Ten years after Katrina, New Orleans is back - as loud and flamboyant as ever

It's Saturday night and Dr Ike, otherwise known as Dr Ira Padnos, a local anaesthetist is playing old New Orleans R&B vinyl 45s at a club called Siberia in the Faubourg Marigny neighbourhood. Everyone is feeling it. My friend Grace, a New Orleans resident, is up on the pool table dancing. She's trying to hoist her father up to join in but he's otherwise engaged with his own group of friends on the dance floor.

New Orleans is the birthplace of jazz, the cradle of rhythm and blues, funk, blues, zydeco and a style of hip-hop called bounce. All this music has one thing in common – it promotes dancing and any visitor will know, given any opportunity, New Orleanians love to dance.

"New Orleans music gets your feet moving and your butt shaking," says Dr Ike, who is also the organiser of The Ponderosa Stomp, a New Orleans festival celebrating the legacy of the unsung heroes whose musical influence have shaped American culture for more than 50 years.

After Hurricane Katrina wrought four-fifths of the city underwater when the levee broke in 2005, New Orleans has come slowly and surely back into full swing. Here, as always, music infiltrates every part of life – from birth to the marching brass band and cathartic dancing celebratory jazz funerals.

And, for the visitor, the city breathes music from start to finish. Land at Louis Armstrong International Airport, named after the great jazz trumpeter, and there's a band playing one of Satchmo's tunes. Walk down Frenchman Street and bands spill out onto the road. Turn the corner and there's a marching band.

And record stores are thriving. The recently relocated Louisiana Music Factory, now on Frenchman Street, still does its biggest trade in vinyl records and hosts regular instore shows. And, in the Bywater area, just out of the French Quarter, Euclid Records recently moved to a bigger place to cope with demand for its records. Another, Domino Sound Record Shack is also doing a roaring trade. Euclid and Domino both opened after Katrina.

"There was a lot of media coverage advancing the theory that New Orleans' culture had been suddenly washed away and would be replaced by a shallow, superficial theme-park facsimile of its former self, appealing only to tourists," New Orleans-based author and musician Ben Sandmel says.

"It has proved to be wildly inaccurate; despite all the adversity, loss, and devastation, the musical and cultural community in New Orleans is very resilient, and it rebuilt itself from the ground up, on the grassroots level, and kept the city's longstanding traditions alive, vibrant and ever evolving, as they are today."

While any day is a feast for music lovers, the pinnacle event of the year has to be the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. Every year, as April heads into May, Jazz Fest is staged at the Fair Grounds Race Course. This is when the big-name international acts (this year it was Elton John and The Who) join New Orleans greats. Among the annual line-up are "soul queen of New Orleans" Irma Thomas, Mac Rebennack (Dr John) and Allen Toussaint.

Advertisement

"I do it every year, I love it dearly," says the 77-year-old softly spoken, very dapper singer, composer and producer.

Toussaint, who appeared in Treme, the TV-drama that focused on the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, has been a huge influence on New Orleans music for half a century; his distinctive hooks as a composer and producer were behind a string of Crescent City anthems from Lee Dorsey's Working in the Coalmine to LaBelle's Lady Marmalade. The entire Jazz Fest crowd, cochon de lait po-boys and beer in hand, descends on the Acura Stage at his first tinkle on the keys; Toussaint is very much a hero here.

When his home was destroyed by Katrina, Toussaint rode it out in New York.

"But I came back here back here as soon as I could after Katrina, I will always live in New Orleans," he tells me after his show. He says he can hear other musicians play Jazz Fest from his house.

Dr Ike was raised in Chicago but moved to New Orleans to attend Tulane University. He stayed because he fell in love with the music.

"I drove to Alaska and back after Katrina, the only place I wanted to live is New Orleans," he says.

This is the city that produced Fats Domino, Jelly Roll Morton, The Meters, The Neville Brothers, Louis Prima and Professor Longhair, to name just a few. Could there have been something in the water? Toussaint offers a better explanation.

"For one thing, everything we do is totally understood, almost anyone out there in the audience, if they're from New Orleans, knows this music as well as I do; we have the same history, we smell the same things every day, we see the same things, we all have that same set of memories, we have a camaraderie," he says before talking about his piano player hero: "Here, everyone knows their Professor Longhair; the rest of us are just disciples of Fess."

"Fess", whose likeness is stamped around the city, and whose biggest hit is now the name of a popular club, Tipitina's, is just one of the city's talented musical characters.

To get into the Mother-in-Law Lounge on Claiborne Avenue, you have to be buzzed in. On an earlier trip I'd pushed the button even though it looked dark inside, it was a Monday night, after all.

"Are you open?" I asked.

"No, I'm Antoinette," came the reply.

The lounge is named after the 1961 Ernie K-Doe hit, written by Allen Toussaint. K-Doe's wife had opened the door to us, plugged in the jukebox and cooked up some franks. We bought beers and wandered the small room, a mini museum dedicated to the singer.

In the corner sat a mannequin of Ernie K-Doe, born Ernest Kador, a flamboyant R&B singer who was born, bred and died in New Orleans. The cracks were beginning to show in K-Doe's face. He died in 2001 and had a well-deserved send off with a traditional jazz funeral fit for a king; after all, he was the self-proclaimed "emperor of the universe". He'd since run for mayor and toured, in fibreglass mannequin form. Antoinette has since passed away, too, but the Mother-in-Law Lounge remains, now run by musician Kermit Ruffins.

"The K-Doe murals are still on the outside walls, but there is no trace of K-Doe inside, so the atmosphere is very different," K-Doe's biographer Ben Sandmel tells me.

Toussaint has fond memories of K-Doe, and gets a kick out of seeing the mannequin – recently purchased by the Historic New Orleans Collection – pop up around the city.

"His statue moves around," he says.

"I was doing an instore show down in the French Quarter and a truck rolled up with him sitting on a throne, they brought his chair and K-Doe statue in and he sat there for my entire gig. That was amazing."

Sandmel recommends checking out the newly opened Ooh Poo Pah Doo Lounge named after the Jesse Hill R&B hit from 1960, featured in Treme.

"Hill's family – which has deep and complex roots in New Orleans music – run the club and it draws some of the old Mother-in-Law Lounge crowd," he says.

He hands over a list on where else to head including Chickie Wah-Wah, in Mid-City (where you can catch jazz, blues, R&B, country, folk), Mid-City Lanes Rock'n'Bowl and the Maple Leaf.

For jazz, Sandmel recommends Snug Harbor, in the Faubourg Marigny, just downriver from the French Quarter, as well as the more traditional Palm Court Café in the Quarter (explore the area via Street View below). In March, the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra opens in a new home that has a state-of-the-art performance space, as well as exhibits of jazz greats.

I drop in on Uptown's newest venue, the Gasa Gasa – which hosts music, art exhibitions, screenings and has a recording studio – and then on to One Eyed Jacks in the French Quarter. I end my stay by heading to Vaughan's Lounge in the hip Bywater area and settle back listening to New Orleans staples on the jukebox. Bywater was little damaged by Katrina and has been tagged the "Brooklyn of the South". The word "gentrification" has been whispered. But, while new restaurants, bars and venues are popping up with transplants from all over the US taking advantage of the culture and cheaper real estate, tradition – a sense of history – is still at the heart of what New Orleans is about.

"We're not as in a hurry as other places," says Allen Toussaint. "We weren't as in a hurry to build skyscrapers, we weren't as in a hurry to get big guitar amps, we were still using little tiny ones, we were playing the upright bass when everyone was going electronic,

"We are holding on to the old world charm as much as we can, I think that helps us a lot and we operate at a slightly different pace," he says. "We're a little bit slow, we mosey on."

The writer travelled as a guest of Discover America.

TRIP NOTES

MORE INFORMATION

www.DiscoverAmerica.com; www.neworleansonline.com; www.ponderosastompfoundation.org; www.nojazzfest.com

STAYING THERE

The Intercontinental New Orleans is well located two blocks from the French Quarter, a short walk from the riverfront and in amongst a restaurant-rich area. There's free wi-fi, a pool and 484 guest rooms, including 29 recently updated suites Rooms from $245. See www.icneworleans.com

GETTING THERE

Qantas is increasing its frequency of direct flights to Los Angeles from Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane. You can also choose to go via Dallas (the quicker route). See www.qantas.com

FIVE MORE THINGS TO DO IN NEW ORLEANS

Book in for a weekend "jazz brunch" at Commander's Palace. A New Orleans institution since 1880, this restaurant in the Garden District serves turtle soup, white peach bellinis and crème brulee with New Orleans trademark fleur de lis torched on top under the watchful eye of James Beard award-winning chef Tory McPhail. Gentlemen in seersucker suits and southern belles in all their finery celebrating birthdays and anniversaries help make this a spectacle. See www.commanderspalace.com

Visit the House of Dance and Feathers. It's a backyard museum dedicated to the Mardi Gras Indians and run by Ronald Lewis. Here you'll see ornate costumes worn by "Krewe" members. "We lost everything in the storm," Ronald says, showing me his post-Katrina tattoo that says 'Never Forget'. "But it didn't take our spirit." See www.houseofdanceandfeathers.org

Take a streetcar towards Magazine Street. Take the St Charles streetcar through the Garden District and walk to Magazine Street to browse the array of locally owned antique and fashion stores and galleries. There are a number of restaurants, too. Try Juan's Flying Burrito Creole taqueria for a good Mexican lunch and a strong margarita to fuel up for more browsing. See www.magazinestreet.com

Visit the Voodoo Spiritual Temple. Priestess Miriam offers tours of her voodoo temple and consultations with a focus on traditional West African spiritual and herbal healing practices. It's best to call ahead to ensure you will get a sitting with the priestess and her pet snake, Aida Wedo. See www.voodoospiritualtemple.org

Check out the new eateries. The number of restaurants in the Crescent City has nearly doubled since Katrina. Some of the newer ones includes Oxalis, in the Bywater, offering tasting plates that complements its their extensive whiskey list. A great new brunch and coffee shop called Pagoda Cafe has recently opened in the 7th Ward. It's half-owned by an Australian, who will serve you the best flat white in Louisiana. Butcher specialises in house-made meats, terrines and sausages. They've recently expanded to include a wine bar to match the charcuterie. See www.oxalisbywater.com, www.pagodacafe.net, www.cochonbutcher.com

Comments