New Orleans Washes Our Way

Displaced musicians won't let Katrina destroy spirit of their city.

By John Lekich 26 Jun 2006 | TheTyee.ca

John Lekich is a veteran Vancouver jazz lover who has interviewed Diana Krall, Dizzy Gillespie and Oscar Peterson.

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John Boutté to play Vancouver jazz fest. Wendi Berman photo.

R&B legend Allen Toussaint once wrote that music in New Orleans is as essential to the city as eating or sleeping. "The music isn't just in the clubs or on the dance floor. It's in everything. You feel it in the street, see it in the buildings and taste it in the food."

In a recent interview with talk show host Tavis Smiley, Elvis Costello called New Orleans "a place where anybody who loves music would aspire to go to." He recalled his sense of the city from his first American tour in the 1970s: "It was the most like itself, if that makes any sense at all. The dream of the place was quite like the reality."

Now, of course, the dream and the reality have taken a turn. People who love music aren't going, and many musicians are leaving a city where the population has been cut in half. Toussaint became a refugee in New York City. Others have been forced to tour just to make a living.

Costello was among the many people moved by the effect of Hurricane Katrina on New Orleans and its people, including his friend Toussaint, who lost his home to the disaster. "I was watching the news on television from the safety of British Columbia," he told Smiley. "I had to play a show about a week after Katrina and I knew you had to sing something...because it's in everybody's minds. And I had no song of my own that made any sense."

Costello chose to sing Toussaint's "Freedom for the Stallion." It sparked a creative collaboration that led to both their current tour and the Toussaint tribute CD The River in Reverse. When the pair take the Orpheum stage on June 26 with the Imposters and the New Orleans Horn Section as part of the Vancouver International Jazz Festival, their music will serve as a timely reminder that the dream of New Orleans is still a vital part of its reality.

Reminding people of that fact has become one of the missions of this year's festival, which also features concerts by Dr. John, Ivan Neville's Dumpstaphunk, the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, singer John Boutté, and Vancouver's Crescent City-inspired New Orleans North and Sweet Papa Lowdown.

'Don't let them wash us away'

Like Toussaint, Boutté -- who will appear at Capilano College July 2 with Vancouver's Universal Gospel Choir as part of the festival's North Shore Jazz program -- is steeped in the diverse traditions of New Orleans music. People magazine has described his soulful, indigenous singing as "Sam Cooke himself gone gumbo." Following his performance at the recent New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, the Times-Picayune described the openly tearful response to his reworked version of Randy Newman's "Louisiana 1927," which concluded with the plea: "Don't let them wash us away."

John Boutté, 47, remembers happier times. "There's a reason they call this place The Big Easy," he observes, on the phone from his New Orleans home. "Traditionally, there's an incredible bounty of everything from seafood to flowers. The fishing is easy and the scent of jasmine and magnolias drift through the air. The breezes here are just beautiful."

Growing up, he says he had no choice but to fall in love with music. "People here really do break out into singing and dancing in the street," he says. "The rhythm of music is everywhere. It's almost tribal. There are mornings when I'm having a coffee out on my front porch and hear a dirge from a passing funeral. You can always tell someone from New Orleans because they sound like they're singing even when they're just talking."

That's why, when my sisters holidayed in New Orleans several years ago, a sense of envy fluttered through me like the delicate wave of a Louis Armstrong hanky. When my twin sister returned, her sense of joy persisted. "We saw a milkman walking down the street and singing 'Lean on Me' at the top of his lungs. Not only did he have a great voice, but it was like he was doing it just to make our day."

Boutté explains that his hometown has always been deeply rooted in a sense of sharing, whether it involves music or what's cooking on the stove. "This is the kind of city where you will never go hungry as long as there's somebody else down the street cooking in their kitchen," he says. "Even with racism and everything else, we have a genuine community here. People of all different shades and colours are immersed in a culture that's very specific."

Looting in his mother's house

It's his abiding love and respect for that specific culture that compels him to paint an unflinchingly grim picture of present day New Orleans. Consider that I spoke to Boutté the day after the government called in the National Guard. The New Orleans Police Force -- 80 per cent of whom have lost their homes as a result of the disaster -- simply can't keep a lid on things. "I'm here to stay no matter what," he says. "And I don't want to discourage people from coming to New Orleans. But clearly we have some bad elements coming in."

Just how bad is it? "There are so many carpetbaggers and people stealing instead of giving," he says. "They've looted my mother's house again. Some preacher was saying that the murder rate here was close to Iraq. It's like the Wild West."

"That said," he continues, "you don't bring the military into the city. To me, it's like being a city under siege. "How do you think it makes folks feel to see a convoy of military troops roll into the city again?" He pauses, adding: "I'm telling you man, it breaks my heart. And I'm a former officer in the military. It's just madness. Political madness."

According to Boutté, the madness isn't about to end soon. "We just had an election down here," he explains. "And, in my opinion, they elected the same bumbling idiots who were not prepared and got hysterical -- who were reactive rather than proactive." He feels that a change in attitude is needed to heal his city. "We really need some direction here," he says. But we also need to wake up as individuals and say: 'How are we going to get over this? What are we going to do?'"

Disaster strengthens musical bonds

For Boutté, it's music that makes the situation endurable. "Without the music, I don't know where we would be," he says. "It heals people and gives them what they really need to rise above their situation. It's like therapy. It's certainly been like therapy for me. The versatility of music allows me to get a lot of things out. I can sing softly when I need to sing softly. And I can scream when I need to scream."

If there's a bright spot to Katrina, it's that New Orleans's close-knit musical community has developed an even greater bond. "I think it's developed camaraderie among musicians," he says, of the tragedy. "You can see the spirit welling up in all of us, even the tough guys. I think it's done something for the world to see the power of us coming together."

For John Boutté the power of bringing people together through music is one of Louisiana's proudest traditions. It's also about communicating the joys and struggles of the place he knows best. "Artists like Louis Armstrong, Sidney Bechet and Mahalia Jackson all did so much," he says, of his city's musical heritage. "And now it's up to the rest of us to follow in their footsteps and show the world what the spirit of New Orleans is all about."

John Lekich is a veteran Vancouver jazz lover who has interviewed Diana Krall, Dizzy Gillespie and Oscar Peterson. For complete jazz festival program information, visit the Vancouver International Jazz Festival website. The festival runs until July 2.  [Tyee]

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