sweet home chicago, sweet home new orleans

Wherever they go these days, musicians from New Orleans spread not just their time-honored sense of spiritual joy and rhythmic magic but also a newfound message of purpose and conscience. I reflected on all that anew, and on the deep connections between New Orleans and so many other American cities when I was asked to write a program note for an August 24th free concert at Chicago's lovely Millennium Park featuring the New Orleans Social Club and some very special guests.
The City of Chicago is to be commended for taking the time and care to invite nonprofit musician-aid organizations, such as Sweet Home New Orleans, to participate in their event thus lending important context to the story behind the band. My program note recalls the formation of the Social Club and includes some post-Katrina reflections from Irma Thomas and Ivan Neville, so I thought I'd post it:

Sounds Like Home

Home is an elusive concept, having to do first and foremost with comfort and belonging: We know when we feel at home; we know when we long for it -- especially when it seems threatened or lost.

In sheer numbers, the floods of 2005 resulting from the levee failures following Hurricane Katrina displaced more Americans from their homes than any previous disaster in American history. Though many New Orleans residents have worked hard to reclaim and rebuild their homes, two years past the disaster roughly half the city's former population has not come back -- this, in a city whose residents more so than possibly any other city's tend to stay put, drawn and held by many things but none more so than a famously singular culture.

If any American city is defined by music and has produced music that is definitively American, it is New Orleans. And no music speaks as eloquently and proudly of home as that which is born and raised there. The musicians of New Orleans define and shape the resilient beauty of their hometown, and they embody the empowerment and spiritual strength necessary to repair it. Yet they were displaced too.

Chicago claims its own powerful musical tradition; it is as sweet a home for jazz and blues and all styles of African American-derived music as this country has known. And the legacies of Chicago and New Orleans are particularly linked: The train they called the "City of New Orleans," running along the Illinois Central Line, brought families north through much of the 20th century, carrying with them New Orleans culture. Louis Armstrong, that icon of New Orleans jazz, first assumed Joe "King" Oliver's chair in Kid Ory's band in Chicago; in 1925, after some time in New York, Armstrong returned to Chicago for his first recordings as a leader with his Hot Five.

It's fitting then that in Chicago -- a city that has known devastation of its own via an infamous fire, and whose residents powerfully rallied in 2005 to lend post-Katrina relief -- music lovers take one evening under the stars at Millennium Park's Pritzker Pavilion to focus anew on New Orleans, to be transported via song to a dearly claimed but still struggling home and to wonder anew how they might lend further support.

When, six weeks after the floods, producer Leo Sacks gathered pianist Henry Butler, organist Ivan Neville, guitarist Leo Nocentelli, bassist George Porter, Jr. (replaced by New Orleans bassist Tony Hall tonight), and drummer Raymond Weber in an Austin, Texas recording studio, he dubbed the band "The New Orleans Social Club": The reference was not just to Havana's Buena Vista Social Club, who are credited with help reviving indigenous Cuban musical traditions, but also to the network of Social Aid and Pleasure Clubs whose second-line parades are elemental to New Orleans cultural life.

"These are not just musicians," Sacks wrote in the notes to the CD from which this concert draws it name. "They are musical healers, and from this diaspora of musical genius they came together to heal themselves.... With their lives in storm-tossed transition, they gladly savored mundane pleasures: eating barbeque, playing ping-pong, watching TV. They talked about what is means to miss New Orleans. They wondered whether they would ever go home -- or would want to go home again."

The venerable New Orleans singer Mac Rebbenack, a/k/a Dr. John, joined the band in the studio via speakerphone before the session.

"Mac you're talking to a roomful of homeless people," someone said.

Rebbenack's voice crackled: "Y'all know what to do."

And they did.

"It was a bittersweet feeling in that studio," recalls Ivan Neville. "There was a lot of warmth -- us knowing each other, and knowing what had just happened. We were just trying to keep things together, and grateful for the chance to make some music together. Everyone was still in a state of shock: What was the right next move?"

Each tune took on stark new meaning in the wake of Katrina as rendered by the band and a coterie of guest vocalists: Cyril Neville growled Curtis Mayfield's title phrase, "This is my country," even as television commentators referred to displaced New Orleans residents as "refugees." Henry Butler softly crooned Stephen Sondheim's lyric to "Somewhere" --"There's a place for us" -- wondering just where that place would be. During a slowed-down, funked-up version of John Fogerty's Vietnam-era protest classic, Ivan Neville sang, "I ain't no fortunate son." Coming from Ivan, son of Aaron, nephew of Art, Charles, and Cyril, musical royalty if there ever was such thing in New Orleans, the irony was pointed.

The soft-hued voice and fiery spirit of singer John Boutté, among the album's guest performers on tonight's bill, makes his hometown gigs mandatory, cathartic listening. At a club called d.b.a, along a boisterous strip of Frenchmen Street, Boutté regularly silences Saturday night conversations, transforming Annie Lennox's "Why," as he did on the Sing Me Back Home CD, from lover's inquisition to social-resistance cry: "Do you know how I feel.... I don't think you know how I feel."

The last time I saw Grammy-winning singer Irma Thomas, another of tonight's special guests, she'd just delivered a gripping performance at the annual New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival. It was May, and Thomas had been "camping out," as she put it, in her mostly renovated house in New Orleans East, an area that had been particularly hard-hit by the floods. "I want people to know that I'm back in my home," she said proudly, "and that I've worked hard to do that, like so many of my neighbors." Thomas gets irked by negative reports about New Orleans, "some of them from folks who haven't been down here," she says, "to see all the good things that are going on." She was just a teenager 1960, when she originally recorded "Look Up," which she revived for the New Orleans Social Club album. "Spot that silver lining/ Follow it till it's through," she sang, delivered with the same conviction she each Sunday morning, in the choir of the Fist African Baptist Church, which, Thomas points out, "was back and singing by November after the storm."

Among tonight's performers, perhaps none are more emblematic of the vitality of tradition and the strength of character in New Orleans than the members of Hot 8 Brass Band. "We're just trying to carry the torch of this music forward," Hot 8 trumpeter Raymond Williams told me one night between sets at a coffeeshop-cum-performance space called the Sound Café, "to keep it burning in New Orleans."

The Hot 8 has its own story of continuation in the face of tragedy. One band member lost his legs in a horrific roadside accident not long after Katrina hit. And in January, during a wave of violent crimes, the group's 25-year-old snare drum player, Dinerral Shavers, was fatally shot by a teenager. The band's members have responded to disaster by stepping up their efforts as both students and leaders. Last year, tuba player Bennie Pete, the band's leader, invited Dr. Michael White, a leading ambassador of New Orleans traditional jazz, to begin working with the group. Pete spoke of gaining "answers to questions I'd never asked before, about what's behind the music, what it's for and what it means to the community." That sense of purpose is reflected in the band's wondrous rise to challenge upon challenge. In the immediate wake of Katrina, the band headed to evacuation centers in Baton Rouge and elsewhere. As one CNN report put it, "the band lured evacuees out of the shelter, bringing a bit of home to those who don't have any." After a wave of violent crime including the murder of Shavers in early 2007, the Hot 8 were elemental to a 5,000-person-strong march on City Hall. They've been one key to the nascent citizen action anti-crime organization Silence is Violence.

The most inspiring post-Katrina New Orleans story is of the many grassroots efforts to rebuild and heal the city, sometimes one house or one family at a time. For some, those efforts begin and end with culture-bearers. Nearly a third of the some 5,000 musicians of New Orleans have not returned home, and another third back but on farm form stable terms, according to Jordan Hirsch, the founding director of Sweet Home New Orleans. Perhaps the most essential of the constellation of groups working to make sure musicians are welcomed back to firm footing, Sweet Home is an umbrella organization serving New Orleans musicians, Mardi Gras Indians, and Social Aid & Pleasure Club, providing a wide range of direct assistance services, especially as related to relocation and housing, and coordinating the efforts of a half-dozen aid groups.
For all the ink spilled about post-Katrina New Orleans, surprisingly little has been written about the cultural costs of this ongoing tragedy--what it means for centuries-old rituals and for jazz tradition in general, and what it says about how Americans value our homegrown arts, if we value them at all. Erosion of our Coastal Wetlands may have paved the way for the natural disaster that hammered this city. But the least-mentioned aspect of the resulting devastation--the erosion of what ethnographer Michael P. Smith once called "America's cultural wetlands"--is of tantamount concern. The resilient African-American cultural traditions of New Orleans, famously seminal to everything from jazz to rock to funk to Southern rap, also contain seeds of protest and solidarity that guard against storm surges of a man-made variety. Erasure of these wetlands exposes many to the types of ill winds that shatter souls. That said, attentive care may yield unimaginable rewards, as wondrous and uplifting as the music you hear tonight.

"I'm still Irma," says Thomas, "doing what I've always done. Sure, the songs will never sound the same. They may be tinged with some new sadness or pain. But my outlook remains positive. My pride in my city and my culture is strong as it ever was."
"Obviously New Orleans has changed because of what happened," says Ivan Neville. "But when I'm at Tiptina's playing a show, I get that same feeling I've always had. And so does the crowd. We're going to take you there, to a place that will never die, take you home."

August 16, 2007 11:06 AM |


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