Do you know what it means to miss New Orleans?
When I was 18, my friend Sean called and asked me to start a band with him, so we could enter a battle of the bands in which he’d been invited to participate. We won the contest – a fluke, perhaps – and figured maybe we’d keep going with this band we’d started. Over the next few years, we discovered American folk music together, and set off on a pretty hefty singer-songwriter bender. This was part of my influence for moving far away from my tiny little hometown – a trajectory which eventually landed me in New Orleans in 2002.
Three years later, I was living in Seattle, on vacation with my girlfriend in Victoria, B.C., for Labor Day weekend, when my phone rang. On the other end was a friend with whom I used to be close, but was, at that point, hardly in the habit of calling on the phone. I let it go to voicemail, because I was in international cell phone roaming territory, and assumed she was calling just to catch up. Curiosity got the best of me, though, and I finally caved and checked my voicemail.
Sean was in New Orleans for the week. Nobody had heard from him. Hurricane Katrina had come through, mass devastation was predicted. I turned on CNN in my hotel room and watched as cameras discovered the crowds at the convention center, as the nation wondered if and when the president – or, for that matter, any assistance at all – would arrive.
There was a city I’d lived in for nine months, drowning. Faces I didn’t recognize, but which I just as well could have passed a number of times while I was walking down Frenchman St. or St. Claude, curled against the noise of helicopters and the fear of being left for dead, making camp on the roofs of their homes.
Sean was fine – he spent five days in the hotel, and had to stand guard to protect their food supply with an ax and a flare gun. He pulled out his guitar and helped keep things light by playing music for the folks with whom he was stowed away. (Check out the Houston Chronicle article about the group who survived that week in the hotel.) Together, he and his fellow hotel residents survived, albeit with a stirring cache of heartbreaking stories about their week. But nearly 2,000 people died that week, as 80 percent of the city flooded. A city which – since its founding a few hundred years ago – has survived two massive city-wide fires, a couple battles, pirates, disease, and countless other disasters. It’s a resilient city, no doubt, but that doesn’t erase the human, cultural, and environmental cost of this event.
It’s been five years since that atrocity went down, and parts of the city have yet to recover at all. There’s still devastation, neighborhoods once thriving with music and food and life still lay in ruins. As the rest of the nation has moved on to other news stories and imaginary scandals (“Ground Zero mosque,” which is neither at Ground Zero, nor a mosque, for example), New Orleans is still living the day-to-day in constant recovery, battling the still-all-too-real trauma of that week a half-decade ago. And, it’s also now dealing with the economic fallout of this year’s tragic oil spill, to boot.
Music is the thing which most fuels New Orleans. That’s not an exaggeration. It’s a city of musicians. Everything – from the food to the industry to the schools and shops – is operated, moved, and influenced by the music made in that town. Music oozes from every door and window, from every porch and backyard – it adds something to everyday life which cannot be communicated to anyone who hasn’t lived among the music for a time. It’s the music more than anything else which makes New Orleans a constant living celebration.
As we mark the fifth anniversary of Katrina’s landfall on the Gulf Coast, there are a few ways that you can help support the music and musicians of New Orleans and its neighbors. You can give to the Tipitina’s Foundation – a group to which I’ve been giving my money since the flood occurred. Tipitina’s is an historical club uptown, with a stage that’s been graced by everyone who’s anyone in NOLA music. It’s also an organization which provides band instruments to school children and, after Katrina, expanded its reach to help musicians in the city replace their destroyed instruments, among other things.
There’s also the legendary Preservation Hall, which houses one of the city’s reliably finest jazz bands. In addition to its performances in the historic Preservation Hall performance space, there’s the Preservation Hall Music Outreach Program, which teaches students between the ages of 9 and 15, bringing music to the lives of the city’s children.
Now there’s a benefit album available to help the Preservation Hall Music Outreach Program, featuring some of the best artists in American music. To quote a press release from Stache Media:
An album to benefit Preservation Hall and the Preservation Hall Music Outreach program was conceived by independent music distributor RED along with the MRI label group. With the proceeds from this album, RED and MRI have helped to restore and preserve the Preservation Hall venue in New Orleans, and have made it possible for the Preservation Hall Music Outreach Program to continue. The album is a warm and joyous celebration of New Orleans music, featuring over 20 of music’s most exciting artists, all performing with the Preservation Hall Jazz Band. The artists appearing on this project are Andrew Bird, Terence Blanchard, Pete Seeger, Dr. John, The Blind Boys of Alabama, Brandi Carlile, Cory Chisel, Ani DiFranco, Steve Earle, Merle Haggard, Richie Havens, Jason Isbell, Jim James, Angelique Kidjo, Amy LaVere, Anita Briem, Del McCoury, Buddy Miller, Paolo Nutini and Tom Waits.
A charity called The Gulf Relief Foundation has also formed to give relief to citizens affected by the oil spill. Among it’s charitable efforts is the distribution of “It Ain’t My Fault”, a song recorded at the Preservation Hall venue and credited to the Gulf Aid All-Stars, a collective that includes The Preservation Hall Jazz Band
along with New Orleans-based horn player Trombone Shorty, Oscar-winning actor/musician Tim Robbins, rapper/actor/musician Mos Def and Grammy-winning musician Lenny Kravitz. All proceeds from the download of this song on iTunes go directly to the Gulf Relief Foundation, and as a bonus, Gulf Aid is allowing fans and aspiring musicians to remix the song. If you go to the Gulf Aid Remix Site, you can grab the stems from “It Ain’t My Fault” and rework it however you’d like.You can go back to the site and upload your work once it’s finished, and fans will be able to vote on which remix is their favorite.