One Year Later: Musicians Say What It’s Like in New Orleans

Volume CVI, No. 10October, 2006

A year ago in Allegro, we printed the testimonies of musicians in New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. We’ve now heard back from three of them, a year later. Here are their stories.

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Nanette Ledet

Things in New Orleans are not as you see them on the news. It is a great deal worse than it looks and there is an aura of desperation and fear among the general population, partly because it is hurricane season again and the levees are not all fixed. There are still many power failures, inadequate water pressure and water supply, many fires that must just burn out if there is not enough water in that part of town to fight them, and many social issues because of a new Hispanic influx of workers doing heavy construction and clean-up work.

After almost a year, most of the city still has a bombed-out appearance to it. There are still some small boats trapped high overhead in trees in some of the outlying areas of the city.

Many schools still cannot reopen and this affects my work as a teaching artist.

There are many very brave and dauntless souls down there, trying their best to make things come together again into some semblance of life. They have a very hard road ahead made more difficult by the misguided and ineffectual decisions that continue to be enacted by local officials in the name of progress.

Without going into more detail, I cannot justify a return to a city that is struggling to breathe and keep its head above water. I know too much about global warming now to ever feel safe there again!

I miss my homeland so much. I have shed many tears over the realization that the New Orleans I grew up in and savored as a young adult is irrevocably lost.

What will come next? I am sure it will not be anything close to the real deal. Yes, I truly know what it means to miss New Orleans!

I created a 50-minute multi-media piece called “Voices From the River,” based on my Katrina experiences and also my Cajun heritage. We received excellent press and audience response.

I have also been doing some intensive dance and percussion workshops.

I will continue my work as an independent teaching artist and director of all my “Rhythmic Tapestries” projects. To find out more about upcoming events, please e-mail me.

–Nanette Ledet

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Pete “Sneaky Pete” Orr

When we first returned to New Orleans after Katrina, we sought our musical guru, Rooble, and found not just his house, not just his block, but his entire neighborhood uninhabitable as far as the eye could see. We could no longer tell which was his house. It might not have been so scary had we arrived in daylight, yet there we were: surrounded by ruins, loaded down with everything we owned, easy prey for any malevolent soul lurking in the wreckage. But you know what? The people who survive in a George Romero zombie movie are the ones who break into a sporting-goods store and make do.

You’ll find it hard to believe, but our first weeks back were a time of inspiring beauty. Everyone was thrilled to see everyone, all the time! Any show we played could suddenly become the 38th hour of a Jerry Lewis telethon – hugs, kisses, tears. Several of the most sublime moments of my life so far took place then, but the prize must go to the candlelight outdoor gig we played at Bacchanal in the Ninth Ward during an extended blackout. Also wonderful were the National Guard from the Pacific Northwest, some of whom drove us home from a show with our equipment. Did we want a gunner in the machine-gun turret? Hell, yeah! The Morning 40’s might be lying in wait with a bazooka.

I’ve chosen to forget the indignity of living under an 8 p.m. curfew (largely because as a working musician I became a familiar face at the checkpoints and could come and go as I pleased) and 23-hour blackouts every Sunday and Tuesday. We couldn’t buy butter at the supermarkets, supposedly because the restaurants in the Quarter made clandestine deals to buy all the butter as it arrived. And then there were the bodies. And the way the soles of your shoes would melt from walking in certain places.

My band, the Fens (whose album “Nobody Likes Sneaky Pete” you can and should purchase online), has played every week since October. The out-of-town crowd this year has been ugly. This was the first time since 1994 that I did not play on Mardi Gras at Margaritaville with Mike West – and man, was I glad we didn’t. Partly this raunchy tone came from the overly male character of the city after the storm – lots of construction workers, lots of booze, hardly anyone who’d been to Carnival before. Several of my stripper friends refuse to dance here now. And I miss them.

Speaking of Mike West, our so-called producer very “selfishly” chose to save his wife and children rather than the data disks for the album we had all but completed. Nice priorities. We’ve subsequently recorded a new album, which we hoped to release during the summer but haven’t. I’ve written an album’s worth of songs about the wake of Katrina, but our plan to record it has been waylaid by my medical bills this summer.

As I write this letter, I am recovering from an attack by a crazed audience member. This fellow (who later claimed to have been too drunk to remember the incident) waited until I was loading the truck after the show and then jumped me unawares, throttling me with the collar and sleeves of my dress shirt so hard that after the cops took him away my armpits were bleeding. He kept yelling something that no one else could decipher, until someone subdued him and he started mocking us for how little money we make. He was, he informed us, from Brooklyn. Am I the only musician down here with a story like this? Sadly, no. One guitar player got clopped on the head with a lead pipe while playing. No kidding, folks, the tourists have gotten mean.

Subtle but pervasive pressures have sunk in on my peers. I won’t take time to count the number of suicides, OD’s, and (most telling) can’t-be-sure deaths we’ve all seen since last autumn. Not to say life is cheap here, but it certainly can end abruptly without fanfare, and that flaw has come to the fore with the new lawlessness we’ve inherited. One recent trend: young teenagers caught breaking the law whose mothers are still back in Texas. That’s right. People have let their 12- and 13-year-old children return unsupervised. I’ve never mixed politics into my music, mostly because I’m not good at doing so, but it must be recalled: The greatest cataclysm in American history took place on Aug. 29, 2005, and President Bush stayed on vacation. Whatever else we might say about this fact, it is a damn disgrace.

–Pete “Sneaky Pete” Orr

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Joshua Cohen

I had to come to New Orleans. I am what you would call a stubborn die-hard New Orleans enthusiast. The area I live in is one of the last true antique neighborhoods of the city, if not the country. Strangers greet each other on the streets here. Not with the “Hello” or “Good Morning” default vernacular shared by most of the nation, but with a “Where y’at” or “Allright, allright” that is genuinely New Orleans.

After traveling with my band over the country, it seems that some cities (like Tempe, Arizona) were planned in a way that prevent walking or bicycle riding. Those cities require cars; no one walks anywhere. It’s almost as if Big Oil was on the local planning commission. I bring this up to suggest a comparative study of two extremes. Strip malls on ugly two-lane highways don’t compare to actual neighborhoods, where people walk to the corner store and support small family-owned businesses, keeping the flava’ of the social structure intact. Much like a magazine on a subway ride, cars are like armor that prevent human interaction.

How is New Orleans now? Some parts look like a moldy ghost town, block after block of abandoned, infested, stinking ruin. But the New Orleans of 1890 which was built along the river is still intact, and bloated tourists once again waddle like lost penguins down Decatur street with their Cafe Du Monde sacks full of Beignet mix.

How did Hurricane Katrina affect my musical life in the past year? For six months after Aug. 29 I had no electricity service restored to my house. That was where we practiced and recorded our song ideas. All of the recording equipment was looted, black mold covered the ceiling and walls of three rooms in my home, my roof was severely damaged, I could go on and on. My band (Morning 40 Federation) had just finished recording a CD a couple of weeks before the storm hit, and we were scheduled to master it and complete the graphic design for the cover art. Having our lives turned upside down slowed this process down enough that we ended up releasing the CD nine months later.

Having complained about all that, I think the storm gave us a renewed sense of purpose as a band. A longtime Saints fan and New Orleans resident, I have grown to identify with underdogs. Cities like Detroit create great music out of hardships, and New Orleans has been doing that long before Katrina. When we returned to New Orleans to play a show two months after the Hurricane in October, we did so with a certain angst and pride, happy with ourselves and the crowd that we stubbornly refuse to give up on our beloved city. The miscreants and irreverent drunks at our New Orleans show were particularly vibrant and raucous, because most everyone had just gotten back to town for fear of missing out on Halloween in New Orleans.

What is my musical life now? Because we put out a record recently, we are sticking with the plan of touring a lot, in order to support the product. In the last few months, we’ve been on the road more than we’ve been at home, and we continue to set up new dates all over the country. We just went on tour with a national act, this band called Slightly Stoopid. It was surreal because we were performing to 16-year-old kids at all ages shows. One of our songs mentions lewd sex acts such as the Dirty Sanchez, the Hollywood Hot Carl and the Donkey Punch. Others are jazzy confessionals of embarrassed alcoholics who swear they’ll quit one day. Needless to say, we may need to target an older crowd next time.

I don’t know for sure if we’ve gotten any sympathy gigs or extra beer in the green room, but having New Orleans be in the national press has probably done something good for our band, as well as others.

Also, some transplants who used to live in New Orleans come out to see us when we play in the town they were “displaced” to.

–Joshua Cohen