Hurricane Katrina plus eight: Glimpsing the new normal

Eight is an odd number for an anniversary, neither a few years nor a lot. We glimpse the new normal, but the changes are incomplete. 

 The pace of change is different for different people. Do any evacuees still consider their sojourns in Houston or Atlanta to be temporary? Answers to such questions will not appear in governmental statistics on the rate of recovery.

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I observed Hurricane Katrina through the windows of The Times-Picayune offices on Howard Avenue, and evacuated to Baton Rouge in the back of a newspaper delivery truck, with the waters of Lake Pontchartrain splashing between the wooden floor boards on which I sat cross-legged. 

 When the Katrina diaspora was in full swing, the Internet was the best way for The Times-Picayune to deliver news to its readers. I got on board with that trend, but was washed to sea just the same last year, when the newspaper adopted a digital-first strategy and cut publication from seven days a week to three.

 As the newspaper crafts its new image, it has cast its net nationwide for employees with fresh, new voices, in sync with the image of a New New Orleans that is progressive and open to change, rather than tradition-bound. And yet recent promotions for NOLA.com/Times-Picayune have a nostalgic theme. We glimpse the new normal, but the changes are incomplete.

 When I was 16, my parents died, and it seemed that everything started over. It was, and is, hard to remember life before those funerals.

 When I was 45, Hurricane Katrina hit, and it seemed that everything started over. It was, and is, hard to remember life before that first, unauthorized, trip back into the city, when I was greeted by the cries of my severely dehydrated cat, Magic (who went on to live until January 2013), and found myself directing my 16-year-old son to kick in our swollen front door. (The photo above shows my home on Oct. 20, 2005.)

 The bookshelves had tumbled, and in the stinking pulp was a book by Alexandra Stoddard, “Living a Beautiful Life: 500 Ways to Add Elegance, Order, Beauty and Joy to Every Day of Your Life.” Who was I when I read that book? 

Making a fresh start is harder at 45 than at 16. When you are 16, you are supposed to be just starting out, with the mistakes of youth dismissed as kid stuff. Starting over at 45 demands assessing your shortcomings as well as your potential. I have more assets, but also more responsibilities. I glimpse the new normal, but the changes are incomplete. 

 August 29, 2013

Helen Gillet and James Singleton create music amid the ruins

The last service at Holy Trinity Catholic Church was held on March 22, 1997, eight years before Hurricane Katrina. Its neighborhood did not flood in 2005, but the interior nonetheless evokes memories of the storm.

Marigny Opera House interior. Photo courtesy of Dave Hurlbert, executive director of the Marigny Opera House.

Marigny Opera House interior. Photo courtesy of Dave Hurlbert, executive director of the Marigny Opera House.

Gutted of its altars, statues and pews, its colorful floor tiles are scuffed and dimmed by a film of dust. Ghostly water marks and smaller stormclouds of black mold mar the walls, and laths are exposed by fallen plaster. A vine creeps into the 1853 building through a 10-foot arched window.

Helen Gillet and James Singleton chose this space, now operating as the Marigny Opera House, for live recording of a cello-bass duo project that seized their imaginations before Hurricane Katrina, but had been put on hold.

The recording process is taking place in two sessions, one of which was March 5. The second will be Tuesday, March 12, at 4 p.m. Admission to the private event is by invitation only, but invitations are easy to come by. A $20 donation is suggested to support the project.

About 40 people were present for the March 5 performance, silencing their cell phones and squelching coughs as the music played. Bows brought forth moans of sorrow, and fingertips added infusions of pluck. The room’s echo was consciously incorporated into the sound. The musical passages seemed fairly brief; I wonder whether some of them will be expanded in the studio.

Gillet said that the March 12 performance would take shape based on listening to the recording obtained March 5. She said the second go-round might add electronic loops, but she was leaning against it.

Gillet and Singleton both place a premium on improvisation in their performances, and the setting will be an important element of the sound in the eventual recording, so the audience for the March 12 session can expect a rewarding experience.

The Marigny Opera House is at 725 St. Ferdinand St. in New Orleans, between Royal and Dauphine. An invitation to the March 12 performance can be obtained by contacting Helen Gillet or James Singleton on Facebook. There is also a Facebook event page for the performance.

Fertile ground in “Liquid Land”

Rene Broussard of the Zeitgeist Multi-Disciplinary Arts Center has had it  up to here with Hurricane Katrina films.

For “Liquid Land,” he’ll make an exception.

"Liquid Land" has its roots in an improvisational music project using instruments built from trash.

“Liquid Land” has its roots in an improvisational music project using instruments built from trash. Photo from lqdlnd.com

“Liquid Land” is a whine-free zone, where the vicissitudes resulting from the 2005 storm are acknowledged, but the focus is on the creative possibilities that also resulted.

“Liquid Land” got its start in the fall of 2010, when filmmaker Michelle Ettlin joined Swiss musician Simon Berz and Dutch artist Kaspar Koenig in New Orleans for an art project: building instruments from trash and inviting local musicians to improvise with them.

I went to one of those concerts. The sounds were consistently interesting, but I appreciated the music only in fits and starts, which probably says more about me than about the improvisations.

Along with performance clips, “Liquid Land” incorporates interviews with the New Orleans musicians who participated: Helen Gillet, James Singleton, Bhob Rainey, Jeff Albert, Rob Cambre, Justin Peake, Dave Easley, Aurora Nealand and Moose Jackson. Their insights are relevant to anyone still settling into acceptance, even appreciation, of how life in New Orleans has changed since Hurricane Katrina.

For one thing, Hurricane Katrina changed the cast of characters. With the oddball circumstances of evacuation, a punk musician might find a classical musician to be the best available collaborator for a project.

Also, the threat to New Orleans’ culture provided a galvanizing sense of purpose for some musicians, and a clearer focus for their energies.

For centuries, disaster has made the transitory nature of life a central theme of life in New Orleans. Katrina struck that chord yet again, with special resonance for the improvisational artists of “Liquid Land” who highlight the value of music in the moment, more than as an extension of what happened in the past or an artifact to be appreciated in the future.

“If you have something to say, say it now,” Gillet says in the film.

Another “Liquid Land” screening and concert is scheduled for Nov. 6 at 10 p.m. as part of the Open Ears series upstairs at the Blue Nile. Later in November, screenings are planned in Austin, Houston, Los Angeles and Kansas City, with accompanying concerts in Austin and Houston. DVD release is scheduled for February.

Liquid Land Trailer from Michelle Ettlin on Vimeo.

New Libation Orchestra: a who’s who of who’s in town

Chris Arenas is back in New Orleans, and is reviving the New Libation Orchestra, which performs Thursday night, July 19, at dba.

Chris Arenas of New Libation Orchestra with his bass

Chris Arenas of the New Libation Orchestra in New Orleans. “I hear birds chirping outside, not sirens and people screaming,” he says of his move from San Francisco.

New Libation got its start during Arenas’ first run-in with New Orleans, a three-year sojourn that ended, coincidentally, the day before Hurricane Katrina. His departure date had been scheduled well in advance, and “we ended up driving out with everyone else,” he said.

His destination: San Francisco, where he DJed and performed with Myron & E, Pamela Parker and Raw Deluxe.

In 2009 and 2010, Arenas performed with Eric Lindell, whom he had met in 2002 when Lindell was playing regular Monday night gigs at the Circle Bar. With Lindell, he toured in support of the “Gulf Coast Highway” CD and contributed to the “Between Motion and Rest” and 2010 “Jazzfest Live” CDs.

Working with Lindell brought Arenas back to New Orleans after a three-year drought.  “It was amazing to see the transformation of the city during that time,” he said. “Frenchmen Street was as busy as ever, the music scene thriving once again. There were new bars and venues to check out. You would see more familiar faces who had moved back to town as well as meeting some new folks who had come down to help rebuild, fell in love with the city and decided to stay.”

His indefinite plans to return to New Orleans to live became more compelling, and this year, around Jazzfest time, the perfect Uptown rental opened up and he seized the opportunity.

The New Libation lineup for Thursday includes Jeff Raines, guitar; Rich Vogel, keys; Chris Davis, drums, and Quickie Mart, turntables and effects. If you saw New Libation in 2005 at the Maple Leaf, dba or Shiloh, the lineup was probably quite different. Kevin O’Day and Steve Reichlen have drummed with the collective, Brian Coogan has played keys, and Ben Ellman and Brent Rose have played saxophone.

If you notice a strong Galactic influence, you’re not mistaken. Arenas, Raines and Galactic bassist Robert Mercurio have been friends since they were music-obsessed teenagers in the Maryland suburbs of Washington. D.C.

Their musical explorations began with funk, after Raines’ older brother “gave him some Sly Stone and Parliment/Funkadelic records that we listened to incessantly.” Record store runs for more funk led to discovering the jazz section, “finding the greats like Charles Mingus, John Coltrane and Miles Davis, then coming across more rare records with artists like Grant Green, Boogaloo Joe Jones and  Lou Donaldson. We would even make trips up to Philadelphia to look for new music,” Arenas said.

After high school, Raines and Mercurio left for college in New Orleans, and Arenas left for San Francisco, by way of New Orleans.

Even when the friends were apart, music drew them together. Mercurio would send Arenas cassette tapes of his early performances in New Orleans, and Arenas would send packages of blank cassettes to be loaded with Meters bootlegs. “I’ve shed a lot of things over time, but not those cassettes,” Arenas said.

The New Libation Orchestra puts a New Orleans spin on soul-jazz classics, much as Good Enough for Good Times does. Good Enough for Good Times keeps a narrower focus, however, while New Libation is more likely to cast its net into schools of electronic and brass band sounds.

Just weeks after Arenas’ return to New Orleans, summer set in with full force, and the city’s musicians started fleeing this swampy sauna for festival performances and tours in more temperate climates. Arenas has been accepting opportunities to play around town, recently with Dave Jordan and with Derrick Freeman’s Smoker’s World. And, on Thursday, with New Libation Orchestra, a “who’s who of who’s in town.”

Playing the Katrina card

Hurricane season has begun, and the Katrina card is being put into play.

References to the 2005 hurricane are used to suggest, without elaboration, that the survivor has come through the tempest stronger and wiser, with full ownership of inner qualities previously untapped, and with an intense focus on what matters most.

My house in Lakeview, a month and a half after Hurricane Katrina.

My house in Lakeview, a month and a half after Hurricane Katrina.

But Katrina’s effects on the souls of the Gulf South were not so consistent. For some, the Katrina experience provided lessons in lying and cheating to claim resources intended for someone else. Others learned to find opportunity in others’ desperation.

The Katrina card can be played responsibly. There’s no reason to dismiss the ways the experience transformed thousands of lives for the better. But the Katrina card is a meaningless joker without an explanation of its meaning to the player.

When I tell you that Hurricane Katrina taught me about the power of hope and faith, I refer to the devastating bewilderment of my return to my ruined house in the Lakeview neighborhood of New Orleans, and how daily plodding effort got my family back home in October 2006.

When I tell you that Hurricane Katrina enhanced my appreciation of civil society, I refer to the distress I felt when it seemed that no one could be trusted, not even the police.

When I tell you that Hurricane Katrina taught me about the power of culture to bind a community, I refer to the dedication of my son’s classmates and teachers at NOCCA and to the embraces shared within my own circle of music fans during that amazing 2005 Voodoo Music Experience at The Fly.

When I tell you that Hurricane Katrina made me value work for the sake of work, I refer to how purposefulness freed me from helplessness and despair while my family was in Baton Rouge.

Playing the Katrina card with integrity preserves its effectiveness for those who earned it with tears. Those who use it for anything less should be called out for it.