For two weeks the news from the 2006 New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival (Jazzfest) sounded hopeful. The Festival folks and the city as a whole tried to put on a smiley-face for the tourists. Good-intentioned big names like Bruce Springsteen and Bob Dylan, Dave Matthews were the focus. What has been missing from the Jazzfest coverage Jazzfest is the anger and the sorrow expressed by many of the local musicians who performed.
Also missing are about 200,000 residents of New Orleans who are still spread out all over America. Some estimate more. An overwhelming percentage of them are African-Americans. An Associated Press story estimated 150,000 in Houston alone. That's larger than many familiar American cities. The 2000 U.S. Census tells us that the population of New Orleans was close to 485,000 with 67.5% of those African-Americans.
The essence of New Orleans culture and the wellspring of American music begins at Congo Square where slaves were allowed to drum and dance on Sundays. The blues was born in that context. The combination of the healing joy of music and the expression of the misery of conditions under which the slaves lived continues to this day.
New Orleans culture doesn't get any deeper than the Second Line. Not only a part of funerals but of everyday life in New Orleans, especially for African-Americans. The Social and Pleasure Clubs and brass bands and Mardi Gras Indians who made the street parade a way of life have been a large part of the diaspora of the flood of 2005. Diaspora is a word I heard many times during the second weekend of the festival. It means a dispersion of a people from their original homeland. The word originally referred to the dispersion of Jews outside of Israel during the sixth century B.C., when they were exiled to Babylonia.
Some people go to Jazzfest to hear the mainstream performers. The festival promoters bring them in to attract affluent white folks who love the food and much of the flavor of the festival, but want most of their entertainment white. In recent years the promoters added jam-bands to attract younger audiences.
But the soul of the festival has always been the local musicians. Big Chief Monk Boudreau of the Golden Eagles Mardi Gras Indians was scheduled for a mid-afternoon set on Friday of the second weekend. New Orleans music magazine "Offbeat" describes Monk as, "One of the great voices in the Mardi Gras Indian tradition, Big Chief Monk Boudreaux tells the history in song. Post Katrina, this kind man with a warm smile spearheaded getting Indians feathers and plumes for their new suits."
Donations to fund the suits rolled in from organizations and individuals such as Wynton Marsalis, Ed Bradley and Harry Shearer. Coordinating the effort with Monk was Quint Davis, who is Jazzfest's director. After they found "plumes" from all over the country, they stored them in a building in New Orleans which was hit by a tornado.
Davis was quoted in The Times-Picayune, New Orleans daily paper, "'Monk and I were dying, dying, I tell you,' Davis said. 'Out of all the streets, all the buildings in New Orleans, here where the plums are, a tornado pops up. I tell you, though, when I heard the boxes were safe, I knew it was meant to be. Monk and I knew that this tradition is supposed to be kept alive.'"
Big Chief Monk Boudreax does not usually bring politics or social commentary into his music. The Mardi Gras Indian chants are all about what happens on Mardi Gras day and how they're going to win confrontations with other tribes. He can go on for twenty minutes chanting "Donkey Got Water."
But at the end of his set he unleashed all of the anger and all of the sorrow inside of him. With an all-star band backing him, chanting "You've got to save our city tonight," Monk began half-singing half-chanting about the state of things and how he feels about them.
He said it made a grown man cry. He mourned the dead. He mourned the absence of the evacuees. He thundered at the fate of his city and the politicians who have not done nearly enough. It was the centerpiece of Jazzfest.
Later that day Big Chief Victor Harris of the Fi Yi Yi and Mandingo Warriors Mardi Gras Indians performed on one of the stages. He was dressed in bright green feathers and surrounded by his tribe, some of whom had been flown in from other parts of the country. It was another transforming moment.
This is from Steve Hochman's account on Blogging New Orleans http://www.bloggingneworleans.com/2006/05/05/urban-renewal/ :
"No wind, no rain, no storm can stop Fi Yi Yi from coming home," he said, encased in the stunning green suit he'd sewn by hand, as he had for his kids as well, in the six months between Katrina and Mardi Gras (the Indians usually start work on each year's new suit the day after Mardi Gras; the ones he'd been working on were destroyed in the flood).
As one of his associates chanted, "From Mandingo out to Houston, from Mandingo out to Atlanta . . . the drums are calling all of the people to come home," the Big Chief took up the cry:
"Calling all the people to come back home, New Orleans is where you belong. They took my people away from home. I'm still waiting on my mother, my sister, my brother to come back home."
He had to step back from the mic. He was crying. He walked around the stage trying to compose himself. Hochman picks it up:
"Shame on our representatives. Shame on our officials. Shame on all of them. They say they only want good people back. All people are good people.
"Listen to the drums.
'Listen to the drums
"I am not afraid."
In the audience, people cried along with him, as they had during Boudreax's last song.
There is anger and sorrow everywhere, both in New Orleans and among its evacuees. At the head of the list of critics is Cyril Neville, a member of New Orleans first family of music, now living in Austin, Texas. He refused to come home for Jazzfest. He was quoted by Robert Gabriel in an Austin Chronicle story:
"What happened during Katrina was not an evacuation as much as a roundup and a forced displacement," insists Neville. "It was the height of arrogance, greed, conceit, and disdain for a people who you think are less human than you. As that wind blew through New Orleans and that forced migration took place, that was the end, or at least a lot of people want it to be the end, of African-American political power in New Orleans.
"Why it's considered such a stretch for anyone to connect the dots between a boldfaced legacy of oppression and gentrification of black neighborhoods in New Orleans and the marginalization of poor blacks post-Katrina defies common sense. Life in the Big Easy has always been dictated by barriers between white and black. It's no secret that the economic disparity between the two communities serve as a study in violent inequality. Of course, rich whites have been eagerly debilitating poor blacks in New Orleans like a favored pastime. Ku Klux Klan sympathizer David Duke almost became governor of Louisiana only 16 years ago. To anyone paying any attention, no degree of racism in New Orleans should be considered surprising under any circumstance.
"The carving of New Orleans wards for political and economic gain is something that goes back at least to the Forties," says Neville. "At one point, Claiborne Avenue was one of the richest African-American thoroughfares in the United States. So they put the Claiborne overpass through it. There were two rows of oak trees where you could walk in the rain and not get wet on Claiborne Avenue. People picnicked there, people had birthday parties, christening parties. Every carnival, that's where the Mardi Gras Indians would make a straight shoot from uptown all the way downtown and back. Naturally, they tore down all the trees, put an overpass through there, and killed that entrepreneurial area of the city.
"That's the other point that a lot of people missed in what I was saying. It's hard to put into words what it was like on a day-to-day basis living in New Orleans as an African-American, because it's a proven fact in this country that no matter how high you climb up the social ladder or how many degrees and how many letters you have behind your name, if you're black, you're black, and regardless of what you think of yourself, you can get broke down right quick. You could be on your way home from a great meeting - you just did a great thing for your company and everybody is happy. You're in your Porsche on top of the world and then you get pulled over and called the big N and brought back to reality of where you are and who you are to the society that you're coming up in.
"A lot of those people that we saw in the Dome and at the Convention Center had been written off a long time before Katrina. A couple weeks before the storm hit, the oldest masking Mardi Gras Indian, Big Chief Tootie Montana, died at a meeting at the New Orleans City Council protesting how the chief of police and the city itself had been treating our culture, which since 1841 had been happening out in the streets from neighborhood to neighborhood."
"The powers-that-be only want a certain element back as far as black people are concerned," maintains Neville. "But the spirit of New Orleans is African and it ain't going anywhere. I guarantee any convention they have in that Convention Center and anything they have in that Dome will be haunted. People already don't understand that the Dome was built on top of a whole neighborhood. They've got a whole African-American cemetery underneath that Dome. Louis Armstrong's house was taken to the dump, chopped into pieces, and set on fire and a new parish prison was built on where he grew up."
Of course, there is also a spirit of rebuilding among those who have been able to come home. On the Tuesday that the flood hit, I was in Portland, Oregon but my heart was in New Orleans. I went to hear Reggie Houston play that night. Reggie held the baritone sax chair in Fats Domino's band for twenty years. He also co-led Charmaine Neville's band during that time. Reggie had moved to Portland in 2004, and missed the flood.
The next morning in an op-ed piece for The Oregonian, Portland's daily paper, I wrote:
At the bandstand, Reggie played with a greater intensity than usual. At the other end of the room, the endless loops of devastation played on CNN. Reggie provided the soundtrack. The juxtaposition of the classic "Junko Partner," the raucous brass band tune, "It Ain't My Fault" with a ruined New Orleans was uplifting and heartbreaking all at the same time.
The traditional jazz funeral in New Orleans consists of a walking dirge, a memorial, and then a joyous second-line parade afterward. Reggie knows this, it is in his blood.
We're in the dirge right now. Images flash. Proposing marriage to my wife over dinner. Sitting in Buster Holmes greasy spoon in 1979, tasting real red beans and rice for the first time as The Meters played on the jukebox. Shooting a TV story on the streetcar. Buying hats at Meyer The Hatter on St. Charles St. A Neville Brothers Christmas concert at Tipitina's. Losing my shoes at The Columns Hotel. The delirium of musical overload at Jazzfest.
As The Meters' song says, "if you've ever been there, then you know what I mean."
I told my wife that if I die before she does, I want my ashes to be spread on Congo Square in New Orleans. Congo Square is the place where the slaves were allowed to dance and make music. It is said to be the only place in America where this was the case. It is also said that from that place American music sprung.
Some day, Congo Square will again be a destination for the living and the dead. The spirit of New Orleans will win this battle. Reggie showed me that Tuesday night.
On Sunday at the Festival, I was sitting in a tent eating some crawfish monica when I heard the unmistakable sound of a brass band. I dropped everything because I saw Reggie Houston marching and playing with the Storyville Stompers, led by a Social Aid and Pleasure Club, and followed by second-liners. I got in line. The spirit was there. Later, I found out that the Festival had flown in many of the members of the Social Aid and Pleasure Clubs for the Festival.
This was a good thing. The reunions were joyful and heartbreaking. But it also made it look like things were normal. Thanks aren't normal. Of course, New Orleans is a pimp. They're even charging tourists to ride Grey Line tours through the devastation.
Later that night, Reggie invited us to "Bullet's," a little club in the 7th Ward, in Gentilly, a neighborhood in which the water covered the rooftops. The club had been a haven for survivors because it had a second floor. During the aftermath, Rollin "Little Bullet" Garcia, Jr. stayed there, gun in hand to protect his place.
He rebuilt it. In that little place, surrounded by street after street of empty houses, by FEMA trailers, by darkness and misery, Reggie and his "pardners" rocked the house. One hundred percent Black except for me, my wife and two friends, people danced, they sang and in that moment the true spirit of New Orleans was alive.
Trymaine Lee, in The Times-Picayune, wrote about Bulllet's:
"This here is therapeutic," Little Bullet said of his bar late last week, as he poured a beer for a customer. "The history's here. Ray Charles played here once. So did Roy Brown and other local artists. They (regulars) step through these doors and besides a little paint, nothing much has changed.
"Some days are harder than others, he said. One customer broke down crying recently. He said he wanted to die, the memories of Katrina were too tough to deal with. The hole it carved into his life was too deep for him to climb out of.
"I just cooked up a bowl of gumbo and shot the (breeze) with him, and it's like nothing ever changed," bar owner said. "If I can give them that then he knows he ain't in this alone. That none of us are in this alone."
"We do this so everybody can have something," said Cecilia Garcia, Little Bullet's wife. "These men have lost their homes. Some of them lost their wives. Coming here gives them something to hold onto."
There is spirit enough to rebuild this broken city, but it can never be truly rebuilt until its children come home. Until that happens, it can be built, but never rebuilt.
Just don't mistake the attempts at attracting tourists for the real feelings on the ground. The hurt, the anger and the sorrow will take as much time to heal as the ruined buildings. More, I think.
The theme of the festival was "The Healing Power of Music." In that way, the Festival was really for the folks in New Orleans, to show themselves they could, in some fashion, be like they were before the flood. In that, it was a success.
The end of this story is far from over.