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Stealing the Show

New Orleans musicians blew into Houston on Katrina's winds and everything was magic for a while

Before the first Ninth Ward gangster shot and killed another in the streets of southwest Houston, before Mayor Bill White faced a church full of livid Westside constituents screaming about mayhem on their streets, before the gang fights in the high schools, and long before Kinky Friedman claimed Houston was bereft of Louisiana poets and musicians and full of "crackheads and thugs" from New Orleans, long before all of that, the Katrina exiles brought us a hell of a party.

Think back to September of 2005. First, we watched in horror as the levees broke and Lake Pontchartrain spilled into New Orleans. We saw the footage of the families trapped on rooftops, the old ladies dying in the streets, the squalor and misery at the Superdome. We heard the tales of looters, rapes and running gun battles. We saw the politicians dither, bicker and dawdle.

And then a flotilla of buses, taxis and private cars -- whatever could be chartered or commandeered -- brought virtually the entire city of New Orleans to our doorstep. The Astrodome and the George R. Brown Convention Center filled with poor souls rendered still poorer by the storm. In the aftermath of a previous flood in New Orleans, an old man once said, "I used to have nothin', now I ain't even got that." That story was rewritten 350,000 times over with Katrina, and then most of those people with less than nothing came here.

New Orleans musicians blew into Houston on Katrina's winds and everything was magic for a while
Daniel Kramer
New Orleans musicians blew into Houston on Katrina's winds and everything was magic for a while
Scenes from a funeral. The New Birth and grand marshal Chip Vaccarelli (with sash) send the storm to oblivion.
Photos by Jill Hunter
Scenes from a funeral. The New Birth and grand marshal Chip Vaccarelli (with sash) send the storm to oblivion.

One such was Katrina exile Lumar LeBlanc, the snare drummer and bandleader of New Orleans's Soul Rebels Brass Band. (Actually, LeBlanc was one of the wiser ones who left by car before the storm.) "The whole world as we knew it changed," he says. "I left with two pair of jeans, some underwear and some white T-shirts. I took my wife, my father, my mother and my kids and we packed in one car and left."

Once here, the Katrina exiles were greeted with an odd mixture of dread and generosity. There was a huge outpouring of donations and volunteerism, but there were also reports of murders and rapes at the Astrodome and a spike in crime around Reliant Park, all of which were denied by the Houston Police Department. Talk radio crackled with dire predictions of mayhem to come, and there were even Internet rumors of spooky voodoo rituals taking place on both Fannin and South Main.

Within days, though, a few of those exiles started making music. Specifically, brass band music, the horn-heavy, polyrhythmic, syncopated stuff that for centuries has played such a huge role in making life bearable in that lovely godforsaken city on the big river. And sadly, a few days later, other exiles were making noise of another sort with pistols, just as the naysayers on talk radio and the anonymous, often racist Internet editorialists had predicted.

But the good stuff came first. At Sammy's at 2016 Main, on September 8, a historic jam session occurred, an impromptu reunion of many of the city of New Orleans's finest musicians. Each player who walked in the door was much more than a mere musician that night -- they were an affirmation of life. Not only did their attendance indicate that they had survived the storm, but their collective presence also indicated that their music would survive, too.

A framed picture of bass drummer/tap-dancer/kazoo player "Uncle" Lionel Batiste was hung on the wall by parties unknown. A fellow New Orleans drummer once had this to say about Batiste: "Inside Uncle Lionel's bass drum is the pulse of the city." The inside of Sammy's also contained the pulse of that city that night.

Over a year later, Tanio Hingle, the bass drummer and bandleader of the New Birth Brass Band, still remembers the night with special fondness. We're sitting on the front steps at Carolyn Oshman's house in River Oaks, where the New Birth played the Orange Show's fund-raising gala. "That night, we didn't know our music was gonna survive," he says. "But here it was two days after the storm and we had it going on."

And the New Birth stole the show that night. A few ad hoc R&B bands played the city's standards -- songs like "Big Chief" and "Ya Ya," and a bleary-eyed Kermit Ruffins delivered his raspy renditions of the Louis Armstrong classics. After that, all had gone quiet in the club. Suddenly you could hear the sounds of booming bass drums, cracking snares and blasting horns coming from the direction of Main Street outside. In swept the New Birth in parade formation, complete with flying Mardi Gras beads and a grand marshal in a natty suit and a sash bearing the name "Katrina."

The New Birth -- some of them still wearing the rubber wristbands that marked them as temporary residents of the Astrodome -- were celebrating the death of the storm, and they were doing it in the way New Orleans has dealt with tragedies without number ever since French was the primary language in that city -- with music. More specifically, this unique style of music -- a fusion of American folk songs, European marches, West African/Caribbean rhythms, soul, funk and hip-hop -- a blend of music that was first cooked up by former slaves on the cast-off instruments of Confederate army marching bands. New Orleans has always been about partying in the face of death -- in the 19th century, the city's population was frequently purged by malaria and yellow fever epidemics, and for much of the 20th century, it has been the murder capital of America. It's a unique place in America in that life there is meant to be lived fully rather than long, and this music is the soundtrack to that philosophy. And as the aural expression of the soul of New Orleans, it seemed, for the first time that month, like the city might yet have some life in it.

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