewish humanitarian and advocacy organization—to finance the recording of the album. They pursued outside vocalists including Harry Shearer, Ivan Neville, Coco Robicheaux and Alex McMurray, and they cared enough about the project to argue passionately about it at times. When discussing it, both Wagner and Hartman talked about trying to tour some version of Maelstrom, despite the obvious logistical challenges.
Codrescu wrote the poems in the first months after Katrina, and were it not for his admiration of the band, he wouldn’t have done so. “I think the way everybody rushed to write about Katrina was a little bit indecent,” he says. “When things like that happen, you’ve got to pull back for a while and say ‘wow’ and let it sink in.” Still, he waded in. “They were written in a big fever in two or three days,” Codrescu says, and everybody in the band credits his pieces for shaping the project. They certainly help Maelstrom avoid the rigorous glumness of much post-Katrina art. “Married Men’s Girlfriends” deals humorously with men forced to be faithful while in evacuation with their families, and he wryly sketches the tension between Baton Rouge and New Orleans. The Klezmers got John Boutte to sing the voice-of-outrage, “Mr. Mayor.”
“The lyrics for that are ‘Mr. Mayor, I knew your mama / I went to school with you,’” Glenn Hartman says. “And, he probably did, because you know Boutte was hanging out with [Marc] Morial. It was almost like another layer of emotion in that; you could imagine John or one of his family standing at one of those meetings going, ‘This is bullshit.’” Similarly, Harry Shearer turns “FEMA Check” into a broad romp celebrating the famed post-payout spending sprees. Their performances, along with the revue-like parade of guest vocalists—including Codrescu—gives the album a theatrical dimension, as if those who hadn’t had their Katrina stories told on CNN took turns walking onstage to offer their perspectives.
The music was composed by Freilich, Wagner and Hartman, who divvied up the poems in an organic manner as each chose the ones that spoke to them. “We just picked them,” Hartman says. “If we liked it or if one needed to be done—that worked out well. That’s why Rob did a lot of them; he was interested. I liked the Molly’s one, so I grabbed that. And then, I came up with the FEMA check one while I was reading the poem and playing the piano to it. I came up with this silly setting and I thought it was hilarious. I was thinking, ‘If I could get Harry Shearer to do this, this’ll be hilarious.’”
Wagner approached the pieces as a compositional challenge, which made it easy to avoid the temptation to dramatize the already dramatic. “I think it would have been different if I was trying to write a piece, which I would have a hard time doing because I would probably think it was pompous in a way,” he says. To help tailor the songs to the situation, he incorporated found sounds in the recording. “In the fiddle one, we used hammers and staple guns. I know in one of Jonathan’s, he used palm leaves. We tried to get into some junk/trash sounds in there—metal and a bunch of stuff like that.”
Freilich wrote one of the first pieces, “Mother Quarter,” when NPR wanted to run a piece on Codrescu and the Maelstrom project. “I deliberated on how they should work a hell of a lot, what the levels of irony and meaning could be,” he says. “I formed ‘Mother Quarter’ in such a way that there are some musical jokes in some places where things take a regular format when he is talking about regularity. The other one I did with lyrics was “The Mold Song,’ where I used the two opera singers. It was supposed to sound fretting. If you read his poem, it sounds like a person who is going nuts over clearing the mold out of his house.”
With Codrescu’s blessing, the poems were occasionally altered to become better musical pieces. Hartman created a chorus where there was only the ghost of one in “FEMA Check,” but many of Wagner’s pieces are through composed and feel closer to oratorio than pop music.
“In setting the text to music, you didn’t want it to disappear,” Freilich says. “The poems are more like songs. Some of them have old forms, and because of the text, it sounds like oratorio. We didn’t convert them. When you sort out words and lyrics, ‘song’ is a general term.” He doesn’t deny that the results are theatrical, though. “The guys in the Klezmer band are older and more capable of dramatizing music. They are using many techniques—not only myself but also the others—that make things dramatic. It is theatrical because we’re using music to dramatize words that are there. Randy Newman’s songs are theatrical. Randy Newman, Dr. John, Tom Waits—they are infusing the words with the whole dramatic back of music that suits the whole mood rather than just the melody.”
Those expecting a klezmer album will be surprised, though. The instrumental interludes are more traditionally klezmer, but most of the CD isn’t—or it isn’t what you think of as klezmer, anyway. “Klezmer music over time is kind of a strange thing,” Hartman explains. “If you go back way back hundreds of years, it was more about the group of players than specifically the music that was being played. Historically, these were bands that roamed around Europe, and they played for celebrations—weddings, in the town square. They played this huge body of music. It could be anything from classical repertoire to traditional Jewish tunes to the folk songs of the area that they were in—whatever people wanted to hear, they would play it. They were just known to be really virtuosic, ripping bands. You never really even called the music klezmer; you called the musicians Klezmerim.”
Though Maelstrom circumvents many of the Katrina aesthetic challenges, it still has a therapeutic dimension. “There is a reason why in Greek art, song is considered the highest of art,” Freilich says. “It tends to encapsulate many things at once: history, therapy, entertainment.” Besides giving the members a project that would bind them together, it gave the band a chance to join to the public dialogue on Katrina. In Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ Chronicle of a Death Foretold, he writes of the townspeople “trying to give order to the chain of many chance events that [have] made absurdity possible, and it [is] obvious that [they aren’t] doing it from an urge to clear up mysteries but because none of [them can] go on living without an exact knowledge of the place and the mission assigned to [them] by fate.” Post-Katrina stories are all of version of this, an attempt to figure out our roles, and the voices of our community are central to Maelstrom. “I think the variety is because we were trying to represent all the variety of people,” Wagner says. “These people are putting a very narrow focus on who was affected and how they were affected, but some of these poems are dealing more with the psychological. I like that angle, though. I think it makes sense, and explains why the record is so White Album-ish.”
Should it be White Album-ish? Or theatrical? Another version of the central question is how should art reflect Katrina. This year doesn’t seem to have produced a What’s Going On or an After the Rain or a Requiem for Katrina, and maybe that’s as it should be. We can’t stay in a state of trauma forever. We can’t keep probing a wound to see if it still hurts; we have to let it heal.
Besides, all songs made in New Orleans are Katrina songs now. They’re all shaped one way or another by the storm, even the ones that choose to act like nothing happened. According to Codrescu, “We talk about Katrina as a founding event, something that is a point in our history where everything changed. We talk about before the war and after the war; we talk about before Katrina and after Katrina We talk about it as freshly wounded veterans, and we’re working on remaking ourselves.”
Maelstrom, which will be remixed, remastered, and released on its own later in September, exists in nebulous post-Katrina moment. Because its words were written in 2005, the album feels like it’s in a place where we’re not, reliving experiences we’ve relived, chewing on moments we’ve already digested. Because it’s from the past, though, it’s easier to now appreciate the Katrina song’s documentary value. Codrescu and the Klezmers are serving as historians, telling stories that might be left out of many official histories. “Looking back, the songs take on this testimonial weight that they didn’t have at the time,” Codrescu says.
But the Klezmer AllStars’ treatment of the material isn’t simply one of self-examination. They’ve returned to the site of the wound, but rather than relive the experience, they’ve staged it, sometimes as burlesque, sometimes existentialist drama, sometimes as modernist tragedy. That added perspective makes all the difference.
If he were making Katrina-related art from scratch in 2008, Jonathan Freilich admits it would likely be something darker. “It would be different because on the whole, people didn’t learn many lessons from the hurricane,” he says. “So it’s a lot of bellyaching for nothing. No one could escape themselves. The storm was the great changer, the great washer, but it was not. It would go more into the level of heavy satire because I feel that’s necessary.”
Just as living on the Gulf of Mexico has made us all amateur meteorologists, living through Katrina has given us a unique insight into our relationship to each other, to our city and to our government. We’ve since seen that a government that can abandon us and outsource our recovery can do the same to the victims of fire, ice and flooding around the country. The final question that knowledge raises is whether we have to talk about Katrina. Do we have an obligation as people who had the experience thrust upon us to speak out somehow. Codrescu thinks not—at least for himself. “What I feel is a little bit of annoyance because I have to deal so much with it,” he says. “I find myself being drawn constantly to that question—what happened? What’s going to happen to New Orleans? I have some screwy ideas, but I’m not an expert. Artists should be left alone to just muck around. We’re not experts. Most of the time we’re wrong.”