Where Musical Refugees Can Thicken the Gumbo

image The accordionist Jimmy Breaux played at a benefit in Lafayette, La. 


Published: September 15, 2005

LAFAYETTE, La., Sept. 10 - The rich musical culture of New Orleans, where so much of American music finds its taproot in the African-inspired sounds of jazz, blues and rock, has been tossed to the four winds. Some musicians, many of whom fled Hurricane Katrina without so much as their instruments, have headed west to Austin, Tex., or Los Angeles, others have gone north to Chicago, New York or Atlanta. 

image David Torkanowsky, from New Orleans, playing in Lafayette.

And many are landing here, nearer to home, in a place with its own deep musical traditions, anchored in the accordion-driven two-step Cajun sound called zydeco that harks back to 18th-century Nova Scotia. No one knows what will come of the dispersal of New Orleans’s artistic life, or whether the thousands of musical transients will become transplants. Like so much else in the aftermath of the hurricane, the question is unresolved.

But here in Lafayette, where Cajun French can still be heard in the street, the signs are bilingual and old French Canada is the musical touchstone, musicians - locals and evacuees - are expecting a flowering of creativity. The things that have shaped musical expression since the first minor chord was plucked - longing, an aching for home, the need for paying gigs - are stronger now than ever, they say.

“There’s a difference between New Orleans music and Lafayette music - this will erase that boundary line,” said Dickie Landry, a veteran saxophone player who lives here and was waiting backstage to jam with a band playing at an outdoor fund-raising concert for Hurricane Katrina victims in the center of town on Saturday. “The gumbo is going to get thicker,” he said.

Other musicians say that whatever happens here or in recording studios in Los Angeles or Nashville, the old musical life of New Orleans will never be the same.

Many of the displaced musicians say that what made New Orleans special was the unbroken tradition of its musical heritage, extending back to the days before the Civil War, when slaves would gather on Sundays in places like Congo Square to play music in celebration or in mourning. Some people will no doubt return to a rebuilt, restored New Orleans, they say, and some will not, but no New Orleans musician will be quite the same after the experience of the hurricane, and neither will the “New Orleans sound” that many musicians say was steeped in their bones.

“It’s Armageddon for the culture,” David Torkanowsky, a New Orleans pianist who lost just about everything he owns in the storm. “Never before in the history of this music has there been a complete and utter dispersal.”

Mr. Torkanowsky is staying near Lafayette with a friend, Zachary Richard, who lives here and in Montreal and sings traditional Cajun music in French and English. They performed together here at Saturday night’s benefit, with Mr. Torkanowsky accompanying Mr. Richard (pronounced ree-SHARD) on his song “Big River,” written long before Hurricane Katrina, about a devastating flood on the Mississippi.

“Standing on the levee with the river raging,” Mr. Richard sang to a hushed crowd, “I’ve got nothing left to lose.”

When the song was over, the two men embraced and the audience roared.

Other musicians are more hopeful. Eddie Bo, a mainstay of rhythm and blues piano for half a century in New Orleans, was flying home from a tour date in Paris on the day the storm struck. Now he and two members of his band - the saxophone player Red Morgan and the drummer Dwayne Nelson - are together in exile, staying with friends near Lafayette. The band’s guitarist is in Lafayette. The bass player is in Chicago.

Mr. Bo said he thought that much of New Orleans musical life would stay as close as it could to that city in the months ahead because going farther would be too jarring in a time of grief and loss, even if the opportunities were better elsewhere. As for the music, he said, it will no doubt evolve and change along the way, as it always has.

“Something good has got to come from this disaster,” he said. “That’s God’s plan.” Then he added: “And you can tell people we’re available and looking for work.”

Posted by Nuttshell on 09/23 at 05:19 PM in Blogging

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