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‘Tremé Was Empty’: How Musicians Are Helping New Orleans Heal From Katrina

Treme Brass Band CREDIT: CARIMAH TOWNES
Treme Brass Band CREDIT: CARIMAH TOWNES

NEW ORLEANS, LOUISIANA — — You may know about Tremé from David Simon’s HBO series about jazz musicians in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. You may know it as the first neighborhood of free African Americans in the U.S. Or you may know it as the colorful neighborhood — literally and figuratively — where New Orleans’ jazz culture was born.

No matter where you’ve heard about it, New Orleanians consider Tremé a multicultural epicenter of a city known for its rich musical heritage. Its famed Congo Square, now a large park, is where slaves once gathered to socialize, sell goods, and dance. It’s the site of funeral marches, parades, and infamous second lines. It’s home to the Mardi Gras Indians, who dance in the streets in beautiful, flamboyant costumes every year.

But on August 29, 2005, the beloved neighborhood was flooded like the rest of the city, and the vibrant neighborhood was left in shambles. The physical destruction caused by the storm was devastating, and the absence of musicians meant the pulse and soul of the city was gone. Ten years after the mass exodus, the music scene in Tremé and the rest of New Orleans is trying to find its footing.

Benny Jones, the creator and bandleader of the Treme Brass Band, was born in the vivacious community 72 years ago. Over the years, he’s carried on a longstanding brass band tradition, and the people of Tremé consider him and the band a cherished symbol of the community’s musical legacy.

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Sitting in Club Soul, a tiny nightclub flanked by a highway on one side and small homes on the other, Jones listed the band’s many accomplishments with a permanent grin on his face.

“This band is a world famous band. We’ve been on documentaries, HBO, a bunch of jazz funerals and parades, conventions, private parties,” Jones, a drummer, told me emphatically. “We have a name for ourselves. Younger bands admire us for what we’re doing.”

And over the course of our talk before the nightclub opened to the public, Jones detailed how the band’s story represents the ups and downs of musicians during and after Hurricane Katrina hit — and where they stand 10 years later.

A street in Tremé CREDIT: Carimah Townes
A street in Tremé CREDIT: Carimah Townes

Weathering The Storm

In 2015, the music scene that Katrina wiped out is rebuilding, slowly but surely. Nevertheless, the community still feels the impact of the storm every day.

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After the Category 5 hurricane hit the city back in 2005 — displacing 1 million people in the Gulf, killing 1,833, and decimating 80 percent of New Orleans, alone — musicians were among those forced to flee the city.

Jones evacuated shortly before the storm, and drove his daughter and grandchildren to Lafayette, Louisiana. His wife passed away one year before. Other members of the band scattered to Texas, Florida, and North Carolina, and it took Jones a couple weeks to track everyone down after he got his family settled. When the flood water finally subsided, he returned to his home in Tremé to assess the damage.

“I had wind damage, the shingles blew off the roof of my house and water got into the house [from] the top. I had to gut all the walls, put a new roof on. It took us a while to come back,” Jones said. “I wound up going to Arizona for five or six months before I returned. I had to come back home sooner or later.”

Other musicians weren’t as fortunate. Some died during the storm; others lost everything they had. Many who rented homes were unable to return for years because the owners had to rebuild the properties from scratch and rewire the houses. FEMA, which dubbed Katrina “the single most catastrophic natural disaster in U.S. history,” determined that 70 percent of New Orleans’ 134,000 occupied units were ravaged — many of which were destroyed altogether.

With the city in disarray, it was impossible for thousands of people, including musicians, to move back. Indeed, it took special grants and community initiatives to incentivize their return. For instance, actor and singer Harry Connick, Jr. and famed saxophonist Branford Marsalis created Musicians’ Village, a colorful, 72-home neighborhood in the Upper Ninth Ward, providing housing to some of the people who came back to the city. The New Orleans Musicians Relief Fund offered instruments and helped set up performances for those who came back to the city. Social aid and pleasure clubs also helped musicians find their footing.

Colorful houses line the streets of Musicians’ Village in the Ninth Ward CREDIT: Carimah Townes
Colorful houses line the streets of Musicians’ Village in the Ninth Ward CREDIT: Carimah Townes

But according to Sweet Home New Orleans (SHNO), which assisted musicians and Mardi Gras Indians and collected annual data about the city’s cultural resurgence, accessing housing was just one hurdle to mount. Finding jobs was another. In 2010, after many musicians were back, SHNO reported that the number of gigs in the city was still down 50 percent from the pre-Katrina figure. Among the organization’s clients, the median income was $14,700. The Great Recession also hit musicians hard, with 42 percent of SHNO’s clients having their hours slashed at supplemental jobs or losing their jobs altogether.

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It took about a year for the Treme Brass Band to get up and running again, Jones says, and it no longer had standing gigs like it used to. “When we [came] back to the city, a bunch of the clubs were closed down. They didn’t have too many people in the city, so when the band came back to New Orleans, the band had to work off the door. When the band [came to] play at the club, you might have 10 to 15 people. It took a while for the musicians to get back to work.”

“Tremé was empty,” he continued. There weren’t many people, he says, but those who did come back were busy working on their houses. When they went to a club to hear music, they wouldn’t stay for long. “Total devastation. It was bad.”

Ten Years Later

As we talked in Club Soul, Jones explained the role that music played in healing the city in the aftermath of the storm.

“Music did [help rebuild the city] in a way, it really did,” he said. “Music relieved the pain, it kinda eased their mind a little bit. They’d come out to the club, listen to music, and talk about what happened — the hurricane, what they went through.”

To this day, the music is inspired by the storm. “[Each] musician has a different story to tell about Katrina. They relive what happened to their families. My story was about how I left, how my house was damaged and I had to take my family way out.”

The recovery process has been a long one, and the city still has a long way to go before it’s back to what it once was — for musicians and non-musicians alike. Poverty is widespread and rapid gentrification is fueling the problem. Buildings with shattered windows are scattered throughout the city, and a number of roads are still unpaved.

“[New Orleans is] not fully back. We have plenty of problems. Streets need to be fixed. Down in the Ninth Ward, people are still trying to get their property built [and] getting money to fix up their property,” Jones explained. “A bunch of people are coming back and a bunch of clubs, restaurants, and businesses [are] opening again, so that generates work for people living in the city.”

An abandoned building in Tremé CREDIT: Carimah Townes
An abandoned building in Tremé CREDIT: Carimah Townes

Like his fellow musicians, Jones is busy drumming up business. The band has come a long way, with two standing gigs every week: on Tuesday nights they perform at d.b.a. on Frenchman Street, and on Wednesday nights they play at Club Soul. With regular shows, the band members have found new fans who come out and watch them every week — joining fans who were around way before the storm. The band also plays at weddings, funerals, and conventions that come to town.

Despite the storm, its status hasn’t diminished in the eyes of New Orleanians. In fact, it still has a global following. A few months ago, Jones and his crew played in China. In November, they’re headed to Brazil.

“We’re glad to be back home. We’re glad to be working. We’re glad to have different clubs to perform so we have a chance to pick up more clientele,” Jones said, preparing for the night’s show. “The more people come out, the more people we meet, and the more jobs we get. We get to express our music to the people all over.”