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Mantra for New Orleans: 'We Will Swing Again': New York Times

Published: September 26, 2005

NEW ORLEANS, Sept. 25 - In many American cities, indigenous culture is a bonus amenity, an add-on to the business and civic functions of the metropolis. Here, though, the first and last conversation you have will be about where you went, what you ate, who you heard play. The people who make music, who perform cabaret - and those who pour the whiskey that accompany the shows - are precisely the point here, and they play big for their size. If there is no show, there is no New Orleans.

"We will swing again in that place," Kermit Ruffins said by phone from Houston, where he went when Hurricane Katrina came. Mr. Ruffins is a trumpeter beyond compare, the crowned emperor of the New Orleans sound, who cooks red beans and rice and plays with his band, the Barbecue Swingers, every Thursday down at Vaughn's, in the Bywater section of the upper Ninth Ward. A flashlight aimed at Vaughn's last Thursday night revealed an intact building - and a big mess to go with it. "Could be six months, could be eight, could be a year," Mr. Ruffins said, "but I can't wait to get there and throw the grand reopening party on the new New Orleans. Count on that."

Workers interviewed this week up and down the high-low culture scale echoed Mr. Ruffins's optimism to a person. The message they sent from near and far was the same: This wounded city will heal itself show by show, and gig by gig, because culture - ribald, prissy and everything in between - is the nub around which the whole ball of yarn is wound. New Orleans without zydeco, without jazz, without theater, without nude dancers and orchestra players, is just a swamp town with hot summers, bad schools and a lot of mosquitoes. If this city is to return, it will do so on the backs of the artists who make it a place like nowhere else.

Mark Samuels, the owner of Basin Street Records, said as much. His small New Orleans label is the home to Mr. Ruffins, Los Hombres Calientes and Dr. Michael White. Mr. Samuels spent last week sneaking into the city from his temporary headquarters in Austin, Tex., to grab CD's so his artists would have something to peddle at their shows. Sitting at his brother's house in Metairie outside New Orleans last week, he showed pictures of his house in Lakewood South - a total loss by the looks of it - and shared his hopes and worries about the future.

"You can redo Bourbon Street anywhere in the world," Mr. Samuels said. "All you have to do is let people drink on the street, expose themselves on balconies and open a bunch of T-shirt shops. But New Orleans is a lot more than that. There is nowhere else in the world where you can head out to the Maple Leaf and hear the Rebirth Brass Band. That can't be recreated somewhere else."

Still, many New Orleans artists are now at large, playing for big audiences elsewhere. The Rebirth Brass Band tore the roof off in New York the other night as part of a benefit, and the Olympia Brass Band is setting out on tour from Phoenix. But while the money may be good, the tours will not be successful unless they end in New Orleans, where the rents were cheap and the clubs ample.

Many of those clubs made it through. Tipitina's is fine, for example, and Preservation Hall endures. As for the Rock n' Bowl, where the crash of pins mixed with the twang of a plucked guitar, John Blancher, who owns and runs the place, would like to reopen, but is also looking into some properties in nearby Lafayette. The club on the second floor is fine. But beneath it is mayhem, the result of eight feet of water rolling strikes for a week.

"I expect to reoccupy it," Mr. Blancher said. "From the outside, you would never want to even walk in there, but the inside is fine."

The insides of New Orleans seem great. The soul of the place, now dispersed, continues to thrive. The body is a hurting unit, though.

Dr. Ike - Ira Padnos to those who don't know him - is a medical doctor and a local scenester, the kind of man who embodies New Orleans's glorious, weird vibe. An anesthesiologist who worked through the storm at the Louisiana State University's hospital, he is now performing cultural triage in his role as executive director of the Mystic Knights of the Mau Mau. He won't say this - modesty is a persistent feature of the local milieu - but both his jobs will play a role in putting the paddles on the stilled heart of New Orleans. The Mystic Knights run the Ponderosa Stomp, a roots music festival that runs concurrently with the city's giant Jazzfest - "all killer, no filler" is its advertising cry - and serves as a reminder that much American music started and persists here. Reluctantly, the Knights have decided to move the Stomp to Memphis this year, for a benefit show, which is fine, but it is not New Orleans.

Many of the cities cultural treasures were not flooded, Mr. Padnos said. But for New Orleans to return, he added, "depends on people - the waiters, the musicians, the Indians - who live in the Ninth Ward, the Seventh Ward and Tremé, all of which were hit hard by the flooding. You need those people to come back to drive the city's culture."

It is still unclear what exactly they will be returning to, if they return. For instance, somewhere in the basement of the Orpheum Theater here there are 10 timpani drums floating in the muck and mire. At some point, Jim Atwood, the owner of the drums and a member of the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra, will retrieve his equipment - likely ruined - and assess his future. But he is not expecting anything approaching normal anytime soon.

"Normal, when you are talking about New Orleans, is always a relative term," Mr. Atwood said. He and his wife, a flutist in the orchestra, said they have not really come to terms with what happened to the city and what it means for them.

"We have yet to have that conversation out loud," he said. "But when we do, I think it is likely we will conclude that New Orleans is where our home is, and hopefully our jobs as well."

The jobs may be there, but what many culture workers in New Orleans would like is an audience.

"Art here comes up from the streets," said Barbara Motley, who owns Le Chat Noir, a cabaret on St. Charles Avenue left relatively undamaged by the storms. "The city failed a lot of the people who live here and I think they will be slow in coming back, with good reason."

"On the other hand, this is New Orleans," she added, "so I would not be surprised if people decide they need a laugh and a show. We'll see, won't we?"
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