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New Orleans Musicians Keep City Alive

New Orleans Musicians Keep City Alive

Ron Rona describes New Orleans as “a city that is striving to retain its culture in a nation that’s starting to look like K-Mart.”

He should know. As part of the band/performance art collective The New Orleans Bingo! Show, he’s from a culture of music that happens far from the tourist throngs, day-glow drinks and neon signs of Bourbon Street.

In dark clubs in the Ninth Ward or Uptown or on the fringes of the French Quarter, in front of mostly locals, the bands play their own songs instead of well-known classics.  They don’t play just jazz, rock or blues, but music that reflects the varied nature of the city.

The members of the Bingo! Show wear black and white face paint and vaudevillian costumes and conduct a bingo game in between carnivalesque musical numbers. Only in New Orleans could such a thing become a phenomenon. It’s miles away from anything experienced in most of America, dotted with chain restaurants and stores with a background of Top 40 pop.

“Music is experienced in a very social context in New Orleans.  It’s more than just going out.  I think most New Orleanians would agree that we participate in music as listeners or performers to remind us why we live here,” Rona says.

It’s not a good time to be a musician in New Orleans, especially for lesser known names than Fats Domino or Harry Connick, Jr.  Hurricane Katrina not only destroyed many homes, but businesses as well, and drove off the tourists and locals alike who frequented music clubs and paid the bills of hardworking musicians.

Rona returned to New Orleans a month after Katrina destroyed his new car. Bingo! frontman Clint Maedgen’s house had gotten nine feet of water, but that wasn’t enough to keep them away from the city. Several other members have not moved back. After a few months they assembled a new band.

Estimates had between 3000 and 4500 musicians calling New Orleans home before the storm, and only about 1800 have returned permanently. For a city known for its culture above all else, that’s a hard hit to take, and it’s even harder to be one of those people struggling to maintain that identity.

The Tipitina’s Foundation reports the average income of the musicians who use its Music Office Co-Op to be only $15,568. 67% of that income comes from live performances, but there are fewer conventions, fewer special events, and music venues have cut down their hours. Most members of the Bingo! Show have other jobs that pay the bills.

Hundreds of bars, nightclubs, restaurants, and larger halls featured live music before Katrina.  Most have reopened, though the process is slow—the Hi-Ho Lounge in the Ninth Ward did not reopen for over a year, and the Dixie Taverne is just now being rebuilt. Others, like the Mermaid Lounge, are gone for good.

The only silver lining to the situation is touring. Katrina created awareness of New Orleans music, and many bands took their show on the road because they had no home to go to.

Recently, the Bingo! Show traveled with the Preservation Hall Jazz Band and spread a bit of New Orleans across the United States. Evacuees scattered around the country were the best audience for Rona, who says, “They got to taste New Orleans, if only for a two-hour performance.”

Lloyd Miller, press manager for the Bingo! Show, is returning to New Orleans after two years in exile.

He explains: “At the end of the day, it’s the uncertainty of it all that kills you.  It’s like giving your heart to a junkie.  This week they’re clean, but how long can they maintain? 

“But we have to look at it like this: We love the town, and we love our people.  And not being with them today on the grounds that we may not be able to be together a year from now, well, it’s flawed logic.”

Others don’t look at it quite the same way. Harley McClellan and Guymon Adams have been band-mates for years, first in When Dreams Become Nightmares and now in God’s Little Toy.  McClellan played his first show with When Dreams Become Nightmares at the currently-closed Dixie Taverne.

They still work together on music, but now they do it with several states in between them, sending digital music files over the Web to add instrumentation and vocal tracks. A band using traditional instruments would have a harder time working that way.

McClellan lives in Denver, Colorado, and Adams relocated to Austin, Texas. Both of them have thought about returning to New Orleans, but ultimately decided to stay where they are.

“It seems like the people that have decided to stay are just going through the motions,” says McClellan after visiting New Orleans.

“Basically they seem lost.  As if they moved back and wanted to recapture the carefree attitude that they had before the storm, so they were going out and having drinks with friends and second-lining when Rebirth would pass by, but they weren’t really feeling it.  They were just doing it because that’s what you do when you live in New Orleans.”

The second-line is a staple of shows of brass bands like Rebirth, where dancers follow the band around the room, dancing with hands raised.  The tradition originated with the jazz funeral.

Adams notes the devastation of the economy and the sociopolitical situation in New Orleans, and says that the opportunities in Austin have been even better for him than in pre-Katrina New Orleans. He has been able to work toward making music and multimedia production his full-time job, and is a radio host at Revere Radio, an Internet-based station.

“Even though I don’t live there now, that city still holds my heart. I have to go back and see how the city is doing,” Adams says. He tries to go back every two months, and discusses New Orleans regularly on his radio show.

The storm affected his creative output as well. “I wrote my first solo album in December ’05, and it was all tragic love songs. Not my usual thing at all,” he says.

“New Orleans is like a fickle ex. Love you one minute, hate you the next, and she eventually tells you when it’s time to leave.”

McClellan and Adams both see the topic of Katrina fading out of prominence across America, and neither of them is happy about it. 

“I had to talk to people for a minimum of 10 minutes for the first six or eight months after the storm. Now, it seems like people barely remember it,” McClellan says. “It’s just been swept under the rug. Meanwhile the folks down there are fighting tooth and nail to rebuild.”

“It’s unfortunate, because the Katrina/New Orleans debacle has some very severe, far-reaching implications on the entire country,” Adams adds. 

He notes that at the bare minimum, Katrina showed that America was completely unprepared for another terrorist attack.

Not everyone in the U.S. has forgotten about New Orleans, and the music and culture are huge reasons why.  Robin Parry, a Philadelphia resident, started the organization Philly to New Orleans to try to help rebuild.

Parry attended the first Jazz Fest after Hurricane Katrina. She had never been to New Orleans before, but she fell in love with it and “needed to do something.”

Back in Philadelphia, Parry returned to her job at the World Café Live, and set up a benefit concert there. The money that she raised sent a group of volunteers to work with Hands On New Orleans, an organization whose projects range from gutting houses to working on animal shelters.

That benefit became an ongoing series, and they added another series as well.            

Local Philadelphia bands played for free on the same bill with New Orleans bands, bringing in local fans to learn about the music and donating the money from the door to the New Orleans band.  These events became known as Big Easy Sundays, and brought bands like Bonerama and Papa Grows Funk to play at the World Café Live.

Parry explains, “Most of the bands from New Orleans only played in New Orleans. They really didn’t have other places to play, so what I wanted to do was give them a bigger base of revenue.”

Located at 3025 Walnut Street, not far from the University of Pennsylvania, the World Café Live hosts local and national bands on a regular basis and has raised nearly $8000 to send four teams of four to six people to New Orleans. December 17 was a benefit show for Jason Hurst, a paraplegic New Orleanian who lost everything in the storm.

Musician-to-musician networks like this one help people to survive. Before the storm, it was possible for musicians to play around the city and make a living.

“I think it’s part of why their art was so good, because they didn’t really focus on trying to be famous, or trying to make a lot of money. They just played, and played for the art of it,” Parry says.

She sees the benefit of the cross-cultural exchange not only in New Orleans, but also in the Philadelphia musicians that have participated. “It changes your life when you go there. And it changes your life when you help somebody,” she says.

She enjoys seeing the Philadelphia bands “get that spirit that seeps out of the ground there.”

Tourism in New Orleans is slowly returning to pre-Katrina levels. In 2006 there were 18 million US resident visitors to Louisiana, according to the Louisiana Division of the Arts. In the year before Katrina, there were 23 million. Visitor spending in 2004 was $9 billion; in 2006 it was $6 billion.

“Cities are not built or rebuilt in three years like resort hotels in Las Vegas,” Rona pointed out. 

“At first I was working to get everybody to come home, and then I thought maybe I should look at it differently and see that the rest of our country is being seeded by these spirits,” notes Parry.

Lloyd Miller knows it’s going to be rough going, but says, “At the end of the day, New Orleans is a tough town to shake.”


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