"It Was A Big 'Fuck You' to Katrina": New Orleans' Musicians Play On
Ten years after Katrina ravaged the homes of many of New Orleans' most celebrated musicians, the jazz and blues play on.
All photos by Joseph Crachiola, photographer and local musician
The boat wouldn't start and Lewis Bremont's father was struggling to come back to the house, waist deep into the rising water. Without a working car to flee the city along with the other million New Orleanians who had followed Mayor Ray Nagin's mandatory evacuation order, the Bremonts had decided to stay in the city and ride out the storm. They had waited for buses to pick them up and bring them to the Superdome where people were being sheltered. The buses never came.
Like the rest of the 100,000 who decided not to evacuate, the Bremonts had first shrugged off the severity of the situation. A Category 3 hurricane was nothing new to them and they were still irritated by the costly and pointless evacuation they had gone through the year before when Hurricane Ivan missed the metropolis. "Usually storms in New Orleans mean party time! It's only when we saw the river flowing in reverse on TV that we knew it would be serious," Bremont, a sound engineer who was 16 when Katrina hit New Orleans, told VICE. "In the end the storm was not that bad. The problem turned out to be the levees."
As the Industrial Canal surged into the Ninth Ward—a low-lying, poor, and mainly African-American neighborhood—water began moving entire buildings, destroying the weakest structures and trapping people inside the sturdiest. "About six, seven feet of water all around," recalled Bremont. "The boat we had been trying to get on was out of gas. Swimming was out of the question so we just waited for help in the attic."
A Blackhawk helicopter from the National Guard eventually spotted them on the roof of their house, more than 24 hours after the hurricane had receded, and a small dinghy soon came to rescue them. "Everything we had fit in a single backpack. My trumpet? My daddy's drums? Our family pictures? Gone."
Also gone were the weekend gumbos, the St. Bernard Avenue barbecues, and the second-line parades in the Calliope projects.
For the Bremonts, a family of musicians who had lived in New Orleans for generations and had been actively participating in the local culture, seeing roofs emerging from the glassy street-rivers and navigating through submerged cars and dead bodies felt like witnessing the end of the world.
We were singing gospel. It meant the world was still here. We were alive. And our music, man, it was a big "fuck you" to Katrina.
Inside the Superdome, the crowd was overwhelming. Distraught survivors were gulping MREs, fighting at vending machines, and desperately calling out the names of their loved ones. "We was packed like animals," Bremont told VICE. "People talked of women getting raped in the bathrooms. The toilets were backed-up anyway, so people were relieving themselves in buckets. The smell was terrible." The family was brought to the basketball arena for their safety, where they stayed with the sick and elderly. The military were concerned that a generator failure would lead to a riot, should the camp be plunged into darkness. "It was bad. Real bad."
Twenty-thousand refugees were sharing the space. Soldiers began sending incomers wading back to the convention center as the inside of the stadium became an apocalyptic scene, with addicts smoking crack in the corridors and dying of overdose, people passing out from heat exhaustion. One man jumped to his deaths from the balcony as gunshots echoed through the night.
Looting was rampant. "Army rations weren't enough. Things were fucked-up and nobody knew what was happening. Everyone was tired and hungry. A lot of good people did crazy things during those days," Bremont said. Bremont and his father helped distribute basic supplies like bottled water and diapers that scavengers had smuggled from drug stores and hospitals.
On their last day at the Superdome, Bremont and his father recognized a group of musicians they had played with once at a wedding. They talked together, and after a while, they began singing "I'll Fly Away" in deep, bluesy voices. The lyrics resonated in the flooded streets. Refugees soon gathered around them and the blank stares from the last days changed into vivid looks as they clapped and sang along. "It was then that I understood," said Bremont. "I had heard that song before, but this was the moment I understood where it came from and what it meant. The music I had been playing with my father, it all made sense. We were singing gospel, it meant the world was still here. We were alive. And our music, man, it was a big fuck you to Katrina."
Jazz was born from funerals. Created by slaves mixing African and European music in Congo Square in 1835, it expanded through dirges played by brass bands to celebrate the lives of deceased community members. While the rest of 19th century America enjoyed military hymns, New Orleans was coming up with music burials, a tradition that would become the basis for second-line parades and incubate the roots of contemporary music.
Second lines are a way of life in New Orleans. Consisting of a marching band followed by people dancing to jubilant harmonies, they are strongly tied to the city's history. Their provocative sense of freedom generated, among other things, the permission for slaves to keep drumming amid a minority of white settlers and the creation of social aid for destitute African Americans.
But after Katrina, with 80 percent of the population evacuated and 134,000 housing units damaged by the storm, jazz and second lines were distant memories drowned in pools of muddy water. The city was a ghost of itself.
Texas and Georgia were full of New Orleanian refugees forced to relocate in neighboring states and cities. "I was in Houston with family when I heard that Fats Domino had been airlifted from his house in the Ninth Ward," trumpeter Kermit Ruffins, a well-known figure in the jazz scene, told VICE. "We all cheered when we saw his picture in the paper. It was the first good news for the music community. It was a small victory," he explained. "We missed our city so much."
Longing for New Orleans was what led the Bremonts, now temporarily living in Baton Rouge, to spend their Thanksgiving weekend participating in the first second line organized after Katrina. "We didn't even stop by our house," recalled Bremont. "Our priorities were kind of messed up," he laughed.
The Soul Rebels Brass Band playing "Just a Little Walk with Thee" in honor of the 1,836 storm victims was a ray of light in the bleakness. As tradition wants, a congregation grew behind the band—black people, white people, people with umbrellas and handkerchiefs, buck-jumping and singing and waving almost as usual, all walking along in rhythm with the music and under the white November sky, walking through the narrow streets and to the appeased river, carrying with them the weight of the past and the promise of hopeful tomorrows.
Music was needed to cope and reunite. It represented a bit of normalcy after the devastation. If jazz kept playing, New Orleans's heart would keep beating.
Food is never spicy enough out of town anyway. Parties don't feel the same. Culture can't compare. Listening to a Jessie Hill record on a front porch with a Sazerac in hand, that's what laissez les bons temps rouler means!
The fact that musicians were among the first to return to their ravaged hometown after the storm is no coincidence. Music had showed them the value and power of their culture. This shared sense of responsibility for keeping New Orleans lifestyle alive explains why places that had never hosted concerts before started offering gigs as soon as in the late weeks of September. The Jazz Vipers played at Angelinis on Decatur Street, a pizza parlor that was running on generators at the time. Coco Robicheaux played at Apple Barrel. Walter Wolfman at Maple Leaf. Street performer Doreen Ketchens played by candlelight, under curfew, with soldiers stationed nearby in full attire, and went home to a FEMA trailer like 114,000 others. The Rebirth Brass Band performed three times on October 29 alone. "The world's eyes are on New Orleans right now so this is our chance to step up," Phil Frazier, one of the formation's members, told Offbeat Magazine. "People are looking to the Rebirth and Dirty Dozen, and there are new bands coming along. It's overflowing into hip-hop and other things. We got to maintain."
Maintaining was a frequent theme after 2005. The stalwarts of New Orleans' musical traditions had been living in the most affected areas of the city; many had left because of the abysmal post-Katrina healthcare or died in the floods. The new generation needed to carry on their heritage and nurture their culture or risk it vanishing completely.
What set this new generation apart was its renewed appreciation for tradition. "Students that were into bounce [a New Orleans kind of hip-hop] like me started teaching at St James Infirmary to the youngest ones," explained Bremont. "It was a big mess all right. But it helped protect our identity," he said. The mentoring of younger students in school also had the benefit of keeping them out of trouble since they weren't allowed to play in bands without good grades. "Music was channeling their energy," said Lisa Grillot, the co-founder of outreach foundation Trumpets Not Guns, in an interview with VICE.
Bremont and his father began gutting their house right after New Year's Eve, repairing what could be and removing debris by the truckload. "[Insurance company] State Farm eventually sent us a $1,900 check. $1,900 for the whole house," he said, describing how damaged the property was. "The first thing we did with the money was go to a pawn shop and buy a trumpet and a set of drums for me and my daddy so we could play again."
They would work on the house during the day, often helped by friends, and would meet neighbors on the corner at night for impromptu second line parades, walking and playing in St. Claude for small crowds of contractors before driving back to Baton Rouge in their rental car. "We were all struggling. It got us all a little closer," said Bremont.
The neighborhood was disfigured. Where nice shotgun houses had once stood were vacant lots overgrowing with weeds. Katrina crosses, the famous X-codes painted on the walls of flooded properties to report bodies and hazards, were everywhere. Funerals seemed like they would never stop. Corpses were still being retrieved.
But on February 2006, New Orleans celebrated Mardi Gras as usual, laughing in the face of fate. The extended Bremont family attended the festivities, accommodated by friends whose house in Metairie had only sustained light damage. "We ate king cake and made a whole lot of noise. Me and a cousin went on a Krewe d'État float and threw doubloons to pretty girls. Cancel Mardi Gras? What the hell you talking about?" said Lewis.
Many musicians who had not yet returned decided Mardi Gras was the right time to finally come back. Kermit Ruffins reclaimed his regular Thursday night gig at Vaughan's. Trombone Shorty gave a concert. Even Mardi Gras Indians were dancing in the middle of the traffic. The Golden Eagles battled against the Golden Comanches, showing off their colorful sewed costumes and singing "Iko Iko" near Canal Street. "We battled to not be forgotten," Big Chief Monk Boudreaux said with a smile as he remembered that day. Beads were thrown and shows went on like any other year, because Mardi Gras was a symbol of continuity, more than ever before in the history of New Orleans. Celebration had to prevail on rough times.
"I'm so glad we back home," would later sing local Free Agents Brass Band in their tune "We Made It Through That Water." "When I lost my city I almost lost my mind," the lyrics went on, before they were covered by layers of horns and brass blasting at full power.
"Ain't no city like the N-O," they repeated. "Ain't no city like the N-O."
With 77 percent of its inhabitants regionally born-and-raised, New Orleans had been a remarkable exception in a transient America, until 2005. People often lived there all their lives. Real estate was passed from parents to children, and with it the memorabilia full of the extraordinary history built by the previous generations. Food is never spicy enough out of town anyway. Parties don't feel the same. Culture can't compare. Listening to a Jessie Hill record on a front porch with a Sazerac in hand, that's what laissez les bons temps rouler means!
Because of this, New Orleans held a common ideal which ultimately proved essential to its survival—a local patriotism that embraced everything from trombone solos to jambalaya platters and held it against the generic and the mundane in a feat of resilience.
The Bremonts took part in the city's reconstruction. They wouldn't let their memories go to waste. They were able to move back in their house by September, though the interior was barely fit for living. By then, Lewis had turned 17 and was volunteering at WWOZ as an audio technician. "I was at the French Market studio and had beignets with the staff almost everyday. This was heaven for me," he recalled.
With a tremendous part of the city having suffered flood damage and FEMA's sluggish responses to housing issues, trouble was always looming near. "You'll hear there was no more crime in the city after Katrina, but the crime had just moved to Houston for a while," remarked Bremont, referring to the increased criminality the Texan city experienced after evacuees found refuge there. "And it came back in no time."
I'd rather be poor here than rich anywhere else.
Another source of struggle was the belief among the black population that the catastrophic levee failures hadn't been due to negligence and bad engineering from the Army Corps, but were instead the fruit of a plan by the city's elite to drive low-income African Americans out of town. "They're trying to wash us away," people would shout.
New Orleans' black population is hovering at 59 percent today, compared to 67 percent before the hurricane, and the total population that fell from 484,674 in April 2000 to 230,172 in July 2006 was back to an estimated 384,320 by 2014, according to the US Census Bureau. But it's true that the people are not the same as before the hurricane. "The demographics have definitely changed," actor and resident of Pontchartrain Park Wendell Pierce told the Times-Picayune, quick to remind the paper that while having newcomers is wonderful, much of New Orleans culture comes from the working poor.
"Everything comes at a price," Bremont said, sipping an Abita beer in a Tremé honkytonk. "But we got to be careful. Because what is the point of rebuilding if we lose everything we fought for in the process?"
In contrast, several out-of-state organizations provided financial housing and social services to musicians and members of social aids and pleasure clubs. America's increased attention towards New Orleans also means there is now more of everything that made the city special in the first place. Last month, there were over 1,400 restaurants to choose from, with festivals every weekend and accommodations at every corner. The culture industries are thriving.
"The majority of musicians are home now," explained musician Glen David Andrews at Jazz Fest 2011. Andrews had also evacuated to the Superdome after a fallen tree had crushed his house during the hurricane. "Nothing can hold the soul and spirit of New Orleans down. When I swing out a good tune, I'm playing in memory of Louis Armstrong and all the people who played before me. The music can't die. This is not the first time we rebuilt, and it won't be the last. Unfortunately, this is a city that sits 25 feet below sea level," he said. "That's not what I dwell on. We're rocking'n'rolling out here. This is my home."
Lewis Bremont is more resentful. "You know, I hear all the time that Katrina ended up helping the city," he said. "That the storm was actually beneficial to us because it put us under the spotlight. Well, guess what? We didn't need no damn spotlight. We didn't need no damn storm to keep playing, and we certainly didn't need to die drowning for it. The truth is, people who really cared about New Orleans were the ones who brought the city back, not the other way around. Katrina didn't fucking help us. We fucking did!"
The data stands on Bremont's side. 39 percent of children are now said to be living in poverty through the Orleans parish, up from 38 percent pre-Katrina and still 17 points higher than the national average. The median income gap has continued to widen between white and black families. There are now 3221 fewer affordable public housing apartments than there were in 2005, and rents have increased by 41 percent.
"You'd think things would have improved a little with the federal money, but we ain't been getting none of it," said Bremont as he walked on Claiborne, going back to his Seventh Ward one-bedroom. "Sure, there's a Whole Foods in Mid-City now. I mean, that's exactly what we needed," he smirked.
Indeed, even if progress is visible, many issues remain as unresolved as they were in 2006. Cat claw vines still creep over ramshackle buildings. Residents still believe their administration is rife with corruption. Nothing has really changed.
"That's where we're at now. But I'd rather be poor here than rich anywhere else," Bremont called, raising his trumpet to the sky and letting a long note out, mentioning he couldn't wait to second-line in commemoration of Katrina's ten-year anniversary.
"We're all part of the same big family," Curtis Pierre, a saxophone player performing in front of the St. Louis Cathedral near Jackson Square, told VICE. "We all know each other. Sometimes we fight, sometimes we struggle, but we always look after each other when hard times are coming. It's how we do it here. Can't nobody take that from us."
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