28 August, 2009

new orleans revisited



forgive the pun, but this week, in between the stories of health care and senator kennedy, we will be inundated with stories about new orleans. from npr pieces to cnn profiles and new york times articles, new orleans finds itself on the front pages again as the four year anniversary of hurricane katrina approaches. part of me is grateful, of course, for the coverage, and another part of me is cynical about how new orleans is continually defined by the story of the storm, and subsequently given the short shrift of being covered only on anniversaries.

the problems of new orleans are too complex to be visited once a year, and though the storm brought them to the fore, they are endemic and emblematic of the greater problems our country faces. all year round people who live in new orleans and care about new orleans face those problems and try to solve them. i count myself as one of them. however, with no reasonable excuse, here i am "visiting" on the anniversary. the following has in some form been languishing on my virtual desk since may, when i took an unusual trip to the city.


circa MAY 29, 2009.

i miss new orleans... and even though i have had to switch gears immediately and get back on the road, i am clinging to new orleans even as i spend hours in the van. even as i play other music, even as i think thoughts other than new orleans, the experience is still bubbling underneath. why this attachment? what is it about that city that grabs me, that envelopes me, that sustains me. for that is what i felt in the 4 days i was there. every time i visit, new orleans is both a spiritual replenishment, and a challenge to do more with that replenished spirit.

in april, i had gotten a surprising and wonderful email. Future of Music Coalition (FMC), Air Traffic Control (ATC), and Sweet Home New Orleans (SHNO) were inviting me to join the fifth version of their Artists Retreat. i'd be joining a group of artists and activists from across the spectrum of the music business for 4 days of workshops, music, and, of course, food. Our group would include singer-songwriters, old-school punks, spoken word artists and actors, indie rockers, jazz composers, afrobeat masterminds, and classical players. plus, we'd be joined by the people who run FMC, ATC, and SHNO- people who activate, agitate, and articulate the cause of new orleans, among other causes, professionally. i'd been to new orleans many times before- to play music, to write, to record, to visit friends- but i knew that this would be yet another side of the city, yet another way to experience it.

looking back on those 4 days, i am most struck by what happens when you put bright people in a room together. some of us were famous, some of us were not, some of us had experience with activism, some of us did not. yet from the first evening, when we had a "get to know each other" crawfish fry and jam at mother-in-law's lounge, there was a wonderful equality among us. it's a rare thing to go into a completely new group of people, meet and be met, and come out the other side with friends, but that's exactly what happened.

i suffer from terrible jealousy of other artists- i am constantly comparing myself. that person sells more, that person draws more, why is that person famous when i am not. it eats at me, it sickens me spiritually, and worst of all, it paralyzes me. as i've grown older and worked with this feeling, i have discovered an antidote, a serum that i can inject to heal that sickness when it fells me: IDEAS. and there were ideas in abundance in new orleans.

one of the first things we dug into was touring. most of the people in the group made their living on the road. so how can our touring be used as activism? it's a ready-made distribution network; we've already paid for the gas. so, tapping into that aspect was an immediate idea. tying our touring into the green movement was another. as was hosting local activist groups by tabling. if we all make small requests of venues together, then practices from recycling to food to merchandising will change.

it's impossible to be in new orleans, to consider new orleans music, without the buzzword "local" landing on your tongue. new orleans music has always depended on its neighborhoods for fermentation, support, and character. katrina was a brute force that has choked those neighborhoods at the roots. SHNO is working specifically on this problem, and trying to restore neighborhoods one block, sometimes one house, at a time. as touring musicians from other parts of the country, we took that idea and ran with it. we can make each of our shows more "local" by involving adjacent communities and rewarding those in walking and biking distance from where we play. we can give away our skills as writers, composers, interpreters to the communities that nourish us.

the efforts to save new orleans require yet another relationship besides the local and environmental: the political. some of us in the room had extensive experience dealing with legislatures and committees at the state and federal level, some of us had never done anything of the like. (i fell somewhere in-between) one of the best tools we hold is our cultural role as guides of opinion and attention. as artists, our job in communities is to point in specific directions and help our neighbors look the same way, at the same time. so, choosing a cause to educate ourselves about and advocate for becomes just as important as putting a new roof on someone's house. we found out that activism of this sort is easier than you'd think. just learn about it, then open your mouth. the FMC folks shared some amazing stories how the artist can often open doors of power that seemed would never swing and melt the heart of even the crabbiest senator.

so i found, that this is what happens when you put bright people in a room. when egos deflate and the ideas expand into that void, then change can occur. after our sessions, i felt like a part of an army who'd just received their orders and is ready to crash through a wall. there is also the saying that a grateful heart has no room for jealousy or hate or pain. put me in a room like that and my heart swells with inspiration and thanks.

so, yes, we ate at mother-in law's and and i bonded with leah at historic dooky chase's. yes, we toured the 9th ward and met some newly returned residents. yes, we went to the house of a mardi gras indian chief and accompanied him while he sang to us. yes, we spent a late night dancing to a live organ trio on frenchmen street and stumbling home at dawn. and yes, on the final night of the retreat, we played a benefit show at tipitina's.

yes, that was the time line. we did this. we went there. but for me, this time in new orleans, it was the people and the ideas that moved me more than the music or the architecture. it was the play of hearts as we sussed each other out, tried to explain ourselves without our foremost language of music, that made me dance inside. in simply sharing ourselves with our group, we were all capable of being as inspiring in our collective experiences, as we are in our notes, rhythms, writing and performance. so, when on the final nite at tips we cut open our chests to sing and play together, it hit with all the more force. a hurricane of hearts came blowing across the stage and moved every soul in that room.

having come to know my fellow artists without their art, i was all the more moved to see the ease with which luke worked the crowd and played drums, despite a separated shoulder. the way saul's voice rumbled and caressed and said what i wanted to say. the way i was carried away by jolie's otherworldly rhythms and the fierce vision of her music. how martin and mariam sang with their instruments as easily as i breathe, their ears leading them out onto a tightrope of risk, with no net below. how vijay, in his own quiet way, confidently gave us ground to dance on as bonerama worked us into brassy ecstasy. and then there was the force of wayne's guitar, not only loud, but intentional and biting the top of every note. how laura pinned up her braids, wiped her glasses, then tore the roof off the place.

at the end of the night, i went out into the crowd to watch scott. he seemed so right, so himself up there leading the band and singing "shit, shit, shit" over and over again, like some rock god pronouncing us whole from the mountain. amen and pass the community.

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