New Orleans

BOB SELF/The Times-Union

One year in New Orleans: the sound of a city coming back to life

By MARK WOODS, The Times-Union (published Sunday, August 27, 2006)

NEW ORLEANS – You don’t see this city so much as you taste it, smell it and, most of all, hear it.

In New Orleans, sound isn’t just some cliche pouring out of a Bourbon Street bar. For the locals, many of whom measure their time not in years lived here but in generations buried here, sound is a part of their daily sustenance. And it always has been.

There’s a story that filmmaker Ken Burns tells about New Orleans. It comes from the writings of Benjamin Henry Latrobe, the architect responsible for rebuilding the U.S. Capitol.

Latrobe describes his first New Orleans experience, arriving by ship, before dawn on Jan. 12, 1819. With the ship anchored off the levee, Latrobe waited for dawn to come. But when it did, there was fog so thick he couldn’t see the city.

“The ear alone could ascertain its existence,” Latrobe wrote, describing “a sound more strange than any is heard anywhere else in the world … a more incessant, loud, rapid and various gabble of tongues of all tones than was ever heard at Babel.”

After the sun washed away the fog, Latrobe learned it was the sound of the market, the sound of the most unusual mix of people, the sound of New Orleans.

Nearly 200 years later, visitors and residents still were experiencing New Orleans the same way. Hearing it.

Hurricane Katrina changed the appearance of New Orleans, probably forever. But what about the sound of the city?

TRACK 1: Aug. 29, 2005

Hours after the storm passed through, blowing out the fifth-floor window facing the Superdome and forcing engineers to drag Garland Robinette out of the radio studio, he went back on the air and took a community head count.

“Slidell, Chalmette, Lower Ninth,” he said. “Tell us what’s going on.”

The phones at WWL-870 AM didn’t ring.

Robinette had been thinking the worst was over. Katrina hadn’t hit the city directly. It was quiet. Too quiet, he realized. “I said, ‘Something’s wrong.'”

And then the phone started ringing.

Some of what followed – weeks and weeks of unscripted and emotional radio – now is a part of the Library of Congress. Some of it is stored only in memories.

“There was this woman who called in,” Robinette said nearly a year later.

She was in her attic.

The water was rising.

With people all over the Gulf Coast listening on battery-powered radios, Robinette tried to figure out her location, hoping that maybe one of the rescue boats could make it there in time.

Before that happened, though, the line went dead.

And the silence was overwhelming.

TRACK 2: One Month after Katrina

The sound of New Orleans? It’s the rattling of shutters, the thump-thump-thumping of helicopters, the buzzing of flies, the muffled meow of a cat behind a door.

It’s the strumming of an acoustic guitar by a man sitting on a stool near the door of Stanley’s, the only restaurant open in the French Quarter. “We’ve reverted back to 18th century basics, candles, nylon string guitar,” Dana Wright says.

It’s the sound of the first business to re-open on Bourbon Street (not including the bar that never closed): a strip club called D?j? Vu, a dancer named Alex, a crowd full of first responders and a first song by the Scorpions. Rock You Like the Hurricane.

It’s the sound of electricity coming back on. Yes, in New Orleans this had a sound. Sirens. Fire trucks racing to a hotel on Burgundy Street. Firefighters from New York, covered in sweat, getting a chill when they come out of the building and notice the address of the place where they just put out the fire. 911.

But most of all, the sound of New Orleans is silence.

Block after block, neighborhood after neighborhood, mile after mile.

When you wander through these ghost neighborhoods, a breeze kicks up and you hear something in the distance. It’s the closest thing this city has to live music. It’s the sound you keep hearing drifting through the sticky air all over the empty city.

Wind chimes.

They jingle lightly, hauntingly.

TRACK 3: ‘She Needs This.’

Kenny Claiborne dragged his speakers onto his second-floor balcony, turned on his amplifier and began broadcasting to the neighborhood.

“Radio Marigny is on the air,” he said, his voice blaring into the empty streets.

Marigny is a little patch of angular blocks, an artsy neighborhood not far from the French Quarter. In normal times, you’ll hear all kinds of live music every night. It’s where Ellis Marsalis, father of Wynton and Branford, has a regular gig. It’s a neighborhood full of noise. Or it was.

Claiborne, a 42-year-old musician and bar manager, spent the first few days after Katrina in survival mode, cleaning up his place, finding drinking water, helping out some elderly neighbors.

But when he found some free time, he set up Radio Marigny. Used his generator to power it. So what if he was using precious gas to play music? He figured it was worth it.

He remembers saying to himself, “I don’t care if anyone’s listening but the city herself. She needs this.”

The first song he played for her: All Along the Watchtower.

Myree Ramsey celebrates her birthday,snuggles up to trumpet player Kermit Ruffins during his regular Thursday night gig at Vaughan’s Lounge.

It was night. There were no lights for miles. Helicopters flew overhead. And then Radio Marigny began with the line that Bob Dylan wrote and Jimi Hendrix covered.

“There must be some way out of here.”

He started getting requests shouted from the streets. From neighbors. From the Oregon National Guard troops patrolling the area.

In the first few days, he played mostly mellow stuff. He couldn’t bring himself to play his New Orleans favorites. “It didn’t feel right,” he said. “But now, we’re rocking it out.”

He asked the woman who lives next door if the noise was bothering her. Turn it up, she said. He ran into an 85-year-old man who lives around the corner. Thanks for playing the music, the man said. It let him know someone else was alive.

And now, as the sound of a jazz tune with a Cuban touch blared from his balcony, a couple walking down the empty street clasped hands and started dancing. They twirled a few times, then continued on their way.

TRACK 4: 100 days after Katrina

The sound of New Orleans is the scraping of bulldozers scooping debris off the street.

It’s the tinny sound of an automated fortune teller in a French Quarter T-shirt shop resuming the same pitch she was making before the storm: “What are you waiting for? For a small fee, I can foresee your tragedy.”

It’s the sound of a St. Bernard Parish resident talking about the layer of erl (translation: oil) covering his house.

It’s the sound of the Lower Ninth Ward. For blocks all that remains is rubble, a large barge and a few hardy trees. It feels like the quietest place on Earth. What you hear here aren’t sounds, but memories of sounds, made by the mud-covered items at your feet.

An organ keyboard.

A toilet bowl.

A “Barney” video.

A 33-rpm album, recorded by a Lower Ninth native, Fats Domino.

TRACK 5: Laughter

The comedy club on the edge of the French Quarter still was closed. But on Dec. 7, like every other Wednesday for months, it was open for a community meeting. For two hours, an eclectic mix of people filled the room with heated debate and, inevitably, hearty laughter.

Laughter was one of the first sounds to come back after Katrina. Before the electricity, before the tourists, before pretty much everything, somehow the New Orleans people were laughing.

They spray-painted messages on their homes for would-be looters. (“I am sleeping inside with a big dog, an ugly woman, two shotguns and a claw hammer”.) They slapped bumper stickers on their cars. (“New Orleans: Proud to Swim Home”.)

They took their refrigerators, which sat on the streets for months before getting picked up, and decorated them like Christmas trees. They told jokes. About their politicians, about FEMA, about themselves.

So somehow it seems fitting that they started dealing with a tragedy by holding community meetings not just in a comedy club, but in one called Oswald’s. And, yes, it’s named after Lee Harvey, a New Orleans native.

“You kill one president …,” deadpanned Harry Anderson, the owner of the club and former star of “Night Court.”

At first, Anderson said, the laughter and even the tears came with guilt.

“People drowned,” he said. “Babies drowned. It took a long time for a lot of us to feel OK about feeling grief over our losses if our losses were just our personal property or our business or the rhythm of our lives, because so many lost so much more. But all of us lost our city.”

And before long, they all were coping in classic New Orleans fashion. With music. With laughter.

“It’s not even that you use humor,” Anderson said. “You’re kind of forced into humor. It’s like, either fart or blow up.”

TRACK 6: Six Months after Katrina

The sound of New Orleans is a band on a float, shouts from people on the street, the rattle of beads hitting hands.

It’s the sound of preachers on Bourbon Street telling the passers-by that Katrina was a wake-up call for them. “I don’t think God was playing golf that day,” one says.

It’s the squeak of a street performer’s fingers rubbing across the rims of 26 glasses on a table in Jackson Square, playing what he calls a “glassical” version of Somewhere Over the Rainbow.

It’s the sound of Mardi Gras. Only it’s not really what you expect. When you get away from the French Quarter and end up at places like St. Charles Avenue, where the locals stake out spots the night before, the sound is different. It’s still festive. It’s still parades, music and floats. But it’s food sizzling on grills and adults talking in words that aren’t slurred.

It’s the crinkling of a dress made out of FEMA blue tarp – which is what Cody Vega and her friends donned for Fat Tuesday this year.

“You show your breasts here, you get arrested,” said Vega, a fifth-generation resident. “Mardi Gras is families and grandmothers and cousins and uncles and friends. … And for us not to celebrate Mardi Gras would be like telling New York not to have the 4th of July after 9/11.”

New Orleans did celebrate. And then, as Fat Tuesday turned to Ash Wednesday, the sound of the city was dozens of police moving down Bourbon Street on horses and in cars.

“Please clear the streets,” they announced. “Mardi Gras 2006 is officially over.”

Honest. They shut down Bourbon Street. At midnight. They do it every year. But this year it felt different. It felt like a parade, a celebration of a party that came with all kinds of mixed emotions.

The people stepped out of the street, onto the sidewalks and cheered as the police passed. Some high-fived officers. The sirens blared, wailing so loudly that it hurt your ears. And the people yelled louder and louder and louder.

TRACK 7: Making Levees

In the Lower Ninth Ward, it still was quiet. There was, however, one new sound.

They were rebuilding the levee.

A towering machine pounded into the ground, producing with each stroke a sound that brings to mind maracas being shaken, followed by a metallic clang.

Boom-chic-a-boom, chic-a-boom, chic-a-boom.

The sound was rhythmical, almost musical.

Three locals, back to look at the scene, stopped, linked arms and started dancing.

Chic-a-boom, chic-a-boom.

TRACK 8: The coroner

When you walk into the building, an abandoned funeral home that has been turned into the Orleans Parish morgue, one of the first things you notice is the poster-size photo hanging on the wall to your left. It’s of a man dressed in a white suit, standing in front of the city’s skyline, leaning back and blowing a trumpet.

This is Frank Minyard, the coroner.

He is 77. He has been coroner for 32 years. In New Orleans, a place where they occasionally dance at funerals, it seems fitting to have a coroner who not only plays the trumpet but has his own jazz festival. Or at least he used to. The small charities that it benefited, fragile even before the storm, are gone.

“People ask me all the time, ‘What did you lose?’ ” he said. “I lost a truck. That didn’t bother me. But I lost my audience. That bothered the hell out of me.”

When death is a part of your daily life for decades, you become a little numb to it. You have to. But Katrina shook up even the coroner.

And not the part where he swam to his office, got stranded for four days, was rescued by helicopter, dropped off by the airport and hitchhiked to Baton Rouge.

It’s what came next. Three months living at a compound outside the city, a makeshift morgue in St. Gabriel. Three months doing autopsies on the bodies that filled rows of refrigerated trucks.

In the past, whenever he had a rough day at work, he would go home and play his horn. In this case, he couldn’t go home. And he didn’t have his horn.

He eventually sent someone to get it for him. He began playing it at their 6 a.m. meeting. It was his version of a daily pep talk. One day, CNN came out, did an interview and asked him to blow his horn.

“I played Do You Know What it Means to Miss New Orleans?” he said, singing the words. “And I got all choked up.”

They started with 930 bodies. Nearly a year later, they were down to 49 unidentified remains. He is proud of this. He is committed to trying to identify every last one. But he knows he probably won’t.

He wants to build a memorial for the unidentified victims. He has been talking to Kevin Stevens about having a fundraising concert. Stevens is director of the city’s health department. He also plays the piano.

Everyone here, it seems, plays an instrument.

That’s what the coroner loves about his city. The sound. The noise. The life. He wants it all to come back. But he also wants to build a memorial, an oasis in the middle of New Orleans. Something with water. Something with silence.

TRACK 9: Nearly One Year after Katrina

The sound of New Orleans?

It’s the crash of bowling pins mixing with the banging of washboards. It’s Zydeco night at the Rock ‘N Bowl, a place that is part bowling alley, part bar and all New Orleans.

It’s a Greek restaurant with belly dancers shaking their way between tables to a cover of Walk Like an Egyptian done by Egyptian pop artist Hakim and Irish singer Cleopatra.

It’s the sound of crying, with a surge in births, and a surge in murders.

It’s the sound of 9-year-old boys playing baseball on a July afternoon. The crack of a bat, the shouting of coaches, the cheering of moms, the chattering of the St. Bernard Spartans.

“Second, go SECOND!”

It sounds so normal, like a Norman Rockwell painting with audio. Until you look around.

It’s nearly a year after Katrina in the Lower Ninth Ward. And there isn’t another person in sight. The boys are practicing on a bumpy football field across the street from a large Catholic school that was destroyed.

“It’s a tough place to be,” the coach, Jeff Montalbano, says. “But you can’t hide them from this.”

They were from St. Bernard Parish, a mostly white, working-class area adjacent to the Lower Ninth, a mostly black, working-class area. And if you want a reminder that Katrina didn’t just destroy black neighborhoods, start with this team. Every boy lost his home.

With families spread all over the area, they thought about disbanding but decided the kids needed this touch of normalcy.

“Third,” the kids yell. “Go THIRD!”

TRACK 10: Search for a Jazz Funeral

Austin Leslie, a famous New Orleans chef, had a heart attack one month after Katrina. They had a jazz funeral in Atlanta, where he died after evacuating.

Six displaced musicians played. And as the hearse drove down the street, bystanders pulled out cell phones, holding them up so others could hear.

The family wanted to bury Leslie in New Orleans. But they wanted to wait until the people returned.

It was July, nearly a year later. After a service at St. Peter Clever Catholic Church, friends and family drove to the cemetery. The priest said a prayer. They sang Just a Closer Walk with Thee. It started to rain. As gentle pitter-patter quickly turned into a loud splattering, the priest spoke faster, quickly wrapping up the service. People scurried to their cars. Doors slammed. Engines started.

There was something sad about the moment. And not just because it was a funeral. Because it wasn’t a jazz funeral.

What could be more symbolic of New Orleans after Katrina than to find a jazz funeral?

Maybe this: not finding one. Learning that, with musicians and mourners scattered around the country, jazz funerals were few and far between.

A Mardi Gras Indian peers from his ornate feathered costume during a face off between rival tribe members on Fat Tuesday. Fat Tuesday, the final day of New Orleans’ Mardi Gras celebration started early this year with the Zulu parade at 8:30 am.

TRACK 11: 3 a.m. at Vaughan’s

Go to Vaughan’s, they said. But don’t go early.

To get there, you drive away from the French Quarter, through the neighborhood where Radio Marigny played from a balcony nearly a year ago, down narrow streets and into a Ninth Ward area known as Bywater.

Before you get to the worn bar with the corrugated metal roof, you see cars parked on both sides of the street and feel like you’re pulling up to a house party. And in a way, that’s what this is. A house party. Every Thursday night. The rest of the week, there isn’t live music at Vaughan’s. But on Thursday night, there is Kermit Ruffins, his band and his truck.

The pickup is parked outside, a grill in the back, smoke pouring out of it.

Inside, Ruffins is blowing his trumpet. He grew up in the Lower Ninth Ward, on Jourdan Avenue, right next to where the levee broke. He founded the ReBirth Brass Band, then moved on to this. Kermit Ruffins and the Barbecue Swingers, a band that is known for two things: playing jazz and cooking.

When the band takes a break after midnight, people file into a back room, where two large pots of food are on a table. They eat and drink and talk until the band begins playing again. The music, like the food, is classic New Orleans fare.

Ruffins has a surprise. Not for the regulars. They know it’s coming.

“Ooh, child,” he sings. “Things are going to get easier.”

Since Katrina, bands have been ending shows with songs like Louisiana or Do You Know What it Means to Miss New Orleans? Ruffins has chosen this 1970s hit for a Chicago group. It isn’t a New Orleans song. But for those who gather at Vaughan’s, it’s a post-Katrina anthem.

On this morning, in this version, it goes on for more than seven minutes, segueing from jazz to soul to hip-hop with a bunch of nuances in between.

This is the sound of New Orleans. Hard to quantify. Kind of like the people dancing to it. Black, white. Young, old.

“Thank you music lovers!” Ruffins says. “Happy Friday!”

He says some more thanks, offers birthday wishes, plugs his other shows and comes back for the final refrain.

“Ooh, child, things’ll get brighter …”

He pauses. The band stops playing. They let the silence hang there, just for a moment. People clap and yell. It’s 3 a.m. at Vaughan’s, and Kermit Ruffins is about to finish off their song, their hope, their belief that things’ll get brighter.

“Some day,” he sings.

TRACK 12: Today

This is when it hits you.

This is a jazz funeral.

Every day since Katrina is a big communal jazz funeral.

They mourn. They despair. They ask their God and their politicians, “Why?”

And then they do what they’ve always done. They celebrate life.

They forget about what happened yesterday. They don’t worry about what will happen tomorrow. They live in the moment, savoring the sound of their city. And, ooh, child, what a sound it is., (904) 359-4212

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