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Katrina: An Unnatural Disaster - Home
Project: Won't Bow Down

Larry Blumenfeld researched and wrote about the post-Katrina realities faced by the prime movers in New Orleans's musical subcultures—from jazz musicians and brass band players to tribes of Mardi Gras Indians and the Social Aid and Pleasure clubs—and the cultural crises that emerged in the wake of the 2005 floods.

Blumenfeld describes the evolution of his project, Won't Bow Down: The Fight for Music in Post-Katrina New Orleans, as well as the people who were the focus of his work:

I discovered the Katrina Media Fellowships in spring 2006 while doing online research, after returning home to Brooklyn from New Orleans. I'd spent five days researching a Village Voice article timed to precede the annual New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, which, merely by virtue of its mounting that year, was a mighty symbol and not minor triumph of communal will, organization, and funding.

Weeks after the floods that resulted from the levee breaches of 2005, I'd penned an essay for Salon about the cultural implications of this deep tragedy. As I spoke to jazz and brass-band musicians, Mardi Gras Indians, and others, the dimensions of the crisis in what has long been considered the birthplace of jazz culture grew clearer to me: As one cultural critic put it, "We're not just watching history disappear, history is watching us disappear." Placed in stark relief was whether the jazz culture born in New Orleans—which Ken Burns's 19-hour PBS series famously cast as a signal of American values and virtues on the order of the Constitution—still carries currency when it comes to the issues that Katrina raised: cultural identity, race, poverty, and basic decency.

In early 2006, six months after the floods, I'd sought to document with that Voice piece the realities faced by the prime movers in the city's musical subcultures: the network of jazz musicians, the stable of brass-band players, Social Aid and Pleasure club second-liners, and the tribes of Mardi Gras Indians. I wanted to detail the situation from their eyes, and to outline the challenges now faced by these musicians and communities.

But I was kidding myself and my editor: In my allotted page and a week's time, I couldn't possibly express the true context for the work and lives of these musicians, let alone the cultural stakes of their situations. I'd need more column-inches, more time, deeper immersion, better understanding. For all the ink spilled in newspapers and magazines since Katrina, the story of the greatest challenge to American culture—one that affects the lives and livelihoods of thousands more deeply than we can imagine, that will end up affecting the economic viability of New Orleans more than we've figured, and which will affect all of us for generations to come in ways we can't yet understand-was going largely untold.

The environmentalists have made it clear that erosion of our coastal wetlands may have paved the way for the natural disaster that hammered New Orleans. But the least-mentioned aspect of the resulting devastation—the erosion of what ethnographer Michael P. Smith once called "America's cultural wetlands"—is as clear and present a danger. The resilient African American cultural traditions of New Orleans, famously seminal to everything from jazz to rock to funk to Southern rap, also contain seeds of protest and solidarity that guard against storm surges of a man-made variety. Erasure of these wetlands exposes many to the types of ill winds that shatter souls. (At a 2006 New Orleans protest against violent crime, for instance, the spontaneous chant that sprung up was "Music in the schools!") New Orleans residents are quick to point out that the flooding that ravaged their city was not a natural disaster; so too have I found a series of unnatural forces impeding the return of New Orleans cultural fixtures.

For at least two centuries, the complex web of cultures and communities surrounding deep pockets of musical creation in New Orleans has embodied the true cultural identity of this country. Yet where is the outrage and concern over the present dilemma? If Prague or Vienna had been so devastated, wouldn't all of Europe rally to its aid and secure its legacy? Social, religious, and even economic life in New Orleans is staked to a culture now in question: Do we care? What are we doing about it?

As a Katrina Media Fellow, I've focused on the cultural crisis left in the wake of the 2005 floods, specifically the struggles of brass bands, Social Aid & Pleasure Clubs, Mardi Gras Indians, jazz musicians, and music educators, and written about how this resilient culture serves as a front line in battles for justice, equity, and empowerment in New Orleans. I've followed the lives of individuals such as Donald Harrison, a jazz saxophonist and Mardi Gras Indian chief; Michael White, a clarinetist and professor at Xavier University who lost a home filled with thousands of irreplaceable artifacts of New Orleans culture; the members of the Hot 8 Brass Band, who have emerged as spiritual and cultural leaders despite the loss of a key member to violent crime; Jordan Hirsch, who, as director of Sweet Home New Orleans, is at the center of a network of grassroots organizations working to repair the lives of thousands of displaced musicians.

This work has spilled out in feature stories, profiles, essays, and criticism for The Wall Street Journal, The Village Voice, Salon, Jazziz magazine, in concert-program notes and radio interviews, and in public readings and panel discussions, all of which direct a book-in-progress about post-Katrina struggles to keep alive music built on resistance, and what all that means.


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