|Publisher:||University of California Press|
|Edition description:||First Edition|
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New Orleans Suite
Music and Culture in Transition
By Lewis Watts, Eric Porter
UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESSCopyright © 2013 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
NEW ORLEANS, AMERICA, MUSIC
... How much are we subject to the metaphors we reference? if we sing of mighty battles will we conjure them? New Orleans the siege of Orleans Joan of arc in her 12th year claimed to see god Black boys on bottle caps heard voices strangled in dance step sourced from the broken wind of overgrown sea hormones within the waves dismantled more black than white keys some songs we cannot sing until we cross to the other side New Orleans is at a crossroads Music is at a crossroads america is at a crossroads
—SAUL WILLIAMS (2009)
Saul Williams's words, speaking of the power and possibility in creative work, the spirit, the natural world, human identities, and collective sensibilities, come from the liner notes of a 2010 CD titled Dear New Orleans. Released in August 2010 to commemorate the five-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina and to respond to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, the album was produced by Air Traffic Control (ATC), a nonprofit organization supporting activism, advocacy, and philanthropy among musicians.
Dear New Orleans consists of thirty-one tracks recorded by some of the sixty participants in the "artist activism retreats" in New Orleans that have been sponsored since 2006 by ATC and the Future of Music Coalition (FMC), the latter of which addresses policy, legal, technological, and economic issues on behalf of musicians. These retreats have brought musicians from across the United States together with local musicians, organizers, community leaders, tradition bearers, and other artists. According to ATC, retreat participants' interaction with local artists and activists left them with the "feeling that their lives have been changed by what they have experienced in New Orleans and with a sense of empowerment for what they can accomplish through their music and activism." These collaborations have, in fact, led outside musicians to engage in philanthropic fundraising for and activism on behalf of New Orleans–based community and grassroots organizations. They have also inspired a number of musical collaborations among participants. These two sets of practices come together on Dear New Orleans. In addition to offering some compelling music, the album raises money for Sweet Home New Orleans, which supports New Orleans cultural workers, and the Gulf Restoration Network, an environmental organization dedicated to protecting coastal wetlands and other projects.
As a listener, I like the breadth of this album. The performances on it represent a range of genres—pop, jazz, country, R&B, folk, rock—and a diversity of inspirations. Some songs are directly about the city or Katrina. Others are merely thematically connected to New Orleans or the storm. Others simply remind artists of the city or were performed live at retreat concerts. I also like the ways the fusion of genres comes together powerfully on successive tracks and within individual performances. Listen to the way jazz pianist Vijay Iyer's mournful, tense original instrumental "Threnody" sets the stage for "Where Is Bobbie Gentry?," singer songwriter Jill Sobule's haunting follow-up to Gentry's 1967 number one hit, "Ode to Billie Joe," sung in the voice of the grown-up ghost of the aborted baby that, according to some interpretations, is the object that the narrator of "Billie Joe" threw off the Tallahatchie Bridge. And dig Nicole Atkins and trombone-centric band Bonerama's version of Joe McCoy and Memphis Minnie's "When the Levee Breaks" (as appropriated by Led Zeppelin). With its loose and bluesy horn arrangements, its distorted electric guitar and trombone solos, and Atkins's fantastic rendition of Robert Plant's caterwauling, it is simultaneously a brilliant parody of classic rock excess and a politically on-the-mark recontextualization of this blues lament about the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927. And to use a certain vernacular, it absolutely rocks.
As a writer, I appreciate what Dear New Orleans represents as it marks Katrina's fifth anniversary. The producers and musicians framed it as a response to New Orleans Times-Picayune writer Chris Rose's epistolary editorial "Dear America," published eight days after the storm hit. Rose expressed gratitude to the Americans who reached out to shelter the displaced and who sent resources or came in person to the city to rescue and rebuild. His letter was also a statement of local pride—in the place and its unique culture, and more importantly, in the people. It spoke of the resiliency of New Orleans residents and what they would offer the nation in the future. "So when all this is over and we move back home, we will repay to you the hospitality and generosity of spirit you offer to us in this season of our despair. That is our promise. That is our faith." And in response, five years later, "America" wrote back to New Orleans in the liner notes to Dear New Orleans, expressing our regret for the "super shitty things [that] keep happening to you" and for only writing when they do. America was thankful, too, for the city's music, even if we could not quite figure out what to make of it. But beyond just a "sorry" and "thank you" that were not quite adequate, America sent back some music "we made while thinking about you"—and some money.
Dear New Orleans performs an economy of obligation that has surrounded the city over the past several years, of political and moral failings needing to be rectified. Something we know all about, at least if we are willing to read against our own forgetfulness and many of the accounts offered by the corporate media. We know, then, about the damage caused by the winds and the rain, as well as the more devastating surge of water that overwhelmed the levee system and flooded 80 percent of the city. And the longstanding knowledge that the levees might fail, and the federal government's failure to maintain them despite that knowledge. And the deplorable conditions Katrina victims faced at the Superdome and Convention Center. And the delays in the arrival of active duty troops and National Guard personnel to rescue them. And the rapes and murders. And the exaggerated reports of rapes and murders and the concomitant "elite panic" that made the rescue efforts such a disaster as they put less focus on rescuing victims than on protecting others from them. And the police and vigilante killings. And the cluelessness of President George W. Bush and his mother. And the 1,800 plus officially counted dead in the immediate aftermath and the many more who died later from inadequate medical care, stress, or grief. And the suicides. And long-term and permanent displacement. And the innocent and minor offenders lost for months and years in jails and prisons. And the difficulty people have had extracting money to rebuild from governments and insurance companies. And the toxic FEMA trailers. And the unscrupulous contractors. And the diminishing workers' rights, the scaling back of environmental regulations, and other manifestations of "disaster capitalism," in which elites use a crisis to lessen state protections and further their market-friendly political agenda. And the closure of structurally sound Charity Hospital and public housing projects. And gentrification, planned and unplanned. And high rents. And the failures of the social safety net and the criminal justice system. And the fired public school teachers and a privatized public school system that still fails families without financial means. And joblessness and poorly paid jobs. And ultimately, as many of these phenomena attest, the ways poor people (especially black poor people) have been most dramatically affected by these things while being blamed for their own suffering.
But five years after the storm, this musical exchange also marks an important economy of inspiration and a horizon of possibility rooted in the heroic deeds of New Orleanians who have tried with varying degrees of success to bring their city back as they knew it or wanted it to be. And rooted also in the work of outsiders who have expressed their care for and dedication to the city. As Rebecca Solnit notes, disasters bring out the worst in some human beings but some of the very best in others, especially in a world defined increasingly by "private life and private satisfaction." "Disasters," she continues, "in returning their sufferers to public and collective life, undo some of this privatization, which is a slower, subtler disaster all its own."7 And there seems something particularly special about the ways many New Orleanians have risen to the occasion of Katrina.
We saw this public response begin immediately with citizen rescuers—the "Soul Patrol" of working-class black men from the Seventh Ward, Cajun fisherfolk from the surrounding countryside, and others from as far away as Texas—who brought their boats or found someone else's and navigated the floodwaters to save people when the government could not or would not. We subsequently saw it in the efforts of those who stayed, those who soon returned, and those volunteers from across the nation and beyond, who quickly began feeding, clothing, housing, and administering medical care to the needy in the wake of government and established aid agency failings. We know this has not worked smoothly. We know about the heroic deeds of local activists but also about the schisms that tore apart some organizations. We know about the activists who moved to New Orleans and acted with grace and virtue but also about those who did not listen to local concerns or acted as if establishing their activist credentials was more important than serving the community in which they settled. And about the artists whose representations have been haunting, beautiful, and inspiring, but who took bread from the mouths of local colleagues. And about the rents that the well-meaning transplants helped raise. And so on.
Ultimately, Dear New Orleans begins to map a space of collaborative artistic production and a broader economy of civic engagement in and around New Orleans that remains contradictory and uneven. This space has shifted from the incredible highs and lows, the rawness that defined the immediate post-Katrina period, into something more prosaic. The city is, of course, in many ways still reeling from the catastrophe. The past several years have been extremely difficult, especially for the displaced, the poor, the female, the young, and the elderly, the people who lost family members to the flood and to the state or criminal violence that followed. It is worth noting that Amnesty International reported shortly before Katrina's fifth anniversary that displaced New Orleanians (particularly low-income people of color), as well as some of those who had returned to the city, continued to experience human rights violations because of a lack of access to affordable and adequate housing, racial inequality in reconstruction projects, a lack of reasonable health care, police misconduct, and a dysfunctional criminal justice system. Yet things have been made better for some in the city, and not just for the elite. Optimism and levels of civic engagement exceed that of most places in the nation.
On the cultural front, though many worried that neighborhood-based cultures—Mardi Gras Indians, social aid and pleasure clubs and their parades—would disappear along with working-class black residents of New Orleans, these groups have reconstituted themselves and have played an important role in the reconstruction of the city through their public rituals and explicit activism. Major artists and even some previously underground performers, like transgender rap artists Big Freedia and Katey Red, have received national media attention. So in many ways we see a city whose unique culture is not only surviving but in many ways blossoming despite and in some ways as a result of the disaster that was Katrina. Indeed, New Orleans has much to teach us at a moment when, as Saul Williams puts it, we stand at a crossroads.
My initial reaction to what I saw happening in New Orleans was, like that of many others, one of outrage. The lesson of the storm indeed seemed to be, as Michael Eric Dyson put it soon thereafter, "The deeper we dig into the story of Katrina, the more we must accept culpability for the fact that the black citizens of the Big Easy—a tag given the city by black musicians who easily found work in a city that looms large in the collective American imagination as the home of jazz, jambalaya, and Mardi Gras—were treated by the rest of us as garbage." Moralizing about New Orleans has proliferated. Often called the most African of U.S. cities, New Orleans has functioned in the political imagination post Katrina much like Africa. As V.Y. Mudimbe describes the representational function of Africa, New Orleans often operates as a "sign of something else." Following Paul Theroux's description of contemporary affinities for Africa, post-Katrina New Orleans is often seen as an "unfinished project," where people can ennoble themselves by acting upon it. Over the past seven years this moralistic ennobling has sometimes taken reactionary forms, as in the we-told-you-so accounts of black savagery and the errors of big government in the immediate aftermath of the storm. One infamous example was Representative Richard Baker of Baton Rouge telling lobbyists, "We finally cleaned up public housing in New Orleans. We couldn't do it, but God did." But we have also seen the righteous performances of the Left, in which the traumatized, displaced, or dead bodies of New Orleanians have been the cudgels with which we symbolically beat down the racial, heteropatriarchal state, the interstitial power of Empire, and other evils. While my affinities lie with the second moralizing project, I recognize that it can obscure and silence some residents of the city, and that it does not always enable a very good understanding of the complexities of people's lives, their cultural movements, or their own analyses of the conditions they face.
One must, of course, try to come to terms with the ways the twin evils of exploitation and neglect have long helped to constitute New Orleans. Outrage remains an important motivation for writing and activism. But moving politically and analytically into the future also requires paying attention to insistent expressions of humanity. Watts's photographs do this. Some evoke the pain and the destruction, but most show "the beauty and fragility of the race, the ironic humor of everyday life, the dream life of a people." In other words, they help us to not be overly consumed by outrage about what happened to this city and its residents in the late summer of 2005 and its aftermath.
Ultimately, the possibilities of political and creative collaboration in the music and the affirmative content of (at least some of) Watts's photos encourage me to examine the ways that New Orleanians have "reinvented life" in the seven years after the storm and the levee breaks. As a writer, I am compelled to frame this story less as an argument for the necessary survival of a special place, as many fine works have done, than as an analysis that builds from the confidence one can find in the activism and cultural acts of New Orleanians in recent years. Even with all the difficulty and contradiction, such expressions perform the ways in which the city and its residents are surviving and have been since the moment the storm hit. Such practices now reflect less what was and what happened and more what is becoming.
To try to tell this story via music is like a dance on bottle caps: staccato, slippery, and precarious. People have long talked about the relationship between music and the social. Some of us have asked how history is sedimented in sound and lyric, how music reflects the complexities of political moments, and how it might point to utopian and dystopian futures. We have considered how music inspires people to imagine a better, or at least a different, world and about how people sometimes use it to try to change the world. But even those of us who are invested in music and social possibility recognize, at least if we are honest, that it is difficult to say with certainty what specific pieces, movements, or genres actually mean and do. Musical expressions are generally quite complicated. They often contain contradictory and ambiguous sentiments created by artists, producers, recording engineers, and businesspeople; and their diverse listeners hear them differently and selectively across time and space. This is true even when talking about music with lyrics carrying a relatively straightforward semantic meaning, let alone when considering music full of complex imagery and innuendo, or without lyrics at all.
Excerpted from New Orleans Suite by Lewis Watts, Eric Porter. Copyright © 2013 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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