New Orleans Jazz Fest 2006 (First Weekend) : Eight Months After Katrina
In true New Orleans fashion, celebration is the order of the day and every small victory since Hurricane Katrina laid the city waste is acknowledged in that celebratory spirit. From the big sign reading, “Beignets are Back!” at Cafe Du Monde to the Mahogany Brass Band opening their set with the lyrics, “Lord, you sure been good to me,” the spirit of gratitude to be alive and for every small blessing is boundless in New Orleans.
Humor, another show of resilience also abounds. The famous Blue Dog looks out from his gallery on Royal Street with the bright letters reading, “Throw me something FEMA!” And the Hard Headhunters Mardi Gras Indians closed their set on Friday with the mocking lyrics, “ I’ll tell you something funny, it’s a little joke…. We paid for this thing with FEMA support!” New Orleanians have the strength to meet the betrayal and abandonment of FEMA with the tongue and cheek humor of true survivors.
The French Quarter is wallpapered with the Fleur de lis as a sign of renewal and hope. As the motto of New Orleans is faith, family, and friends, the displacement of so many citizens is particularly heartwrenching and adds to a sense of still not being spiritually whole in addition to the obvious lack of physical wholeness. While so much of America has gotten used to being a mobile society with families spread apart, New Orleans remains a place where generations of families are rooted to place, a place seeped in a deep and diverse history.
“Oh, Katrina what have you done? My sweet Crescent City, it’s almost gone. Since you came along, we can’t go home,” sings Anders Osborne of his beloved, adoptive city. And Tommy Malone of the Subdudes reiterated in his interview, “People want to feel connected to each other, we don’t want to feel displaced.” And so when Alan Toussaint segued from his lyrics “There’s a Party Going On,” to “Home, Home, Everybody Come Home,” with thousands of us singing it with him in a collective prayer, and then finally segued back into “There’s a Party Going On,” he expressed the truest irony of New Orleans strength.
In this swampy land, the spirit of Blues and Jazz still seeps up from the ground and into the reaction of the people today. No matter what their race, their attitude and response to the devastation and abandonment embodies that particular African American musical tradition which has the strength to hold both joy and sorrow in the same cup. And to do that is to have the strength to be fully human and fully alive. The whole nation has much to learn from the resilient, determined, strong, and amazing citizens of New Orleans.
Bruce Springsteen’s closing set on Sunday showed he empathized with the wound of displacement. He has been writing about the loss of connectedness to place and to community in America for years. To hear When the Saints Go Marching In sung slowly, like a lullaby to a small child, as the city lay hurting and in shambles around us still after eight months, was an indescribably moving experience. It was one of the most unifying and poignant gifts he could have given both New Orleans and the country in helping us realize at the deepest heart level, what we will be losing if we lose New Orleans.
The miracle of this Jazz Fest, and the insistence to celebrate in the face of devastation and shortsighted policies which ended up killing and displacing thousands, and which still threaten the city if we do not make restoration of wetlands and proper engineering of the levees a priority, reminded me of the Whos in Whoville, holding hands and singing after everything had been taken from them. The insistence to celebrate in gratitude and brotherhood was an act of courage and faith powerful enough to melt and restore the heart of the greedy, callous Grinch. Can it restore the heart of America? I say America cannot afford to forget New Orleans.
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