John Kelly

This piece was written when Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in August 2005. I had just been there and would later return to see the devastation for myself.

But here is a piece which reflected how I felt as the news came through from the Crescent City. It’s not very polished. Hurried, scattered but heartfelt.

In Bob Dylan’s book Chronicles, he talks with a poet’s precision about the magic of New Orleans. He describes it as a place where there is something joyful behind every door. Either that, he says, or somebody with their head in their hands. The atmosphere, he continues, “pulsates with bygone duels, past-life romance, comrades requesting comrades to aid them in some way. You can’t see it, but you know it’s there.” After what has just happened to (or been inflicted upon) New Orleans, one can only wonder how something as elusive as this magic can possibly survive.

And indeed there was magic in New Orleans. I have felt in myself. And even if you have never been there, you’ll have experienced that magic even so. Every music fan has been in New Orleans (one way or another) many times - in the flesh or in the imagination. You might still be in your home in Ireland but be it Louis Armstrong or The Funky Meters, the music of New Orleans unleashes that magic every time. Anyone with a functioning soul responds to it. It’s America’s greatest contribution to the world.

And then if you actually got to New Orleans, on a sort of decadent pilgrimage, you found a city which really did live up to its billing. It had teased and seduced you for years and then it actually delivered – good times, good food, good music – and a people who have just been decimated, grossly insulted and appallingly treated in front of an astonished world.

It jars to have slipped so easily into the past tense, but it’s hard to avoid with such definitive statements emerging on the city’s near total destruction. It’s as if we’re talking about Pompeii, or the lost city of Atlantis and in our hearts, those who love the place are in a defeated, helpless, rage. For all the talk of rebuilding a Newer Orleans, everyone knows that you cannot replace the irreplaceable – especially when you know that corporate America is already looking at an almost blank canvas. The French Quarter may have survived but the thought of it becoming a theme park is shocking. The thought of the people of New Orleans remaining as a scattered diaspora with no route back is more shocking again.

It may be inappropriate to dwell on the music at a time when thousands are dead and thousands more are destitute and displaced, but the fate of the musicians will be central to any possible future for New Orleans as we knew it. Much of the music we love has its roots in there – to be precise in the people we saw stranded on the flyovers. Their ancestors were slaves in a city which for its first forty six years was French, for its next thirty six was Spanish, was taken back by the Napoleon in 1800 and then sold to the United States in the Louisiana Purchase. It made the city unique – A Latin/Catholic territory in a predominantly Anglo/Protestant country.

It has often been noted that while Anglo slave owners stamped out African religious practices, Catholic slave owners (Spanish and French) let them get on with it as long as it didn’t interfere with production. And so while drums – the very instruments of prayer for West Africans- were banned in places like Mississippi, drumming and vodun flourished in New Orleans. It even survived the Louisiana Purchase and Sunday dances made Congo Square the spot for jazz began. To cut a very long story short – mix the music of West African vodun with that of French military bands and you’ve got early jazz.

Congo Square seems to have survived the flood. The adjacent Louis Armstrong Park – the intended site for the New Orleans Jazz National Historical Park - is partially flooded.  But far more worrying is the fate of neighbourhoods where the music has survived as a very essential local thing.  The Treme district and the Lower Ninth Ward have been destroyed and these are the sorts of places where you’d find the jazz funerals and the brass bands. There are about sixty or so societies in New Orleans known as Social Aid and Pleasure Clubs (a sort of funky Orange Order complete with umbrellas and sashes) and they each hold an annual parade. Telling a second line club from a walking club from a Mardi Gras Krewe is a touch technical but it’s always a sight to see. I once watched a full second line parade pass down Royal on the day the current Mayor Ray Nagin was sworn in. It was a parade which also featured, among others, the Treme Brass Band, the Olympia Brass Band, the Storyville Stompers, the Original Thunderstorm Brass Band with the Dumaine Gang, the Divine Ladies and the Dumaine Ladies, New Orleans Irish Pipe Band and the Mardi Gras Indians. It was that kind of town.

So what will become of the great musical people of New Orleans? In many cases they have lost their homes, lost their instruments and their uniforms. They are already scattered to the neighbouring states and they may never come back. The Mardi Gras Indians in their spectacular feathered costumes. The spy-boys, flag-boys and Big Chiefs. What about Bo Dollis and the Wild Magnolias? Monk Boudreax and the Golden Eagles? The Wild Tchoupitoulas? Those who have survived are scattered, their head-dresses lost in the toxic flood. National and international stars will survive this in some way, and so will their music, but at a local level an entire culture may be gone.

For much of last week I have been listening to WWOZ radio, now broadcasting in exile from Lafayette. They publish a list of musicians who have survived – at the time of writing Frankie Ford and Clarence “Frogman” Henry are the best known of those still unaccounted for. At one stage Fats Domino, Alex Chilton and Allen Toussaint were all missing. I was e-mailing friends and acquaintances for news. Irma Thomas was OK. The Nevilles were alright but there were rumours of bodies floating outside Aaron Neville’s house, Allen Toussaint was supposed to be in that hellish stadium, Gatemouth Brown had suffered a heart attack and there was a photograph of his guitar case in the debris of what was left of his home in Slidell. The scenes were unthinkable. Someone fleeing the city saw an alligator eating a corpse.

The New Orleans born writer Anne Rice who used to live in a stunning house in the Garden District let loose in the New York Times. “During this crisis you failed us. You looked down on us; you dismissed our victims; you dismissed us. You want our Jazz Fest, you want our Mardi Gras, you want our cooking and our music. Then when you saw us in real trouble, when you saw a tiny minority preying on the weak among us, you called us “Sin City” and turned your backs.” In that she nailed it. New Orleans for all its faults (notably its poverty and its violence) was the most exotic, most atmospheric and most magical of places. And yet in its time of need the first response appeared to be no more than an instruction to execute looters. It would have taken a very twisted mind to dream up what happened in recent days. But it did. And we watched it on television in sheer disbelief.

In Chronicles Bob Dylan talks about going to The Lions Den in Gravier Street, a club owned by Irma Thomas – the Soul Queen of New Orleans. He was thinking of asking her to sing on a track with him but she wasn’t there that night. I was luckier than Bob. I got to hear her sing “Its Raining in My Heart” and “Time is on My Side”. I ate the red beans and rice she had cooked herself and left at the back of the room for anybody who was hungry. The next day I sat in her front room and she laughed and told me that Mick Jagger couldn’t sing back then and he couldn’t sing now. I offered to be her gardener. She is now in Baton Rouge, a Queen in exile. Her club and her home are gone.

© John Kelly

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