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Stuck in a minor key

Two years after Katrina, New Orleans finds its soundtrack still evolving.

August 26, 2007|Steve Hochman | Special to The Times

New Orleans

THIS is a town so inextricably linked to good times and revelry that a musician could practically make a name with one celebratory anthem.

That's the case with Al "Carnival Time" Johnson. Since 1960, "Carnival Time," the song and the singer, have been mainstays of New Orleans' Mardi Gras celebrations. Even at other times of the year, his upbeat party tune, a musical tour of the Big Easy on Fat Tuesday, is played on the radio and performed at event after event by Johnson himself.

Now he's singing a different tune. Johnson has released a new single, "Lower Ninth Ward Blues," which gives a very different tour of the city, a solo, gospel-ish piano accompanying his account of the devastation that came when the levees broke after Hurricane Katrina struck on Aug. 29, 2005. Many neighborhoods were left largely lifeless, including that of Johnson -- who describes the ruins of his house in one particularly moving verse.

Twenty-three forty-nine Tennessee Street

We shared good and bad memories

I don't know which way to go

Because my home is not there anymore.

The song reflects the other half of the essential duality that is New Orleans, a city as adept with funerals as it is with partying. "It keeps me going," he says of the new song. "It brings me through a whole lot. Katrina was very devastating to us. It's different, and it's my story and exactly how I feel."

Johnson is hardly alone. The Louisiana Music Factory, a French Quarter store specializing in New Orleans music, now stocks CD after CD on which local artists have dealt with the post-flood experiences in song -- some expressing anger, others celebrating the prospect of renewal, some conveying nostalgic shout-outs to people who've passed away or simply moved away, some looking ahead, some beginning in sorrow and ending in life-affirming joy, just like a New Orleans funeral second-line parade.

The terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, led to some profound musical statements, but predictions that the horrific events would somehow introduce new meaning across the pop landscape evaporated within months.

Two years after Katrina, the landscape of New Orleans music, like the landscape of the city itself, is radically different. Where the scene was dominated by party tunes and decades-old standards, where some of the most popular local acts could count on weekly gigs without having to stretch too much, now there's something deeper.

And in a city where music more than anything -- except maybe food -- is its identity, something handed down from generation to generation, from Neville to Neville, Marsalis to Marsalis, this is crucial. The very repertoire of New Orleans music has undergone a sea change.

"It's meaningful change," Johnson says. "It's bringing a new part, a new part to go along with the old part. It's not that it's changing anything old, it's adding on, expanding into what's going on now and that's the way it should be. Katrina was devastating and we have to talk about it and sing about it."

The number of live-music clubs in town is pretty much back to where it was before Katrina, says Alex Rawls, editor of offBeat, the New Orleans music monthly. He mentions the Mermaid Lounge, TwiRoPa and the Dixie Taverne among those that are gone. But the new Rusty Nail took over the Mermaid Lounge location and other new clubs such as Chickie Wah Wah have filled the gap left by others.

As far as the number of musicians who have returned, solid figures are hard to come by. Aimee Bussells, interim executive director of the Renew Our Music Fund, says that a comprehensive count of music figures -- including members of Mardi Gras Indian groups and the Social Aid & Pleasure Clubs that are the backbone of the city's famed parades -- was somewhere between 4,500 and 5,000 before the flood.

Information gathered by her organization and others, including the New Orleans Musicians Clinic, indicates that about one-third of what she calls the "culture community" has returned and are in "stable" situations in terms of housing and steady work. Another third is also back, but in unstable circumstances, while the final third has yet to come back.

Losses still mounting

Trombonist Lester Caliste and sax player Ernest "Doc" Watson are among those who are gone; the last two original members of the venerated Olympia Brass Band both moved to Texas. Clarinetist Alvin Batiste, a key figure in New Orleans music performance and education circles, died in May shortly before his scheduled performance at the annual Jazz & Heritage Festival. In some cases, veteran musicians died as a result of the added stress of losing homes and being forced to move so late in life.

That gives old standards new meaning in seemingly dozens of recordings: "Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans" and the lament "St. James' Infirmary," most commonly, while Randy Newman's "Louisiana 1927," in various new versions, is no longer about a flood of 80 years ago.

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