New Orleans Rhythm and Blues After Katrina
By Michael Urban
Music both expresses and informs community, resonating with the rhythms of our lives, relaying to us reminders of the social world that we inhabit. Nowhere is the connection between music and community stronger than—some might say as strong as—that found in New Orleans whose social world is unimaginable without the everyday musical accompaniment of jazz funerals, street vendors and second-line parades that fill city streets with marching bands followed by dancers beating out polyrhythms with their feet, tambourines, bottles and whatnot. New Orleans music itself imitates social interaction owing to the city’s singular contribution to popular music: collective improvisation, the spontaneous integration of musical parts brought about by the mutual responses of each musician to what the others are playing.
Interviews with 56 members of the city’s musical community have disclosed that the social norms and practices of community life run parallel to this musical model. In the same way that collective improvisation inclines individual performances toward group effort and prizes the group sound over individual virtuosity, so informants emphasized that acceptance into the musical community requires individuals to display regard for and assistance to others, along with a healthy measure of personal humility. Indeed, numerous informants stressed the closeness of their community by referring to it as a “family” composed of “brothers and sisters”.
Adverse economic conditions promote this orientation. Because musicians’ pay in the city is notoriously low, individuals survive by playing in numerous bands—as many as a dozen—and getting their names on as many call-lists for substitutes as possible. Over time, say respondents, “everybody plays with everybody”; the community is, in fact, “one big band” that disassembles daily into performing units that play the available gigs. This face-to-face interaction contributes directly to a pronounced sense of community among musicians, sustains it norms and practices and reinforces them through ostracism of those whose conduct does not meet community standards.
Playing rhythm and blues music in New Orleans today is most unlikely to result in fame and fortune. Why then do individuals do it? The answer is found in the character of this community, not only with respect to the joy of belonging to “a family”, but to the “magic” of belonging to this musical family with its storied traditions and glorious ancestors enshrined in the myth of New Orleans music which today’s players continually re-enact. Material reward seems a poor substitute for the pleasures inherent in participating in the ongoing romance that informants describe as available only there.
The impact of Hurricane Katrina has placed tremendous pressure on the maintenance of the New Orleans rhythm and blues community. Over 100,000 of the city’s former African American population have been deported to other locations and remain most unlikely to return. Gone with them are the days when the innumerable, unlicensed bars and night spots featuring this music could operate beneath the authorities radar, closed now by city regulations pricing them out of the market. Katrina has thus represented a challenge to the city’s musical community but one taken up today in the same fashion as the city’s musicians met the storm’s aftermath, “rebuilding New Orleans one note at a time”.
Michael Urban, September 2017
Michael Urban is Emeritus Professor of Politics at the University of California, Santa Cruz, USA. Although his career has focused on the study of Russian politics—yielding titles such as The Rebirth of Politics in Russia (1997) and Cultures of Power in Post-Communist Russia (2010) — it has also included space for the study of music and community — as in Russia Gets the Blues: Music, Culture and Community in Unsettled Times (2004) — which is extended with the present volume. His book New Orleans Rhythm and Blues After Katrina is available now.