Blowin' as hard as they can

Jazz, funk, soul and rock'n'roll - they were all forged in New Orleans, the home of American music. And then came Hurricane Katrina. A year on, Andy Gill revisits the city to see if the floods and storms extinguished the Big Easy's musical fires
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The Independent Culture

It's not until we cross the Claiborne Bridge that the extent of the devastation really becomes clear. "Where I'm takin' you now is the CTC, 'Cross The Canal'," says DJ Chicken. "The canal is the part that flooded the Ninth Ward, that's where the levee broke."

DJ Chicken is one of the prime movers of New Orleans' bounce music scene, a particularly infectious type of Dirty South hip-hop which, like most of the R&B forms that have sprung from the area over the past five decades, has a rhythmic base peculiar to the city. It's nearly a year since Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, on 29 August 2005, and Chicken is showing us round its Ninth Ward, the black neighbourhood in which most of those musical developments first germinated, now just a wasteland of wrecked properties and muddy, silt-smeared roads. Even Fats Domino's two adjoining houses, the biggest and most substantial structures in the area, have suffered.

Fats was one of the few legendary New Orleans musical icons still living in the city when the storm broke. Irma Thomas was also around, and lost both her home and her club in the hurricane; but all the other famous R&B names, including Allen Toussaint, The Neville Brothers and Dr John, were already living elsewhere. And although all have been actively involved in fund-raising benefit shows elsewhere, there was no figurehead left for the city's musical scene to rally around in the aftermath of the disaster. And music has always been what New Orleans is about: universally acknowledged as the birthplace of jazz through the work of such as King Oliver, Jelly Roll Morton and Louis Armstrong (after whom the city's airport is named), it was also crucially involved in the development of rock'n'roll.

The city has long been famous for great piano stylists such as Tuts Washington, Professor Longhair, Dr John and Allen Toussaint, and in the 1960s, the latter's distinctive production style ensured that the local R&B of such as Lee Dorsey ("Ride Your Pony", "Working In The Coal Mine"), Chris Kenner ("Land Of 1000 Dances") and Ernie K-Doe ("Mother-In-Law") become a potent component of the international soul scene, with Toussaint's house band The Meters rivalling Memphis's Booker T & The MGs as the premier rhythmic unit in soul and funk. These days, there are no comparable stars in the city's music scene which - despite the best efforts of charities such as the Tipitina's Foundation, the New Orleans Musicians' Hurricane Relief Fund, MusiCares and the New Orleans Musicians' Clinic - is struggling to revive itself in the wake of the disaster.

"We didn't get a lot of wind damage, it was the water that did the damage here," explains DJ Chicken. "The hurricane was over, and then the water came. Eighty per cent of our city was under water. Under water, submerged. It was runnin' for a couple of days, then it just sat still for a couple more days, and that's what made it bad, 'cos it didn't drain right away. Every house you see around here was completely under water, you could not see the roofs. See all those empty lots? That's where houses were. A year later, there's just green grass."

He points out the holes punched through the roofs of the remaining houses. "You can see where people had to come through the roof to get out," he explains. "They'd climb up as the water rose, and eventually they'd have to break their way through the roof."

It's an extraordinary landscape. Most of the houses in this area were wooden structures, no match for the might of the unleashed Mississippi, which simply yanked many of them from their foundations and tore them apart. In places, there are just a few concrete steps left, leading up to blank lots. A few houses, the sturdier ones, stayed intact but were uprooted and floated to new locations. At one point, we encounter a truck, flipped on its roof, upon which one such transient building has come to rest. It's not just the houses that have been uprooted. The vast majority of people who used to live in the Ninth Ward have still not returned to the city after taking refuge in Baton Rouge, Houston, Austin, Atlanta, Memphis, and farther afield. DJ Chicken himself now lives in Dallas, returning to his hometown a few times a year. His old group, Da Rangaz, is now spread between New Orleans, Dallas and San Antonio, and as he says, it's hard to make music with your group when everybody's eight hours away from each other.

"My whole life as a DJ don't exist no more like it used to," says Chicken. "I used to deejay block parties, I used to set up my equipment on the corner here, and hundreds of people would come outside. I can't do that in Dallas without goin' to jail!"

The next day, we drive on out to East New Orleans, where Chicken had moved a few months before the hurricane. The houses out here are all brick-built, and suffered less structural damage, but the water took its toll here, too. Inside Chicken's house, the walls that he had just finished painting when the hurricane struck have all been torn out, to remove the mould that eats into their fabric. He admits he cried when he had to dump his ruined record collection on the street outside.

All down the street, there are Federal Emergency Management Agency (Fema) trailers parked in driveways, providing temporary homes whilst people renovate their premises. A Hummer drives slowly down the street, its National Guardsmen waving as they pass. There's more worth looting in this neighbourhood, so they're here as a deterrent. Others have their own methods: one hand-painted sign reads, "U-loot, U-get shot".

It's all pretty grim, though far from terminal. And for some, there are glimpses of a silver lining: one unforeseen benefit of the hurricane, for example, is the way it has forced insular local musicians to broaden their horizons and seek gigs elsewhere. Indeed, DJ Chicken himself has become a mainstay of a series of events in the UK called Southern Comfort Fat Tuesday ("fat tuesday" is a translation of the phrase "mardi gras" and the drink originates in New Orleans; I travelled with the events' organisers as they scouted the city for new talent).

"Katrina helped the bounce scene a lot," says Chicken with a sort of laidback missionary fervour. "Because when people left, they left with the music, the knowledge of bounce, and that's how it spread outside the Louisiana borders. It's no longer just a New Orleans thing: I'm playin' bounce music in Dallas, they playin' it in Houston, New York, Florida, California, all these people hearin' bounce music. All eyes on New Orleans now!"

According to Alex Rawls, associate editor of the New Orleans music magazine Offbeat, dispersal is a problem for all sectors of the city's music scene.

"Before the storm, the music scene here was as healthy as it's been in the past 20 years," he reckons. "There's always been a fairly strong funk and jazz scene, but the local indie-rock, underground scene was also in really good shape, with a lot of good bands. But what hurt across the board is the number of musicians who aren't back yet.

"When the clubs started reopening after the hurricane, a lot of the first gigs back were basically pick-up gigs featuring members of several different bands playing together. Now you've got a lot of people who are travelling in for gigs from Lafayette, Houston, Dallas and elsewhere. The Hot 8 Brass Band played a lot of gigs in the past year, but it's not always the same eight playing."

Indeed, the cover story of this month's Offbeat focuses on the tribulations of those groups, such as hot young brass band The Soul Rebels, who are trying to keep playing regularly in New Orleans despite having to commute from places such as Houston - a six-hour drive costing around $200 in fuel. The stress is clearly showing for the likes of tuba player Damien François, who reckons that "the city doesn't give a damn about musicians". He believes the city authorities should issue dispersed musicians with fuel cards to ease the expense of commuting. "They really need to consider the importance of the musicians in New Orleans, and try to work with them," he says.

But according to Alex Rawls, that's unlikely to happen. The authorities, on both a federal and local level, exhibit little interest in sustaining an ongoing music scene, apparently content to let the city become just a jazz heritage town.

"They see music entirely in terms of tourism," he says. "How you create it, and where the musicians come from, that part they're not so interested in. The problem is that the affected areas are where the brass bands come from, and the Mardi Gras Indians, and a lot of the hip-hop - the stuff that so much of New Orleans music is based on. And it's hard to see anyone official wanting that part to come back the way it was, because, no surprise, that's also the neighbourhoods that have crime problems."

The crunch time, he believes, will come in September, when the college kids return in larger numbers and give a more accurate impression of the city's revised population.

"Once you get into September, when school starts again, if people with families aren't back, they are probably putting down roots elsewhere." But he remains upbeat about the city's depleted music scene getting replenished. "It's the nature of bohemia that other people are gonna come here, they'll see how cheap it is to live here, how cool a place it is, and they'll stay."

If anyone epitomises the bohemian spirit of New Orleans, it's Quintron, who has also performed at Southern Comfort Fat Tuesday events. He bears scant comparison with any other artist, or even genre. A Hammond organ-playing one-man band who invents his own instruments (and whose performances are accompanied by his partner Miss Pussycat's puppet shows), he's like some freakish combination of Jimmy Smith, Raymond Scott, Moondog, Dr John and Harry Partch. And also, for the moment, Tommy Walsh, as he struggles to renovate The Spellcaster Lodge, his basement club just south of the Claiborne Bridge in the Ninth Ward.

"The room was gutted by the storm, and I've been working on renovating it for 10 months,' he explains. "We got some Fema money, but we don't have any insurance, so the majority of the money to fix the Spellcaster Lodge has come from musicians and friends from around the world."

Though he's an expert electrician, Quintron had to pick up hints on plumbing and carpentry from friends, family and the old guy who runs the hardware store up the road.

"This is a city of poor property-owners, because we have homestead exemption here," says Quintron. "If you own just one piece of property worth less than $70,000, you are exempt from property taxes. That's why the Lower Ninth Ward is not getting rebuilt, because a lot of those properties were purchased and passed down through poor families, so there were a huge number of poor homeowners who don't have insurance and can't afford to rebuild."

Quintron plays what he calls "swamp-tech" music, which he describes as "a combination of ghetto-tech and swamp-pop".

"My main instrument is a Hammond organ, I do basslines with a Fender Rhodes, and I've got drum-machines that I've built," he explains. "I play a hi-hat with one foot, and with the other I control a volume pedal and a wah-wah pedal that I'm constantly tuning my Rhodes with, and I sing at the same time, so it's a very chaotic thing."

Quintron's experimental enthusiasm and sheer determination in the face of incredible odds is enormously heartening, and as long as the likes of him remain active in the city's scene, New Orleans' musical future is assured. While I'm at the Spellcaster Lodge, Quintron's friend DJ Pasta drops by for a chat. A tall, gangly chap, Pasta has been deejaying since he was nine years old, moving from California's Silicon Valley to New Orleans five years ago because he knew he could live and work here on a shoestring budget.

"The night Katrina hit," he recalls, "I was supposed to be doing a big Mod Dance Party at the Circle Bar [the city's main bohemian hangout], then when we heard of the impending hurricane, we considered changing it to a Hurricane Party. I was on my way to the Circle Bar and the local radio station I was listening to went off the air. I thought, maybe this is not a good idea!"

After a few months in Memphis, Pasta returned to New Orleans to find his second-floor apartment untouched by the floods, although water damage to the block's foundations meant he had to relocate anyway, which was harder than it might seem.

"Apartment rents have increased since the storm," he reports. "Before, they were about $450 to $600 a month for a really nice pad; now, we're talking anywhere between $950 to $2000. So that's dissuading people from coming back, too."

Pasta has doubts about whether the city will retain its unique character in the face of the inevitable changes: "It's especially tough for independent businesses - what I'm noticing now is a lot of big chains moving in, which will hurt the local shops."

This, perhaps, may pose the greatest threat to New Orleans' distinctive identity. While most other American cities have succumbed to the creeping corporatism of the generic retail sector, New Orleans has managed to hold on better than most to its own peculiar local character.

Quintron, though, remains committed to the local principle. "I think it's really good when things are intensely local, when towns are more into themselves than they are into the rest of the world of pop culture," he says. "That's the problem I have with New York and LA: there's some good stuff comes out of there, but the main influence on bands from that culture is in getting famous. Whereas in towns like this, it's more of a backwater, so things are allowed to fester and develop creatively in a unique way. It's how village culture must have been a hundred years ago."

And ironically, if New Orleans music is to regain its former prominence on the national and international stage in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, it's imperative that it retains that village outlook, and remains outside of mainstream trends. After all, it didn't get to be the most important music city in the world by being the same as everywhere else. m

Southern Comfort Fat Tuesday will be at Indian Summer festival in Glasgow, 2 and 3 Sept, and Bestival on the Isle of Wight, 8 to 10 Sept. For more information: www.fattuesday.co.uk

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