How Music Helped Save New Orleans After Katrina

How Music Helped Save New Orleans After Katrina
August 8, 2010
By Olga Bonfiglio

No other American city values music the way New Orleans does. Heck, one of its airports is named after legendary musician Louis Armstrong!

Music is not something that is tangible, linear or measurable, said Nick Spitzer, producer and host of the National Public Radio show "American Routes," but it is one of the things people value.

Even in the midst of their own gloom over Hurricane Katrina's destruction where homes and neighborhoods were crushed and where there was little infrastructure and not much support from state or federal government, music helped many evacuees rebuild their lives with a strong hope in the future and a deep connection to a place they loved.

"That's what life's about," said Spitzer, "creating space for creativity."

Spitzer and several jazz musicians spoke at the annual conference of the American Planning Association held recently in New Orleans where many sessions discussed the recovery effort after Hurricane Katrina.

Before the storm hit, Benny ("the Peter") Pete, tuba player and leader of the Hot 8 Brass Band, headed to Atlanta with his family. Only two of his band members were there while the rest were scattered all over the country. One day he received a phone call to reunite the band in Baton Rouge to perform for the evacuees living there. He jumped at the chance--despite the fact that neither he nor any of the band members had their instruments. Students from Louisiana State University and local high schools loaned them their band instruments just to hear a concert.

Pete said that all he cared about was playing music again but he soon realized how important it was for the evacuees who were homesick and traumatized by Katrina to hear their music.

"We found out the power of our music, said Pete, quite surprised. "We didn't understand that before but it was music that pulled us all together. It showed us the value and power of our culture."

The music Hot 8 performed that day hearkened back to the social aid and pleasure clubs, said Pete, where a well-dressed band led a parade down the street, forming the "first line," while onlookers joined them to form the "second line" with strutting, jumping and high-stepping underneath their decorated parasols as they blew whistles and waved feathered fans.

These clubs, called benevolent societies, developed in New Orleans during the mid- to late-1800s to help poor African Americans, and later other ethnic groups, defray health care costs, funeral expenses, and other financial hardships. The presence of these societies gradually fostered a sense of community among the people as they provided charitable works and hosted social events. The benevolent societies were also responsible for the "jazz funerals" where bands play somber, processional music from the church to the cemetery. On the way back, the music became more upbeat and joyous as mourners celebrated the deceased's life with tears and joy.

The evacuees living in Baton Rouge recognized their culture and joined in the "second line," said Pete. Once they returned to the city to pick up the pieces of their lives, they often held similar parades in order to obtain some relief, even though the familiar stores and landmarks of their streetscape were missing because of the storm.

Irma Thomas, known as the Soul Queen of New Orleans, said that storms have been a part of her life and career over the past 50 years and that she has left New Orleans three times due to hurricanes. Katrina, however, took on new meaning for her.

"Katrina gave us a look at the way we are and how vulnerable we are to weather," she said. "It also showed us how lax and unconcerned government agencies are."

When Katrina hit, Ms. Thomas was in Austin, Tex., on a gig. She said she saw the rooftop of her home in water on television.

"You always know where you live," she said. "You know it."
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