At 6:10 am, August 29, 2005, the music stopped in the Big Easy. Category 3 Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans. The levees broke. New Orleans was drowning. Katrina scattered 4500 of New Orleans’ musicians like a shotgun blast across the US. Today, more than 75% of those musicians are back home.
New Orleans’ music is on!
Once the water receded, the survival of the of New Orleans’ music culture was in question because music has always fueled the New Orleans hospitality and tourist industry.
Sweet Home New Orleans, which merged with Renew Our Music Fund in 2008 to create a one-stop service center for New Orleans’ music and cultural community, set out to advocate for the musicians, bring them home and revive neighborhood music so important to the New Orleans music genre. Sweet Home streamlined the aid application process, assisted musicians by helping with their rent or mortgage payments and subsidized gigs at venues.
Every Thursday night at Banks Street Pub, SHNO sponsors the headliner. John T. Lewis and the Blues Movement recently performed at the pub.
I caught up with John T. a few days later. “After Katrina hit, I spent the first night in the attic of my house. The next day I managed to get to Monroe, connected with some other musicians and got some gigs. I was lucky.”
Click here to hear John T. Lewis’ music.
The November after Katrina hit, John T. returned to New Orleans, but half of his band members were gone, never to return. His Traditional R&B remains the same, but he’s different.
He recalled how the disaster affected him, “My outlook has changed. The houses are gone, family and friends are gone. But, I’m a better musician. I concentrate on making the music right.” He stopped to find the right words, “I can control the music. I can’t control nature. Knowing this has made life easier, less stressful.”
At the Thursday show, a lady approached him to do a gig in Lafayette. Al “Carnival Time” Johnson was in the audience to listen and support. The work of SHNO helped make this happen.
For others like Steve Royal there is no return. After Katrina, Steve fled to Austin, the Indie music capital of the U.S.
A few nights ago he was performing at a Sixth Street bar. During break he told me his story: “I felt like a refugee, disconnected…in a fog. I had no support. No friends, no family and no money. The only thing I had was my music. I even got back to New Orleans a few years ago. But, there wasn’t anything there for me any more.”
Austin has a variety of sounds, styles and genres, but different than the New Orleans two rhythm beat. “At first, I couldn’t get the beat. Finally, I started to feel the rhythm.” Steve misses New Orleans, the neighborhood and, of course, the music he made with his band. “Katrina changed everything,” he sighed, “it’s different. but I guess I’m here to stay.”
Change is something Sweet Home New Orleans understands. The leaders of Sweet Home believe that bringing back the musicians, giving them the opportunity to thrive will build a better New Orleans music scene.
New Orleans music is back. Now, it’s time for us to pay NO a visit to enjoy the food, the party and, of course, the roar of that incomparable music.
As they say in New Orleans, laissez les bon temps roulez, let’s [keep] the good times rolling.