New Orleans: The Human Parts of the Equation

With two thirds of New Orleans' musicians still living in temporary housing scattered around the country, what will happen to their musical tradition? I'm optimistic, actually.
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Before I visited New Orleans last year, my understanding of the situation there was broadly political and pretty detached, as I assume it is for most non-Crescent City folk. Mr. Shearer's laudable posts on this site sum up many of the general themes we've come to know and be enraged by: there was nothing "natural" about the disaster, it was a grievous failure of civil engineering; the federal government's response has been a big yawn (and some poisoned trailers); the corruption and dysfunction of the local government would make the Mafia blush; and after a year or two of repeating the chorus "Yup, still fucked," the mainstream media has mostly moved on.

But after spending some time in NO last year for Future of Music Coalition meetings, I came to realize that from my safe distance I had looked past some of the most obvious, human parts of the equation.

First, there's the question of what exactly it is that's been destroyed, what it is that everyone's fighting to salvage. We are shamed and horrified by lots of sad stories about individuals, or sad statistics that paint a sad broader story, but for me the gaping senselessness of it didn't really hit home until I stood there in the middle of it. What's at stake is more than the staggering sum of individual tragedies, it's a whole culture. We are in danger of losing one of America's last truly unique, bizarre, and wonderful engines of food, music, writing, people, and ideas. The displacement of all those people doesn't just shift statistics from the Wal-Mart footprints in Louisiana to new ones in Georgia or Texas, it dismantles a world that has long kept alive beautiful things that simply don't exist anywhere else in America.

Since I'm a musician, what stands out most is the city's relationship to its music. When I arrived there last year, I'd been on a tour promoting our last album for 500 shows in a row, all over the country. I was burned out and felt I knew all I needed to about America's deal with music. It's the same everywhere: music spreads through video games, commercial radio, TV commercials, and the internet, and people listen to it in their private headphone bubbles on the bus, or maybe on their car stereo, each person a node on the big homogeneous consumption network, a lifeless machine shuffling commodities around.

Not in New Orleans. They've got second line parades. On most Sunday afternoons you'll find hundreds or thousands of people gathered somewhere in the city to march through the streets with tubas and trumpets, drums, bottles, pots and pans, and rolling coolers of food and drink. They parade for the sake of parading, to dance and sing and celebrate and be together. 10-year-old kids blow trombones bigger than they are, right along side their heroes from The Rebirth Brass Band or the Dirty Dozen. Music, pageantry, and absurdity are alive, and it is truly unlike anything that happens elsewhere.

But with two thirds of New Orleans' musicians still living in temporary housing scattered around the country, what will happen to this tradition? Will kids still grow up learning funk on the Sousaphone, or will they fall in with the rest of their generation and take up Guitar Hero™?

I'm optimistic, actually. Which brings me to the second point I had missed from a distance and was then smacked with when I got to NO: despite the dismal failures we all know about, there are still reasons for hope, and we can't collectively fall into the trap of throwing our hands up and walking away.

There are good people doing good things in New Orleans, and they're making a difference. An organization called Sweet Home New Orleans, for example, are specifically addressing the issue I'm talking about, keeping New Orleans' cultural heritage alive by repatriating the city's musicians and culture bearers. Through financial counseling services and rental, relocation, and renovation assistance, SHNO has made it possible for several hundred of the city's musicians, second-line dancers, and Mardi Gras Indians to return home and begin rebuilding the city's culture along with its buildings. Check them out, and consider donating. Their goal for this year is to stabilize 500 more individuals and they could use your help.

Or if you're a cheap-ass and you've only got 4 bucks for the cause, consider buying this record. My band OK Go collaborated with the New Orleans brass rock band Bonerama (as in TROMbone), and on Mardi Gras we released "You're Not Alone," a 5-song iTunes EP. 100% of the proceeds from the record (and from the two release parties we hosted) are being donated to SNHO and the fund for Al "Carnival Time" Johnson, one of the godfathers of New Orleans soul music, whose Lower 9th Ward house was washed off its foundation and later destroyed by the city without his knowledge or permission.

New Orleans has big problems and it'll take big bucks to fix them. The small-scale successes of good people like SHNO will not undo the failures of the Army Corps of Engineers or the Bush administration, but they're a great reminder to the rest of us that we must keep our attention on New Orleans not just to rage at the high-level inaction, but to support the hope that remains on the ground and the brave few who are nurturing it.

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