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Listening to the Water

zig.jpegbataan.jpegOn the second anniversary of the Hurricane Katrina disaster, I’m posting my New Orleans odyssey, “Listening to the Water.” The soundtrack to the story features Irma Thomas, Mos Def, the Meters, Amerie, Bessie Smith, Randy Newman, and the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, with a special public service announcement from Kanye West.

The man at the door of the Blue Angel nightclub had the ugliest mustache I had ever seen. It looked penciled on, like he was playing Rhett Butler in a school production of “Gone with the Wind” without really giving a damn. I moved toward my sister, trying to look married. The man grinned. “Uh, y’all are eighteen, aren’t you?,” he asked. “Yes—uh YES,” I croaked. “Well, come on in,” he said, “don’t get too crazy all at once, you hear?”

It was May 1977. So far, I’d had a New Orleans experience the Chamber of Commerce could have scripted. Stroll the French Quarter’s sunshine-filled streets. Inhale chicory-scented coffee and beignets. Clap as ancient tuba and banjo players at Preservation Hall trot out their millionth rendition of “St. James Infirmary,” and clarinetist Pete Fountain entertains your mom’s corporate convention.

At 15, I didn’t understand that to natives, most of this signifies “New Orleans” the way Rice-a-Roni is the “San Francisco treat.” But inside the smoky club, I sensed more mystery. The cornet player stopped his Dixieland riffing and hit a note so hushed and low it hinted at another New Orleans behind the tourist curtain. Outside the nightclub, a street drummer coaxed ripples and torrents out of garbage can lids. He motioned to me, as if to share a secret. But he only said one thing: “The sound is in the water.”

Irma Thomas – It’s Raining

Mos Def, “Katrina Klap”

I walked back to our hotel scratching my head. But on a riverboat tour the next day, the waters burbled strange melodies unlike the earthier sounds of my native Chicago. I thought about this majestic, aging soup bowl of a city, stuck below sea level and surrounded by water on three sides with canals everywhere.

I never returned to New Orleans, but its watery sound lingered. On my drum set I mimicked everything from the riverboat jazz of Jellyroll Morton to the fluid funk of the Meters’ improbably named drummer, Zigaboo Modeliste. When rockheads in my high school wanted to join Led Zeppelin, I wanted to be the next Zigaboo. As I woke the neighbors with my awkward flailing, I was in a different place, imagining myself playing to an audience at Congo Square, powered by superhumanly spicy jambalaya that allowed me to move my fingers like Professor Longhair and nail melodies like Aaron Neville.

Meters, “Cissy Strut”

Gradually the memories faded with the rhythms. As college started on the East Coast, punk rock raged from across the Atlantic and John Coltrane squealed from my neighbor’s stereo. New Orleans and its mysteries seemed a dated diversion. Before I knew it, I was a law school graduate and music critic, heading for California.

In California I rediscovered the water. I married a woman who swam like a fish. Her father lived on a boat. I became an environmental lawyer and learned about the disappearance of wetlands during a century of unsustainable development. I saw the deteriorating Bay Delta, water lifeline for millions of Californians, with aging levees and endangered fish populations.

At work in San Francisco I read that New Orleans’ safety net, the Mississippi Delta, had lost an area roughly the size of Rhode Island since 1930. Still, New Orleans remained an afterthought. There were occasional news stories, like the obituary announcing the death at 55 of George Finola, a seldom-recorded cornet player known for his exquisite tone. Newspapers also reported on political roadblocks to Louisiana’s coastal restoration and the high risk of a natural disaster.

Crossing the Bay Bridge in August 2005, I listened to a new song, Amerie’s “1 Thing,” propelled by a slippery sample of Zigaboo Modeliste’s drumming. Then I switched to NPR and heard a Category 5 hurricane was heading for New Orleans.

Amerie, “1 Thing”

To report the rest of the story would be as unnecessary as asserting the Twin Towers disappeared. Blame will be shared for years. I include myself, as I wonder what more I might have done as an environmental lawyer. But nothing prepared me for President Bush resurfacing after two days and asserting he didn’t think “anybody anticipated the breach of the levees.” Well, nobody except everybody who studied it.

Soon after, I heard a slice of Eighties power pop, “Walking on Sunshine,” by the improbably named Katrina and the Waves. That was it. Our president was walking on sunshine as the raging waters of Lake Pontchartrain filled city streets. Walking on sunshine as his appointee, the former Arabian Horse Association commissioner, learned disaster management on the job. Walking on sunshine when he should have been listening to the water.

Two years later, the French Quarter is open for business. Café Du Monde will once again serve you coffee and beignets, and I’m sure you can find a competent cornet player. But on my iPod, New Orleans’ Irma Thomas is singing a different song; reviving a Bessie Smith number about the 1927 Louisiana flood, she’s got the “backwater blues” and “can’t live there no more.” Neither, it seems, can the third of the pre-Katrina city population, disproportionately poor and black, that still lives elsewhere. The powerful dirges on the Dirty Dozen Brass Band’s 2004 album Funeral for a Friend, originally dedicated to founding member Anthony “Tuba Fats” Lacen, now sound like an elegy for the city itself.

Bessie Smith – Back Water Blues

The Dirty Dozen Brass Band – Amazing Grace

To be sure, New Orleans will not become our nation’s Pompeii. In this most fluid of American cities, hope remains that ingenuity will allow greatness to be reborn. But with much of the city’s creative core dispersed and forgotten in Baton Rouge, Houston, and Atlanta, I can’t escape the sinking feeling that I could revisit, but never return. In coastal Louisiana, which continues to disappear at a rate of around 25 square miles per year, the sinking is more than a metaphor.

Back in Oakland, our tiny daughter Amelia pulled me aside after dancing to the Beatles’ “Octopus’s Garden” (“I’d like to be/ Under the sea”). She revealed she is actually a mermaid. Late at night, she cried out during a rainstorm. “Daddy listen,” she wondered, “can you hear what the water is saying?” “I hope I can,” I said, holding her hand as she fell into a deep sleep.

Randy Newman, “Louisiana 1927”

Kanye West discusses Dr. Evil

From → Cut-Out Bin

One Comment
  1. shacker permalink

    On a motorcycle trip across country in 1994 or so, I found myself trapped in New Orleans. Not due to any mechanical or financial meltdown, but because the city seduced me. On the first night, wandering the French Quarter, I wandered into a club where the Dirty Dozen Brass Band were playing, and got sucked quickly and deeply into the rhythms. The band came down off the stage and danced / conga-lined their way through the audience — not just for a couple minutes, but for a good chunk of the show. The Meters meet Sun Ra. I had never felt so physically involved by jazz.

    Spent the next few days and nights finding music tucked away in every nook and cranny of the city. Also ate some bad shrimp and puked my guts out in a cemetery, but that’s another story.

    I thought about that visit a lot in the wake of Katrina, and wondered if things would ever be the same. “The sound is in the water.” I love that.

    Zigaboo, of course, is also the name of Rinchen’s cat.

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