Come Marching In

New Orleans musicians in Texas overcome Katrina the only way they know how

New Orleanians are now left grasping for silver linings. Thankfully, we've found some in Houston, where many of us have fled. Our first night here meant free food and margaritas at Señor Rita's in Montrose. The YMCA donated free gym membership to help us shed the too many fried shrimp po'boys we washed down with too much beer. And when a local journalist greeted me wearing a Geto Boys T-shirt and flip-flops--my people!--my own silver lining brightened considerably.

During my five years in New Orleans, I penned a column for the city's music bible, OffBeat, despite finding traditional New Orleans music pretty stale. Music, to me, should be about self-expression, ideas, surprises. But after the city invented jazz some 150 years ago, many of its musicians lost the desire to pioneer anything new; N.O. settled on being The Birthplace of Jazz, rather than becoming a place that consistently birthed new forms. Recently, the city's most high-profile output consisted mostly of sentimental imitations of past heroes.

That's not to say N.O. isn't as original today as when those brave genres were invented, just that the city's modern originals are often obscured by its many musical tourist attractions. I love New Orleans more for its vast scene of truly original artists who can't be described with just one word. Like transvestite bounce rapper Katy Red. Or one-man-band/inventor Quintron and his puppeteer wife Miss Pussycat. Or 50-year-old "psychedelic guru" Ray Bong, who sweats liters twisting knobs on mysterious analog instruments while huffing nitrous oxide gas from a silver canister. Ray Bong's here now, too. Congratulations, Texas!

Talk about embracing a tragedy -- New Birth Brass 
Band's outfits didn't shy away from Katrina one bit.
Jill Hunter
Talk about embracing a tragedy -- New Birth Brass Band's outfits didn't shy away from Katrina one bit.

Regardless, after ten days running from Katrina, we all craved anything remotely New Orleanian. The puke and piss smells of corny-ass Bourbon Street would have made our eyes well up (in a different way than usual). Kermit Ruffins, a proud facsimile of Louis Armstrong, famously played every Thursday night at Vaughn's in the Ninth Ward not two blocks from our house, so we had to see Kermit and New Birth Brass Band at Sammy's in Houston. Even Ray Bong showed up, along with a handful of other displaced potheads, all hoping Kermit would smoke them out as he used to every Thursday during his set-break while barbecue was being served. Sigh.

We arrived at Sammy's early. Or rather, right on time, which for N.O. musicians is too early. We drank our first whiskeys at five. Our second 15 minutes later. Sammy himself bought our third at 5:30 as folks with enigmatic accents began to filter in. I didn't personally know any of the musicians on the bill, but I would definitely recognize them and, I was afraid, if we kept drinking at a New Orleans pace, want to hug them and cry in their arms. Instead, I paused my intake to collect their stories.

At the bar, Lolet Boutté, Jazz and Heritage Festival board member and mother of New Orleans singer Tricia "Sista Teedy" Boutté, also on the bill at Sammy's, described living on hellfire hot Interstate 10 for days, watching her elderly neighbors die around her. "Still, every time Bush flew over in his helicopter," Boutté growled, "they'd have to clear the whole airspace, quit rescuing people until he passed." Kenneth Terry of New Birth Brass Band told of his long walk to the Superdome where he lived without food or water for four days: "I asked a policeman to bring me to the [Superdome], and he told me, 'Get there the best fucking way you can.' Which I think is real sad. Then I personally witnessed cops looting on Canal Street." Both Boutté and Terry also echoed a theory I heard many times at Sammy's: Having bands play in the Superdome would have eased the people's suffering.

But as disheartening as these stories were, they were the first words we'd heard from live New Orleanians in as many days, and we were grateful to have them. More recognizable folks filled Sammy's (people I used to see at shows, strangers I had crushes on from our neighborhood coffee shop), and we all gazed longingly at videos of a second-line parade in the Tremé. "We're getting all this!" one local said. "Houston will finally have culture!"

The night's first band featured emcee Chip Vaccarelli ("One of only three black Italians in the world," he claimed) and aforementioned songstress Sista Teedy. Teedy crooned a smooth, lovely version of "Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans?" along with many other well-executed standards which--though we were certainly drunk and maudlin enough by then--had Ray Bong and my other friends remembering how they really feel about traditional New Orleans music: slightly uninterested.

The excitement level was soon cranked by New Birth Brass Band. Even when predictable, brass bands almost always provide a visceral, moving experience. The best New Orleans brass bands (Soul Rebels, if you ask me) cut like DJs from Louis Armstrong to Ludacris, then bust a Led Zeppelin riff before landing in a famous Meters tune--no lack of surprises. New Birth exploded into Sammy's in a second-line frenzy, wearing sashes blazoned with the word "KATRINA." The nine-piece band's first few numbers, along with an impassioned speech by member Big Papa Jazzy who just returned from Army duty in Iraq, gleaned tears from those of us who miss our city, our neighborhoods, our homes. And we all laughed when the band announced their URL along with the disclaimer, "The Web site might be down though; it might have a little water on it." But eventually, New Birth's overlong, rote version of "Stand By Me" (which also provoked me to leave French Quarter Fest this past year) made me go search out Kermit Ruffins for an interview.

Kermit had been on tour in the days leading up to Katrina. "I came home at 4 p.m. on Saturday," Kermit recalled, "grabbed my horn, my Saints helmet and my CDs, and drove four hours to Baton Rouge to watch it all unfold." Kermit then made his way west, to stay with his 34 Houston relatives, who put Kermit's whole crew up in apartments. Though Ruffins is probably New Orleans' most visible ambassador, he plans to stay in Houston for at least a year. "Houston's been so good to us," the humble and likable trumpeter explained. "I want to return the favor; play that good music." While other diehards can't wait to get back and start shoveling away the toxic muck, Kermit remains practical. "New Orleans is gonna be really uncomfortable for a long time: hard, and not much going on."

Ruffins was then interrupted by news cameras who wanted him to jump onstage so they could film him and go home. Kermit jumped up to join Big Papa Jazzy for an impromptu washboard and trumpet jam, which was met with uproarious glee that continued throughout Ruffin's band's entire set. One couldn't help but be moved by the crowd's fervor for the New Orleans sound. The love was thick. Still, most of the night's music felt the same as it often did in New Orleans--like a throwback, a sentimental time capsule. And there's so much more to our city than its past.

But again, there's the silver lining, summed up best onstage by Chip Vaccarelli: "We kept all this locked up in New Orleans, and the Lord had to flush it out!" The city's lovable insularity kept its art from evolving for a long time, but in a new city, New Orleans music is being given the chance to live (and hopefully grow) in the now. If our city's great musicians let this experience really influence and inspire them, they could return home with the next great thing--whenever we're finally let back in.

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