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10 Years After Katrina, New Orleans' Brass Bands March On


When Hurricane Katrina decimated New Orleans neighborhoods, along with them went one of the city's most important cultural traditions - second lines, the revered weekly street parades with live brass bands. Many worried this musical custom so specific to the city might disappear. From member station WWNO in New Orleans, Eve Troeh says it's endured and then some.

EVE TROEH, BYLINE: Emptied of floodwater and most of its people, the city of New Orleans held an eerie silence in September 2005. That's when President George W. Bush spoke in Jackson Square and ended his speech by invoking a jazz funeral.

GEORGE W. BUSH: Once the casket has been laid in place. The band breaks into a joyful second line, symbolizing the triumph of the spirit over death. Tonight the Gulf Coast is still coming through the dirge, yet we will live to see the second line.

TROEH: But you can't have a second line without a band, and Tulane music professor Matt Sakakeeny says 10 years ago, most New Orleans musicians had no place to live and no work.

MATT SAKAKEENY: Brass bands' bread-and-butter jobs are funerals, parades, parties in New Orleans

TROEH: It's not like they can make a decent steady living playing this music in, say, Houston.

SAKAKEENY: This music and this place have a symbiotic relationship, and the place was gone.

TROEH: Brass bands and second lines are a culture born in hardship. A century ago, when black residents could not buy insurance, Social Aid and Pleasure Clubs formed to raise money for member's funerals. Even as times changed, the tradition not only persisted, but grew. The clubs threw big annual parades that became huge sources of neighborhood pride.

With miles of empty neighborhoods after Katrina, the ingredients for this culture separated, with no obvious way to bake them back together.

TAMARA JACKSON: After Katrina, I was actually fearful that the culture would die.

TROEH: Tamara Jackson is with the VIP Ladies and Kids Social Aid and Pleasure Club. After Katrina, she cofounded a centralized effort to bring back the clubs, their members and musicians. The first step was a super second line. It happened in January 2006, just a few months after the storm - hundreds of members of dozens of clubs.

JACKSON: That has never happened in the history of second lines where we had all of the clubs together.

TROEH: It was more than just a one day celebration. Conventional wisdom might suggest that to rebuild a city, you have to get people in their houses first, then the music and culture will come back. But it turned out to be more intertwined than that, says Matt Sakakeeny.

SAKAKEENY: Culture provided the red carpet for return, and culture was the foundation upon which our infrastructure was rebuilt.

TROEH: Clubs would announce a parade, and it became a reason for crowds and musicians to come back to a neighborhood. A little more than a year after the storm, the Nine Times Club held its parade in the hard-hit ninth Ward.

RAPHAEL ANTHONY PETER PARKER JR.: That was really emotional for a lot of us.

TROEH: The club's cofounder Raphael Anthony Peter Parker Jr. remembers walking the parade route ahead of time moving flooded furniture and rotted refrigerators. The club got a bar in the neighborhood to reopen just for that day, and they danced past rows of empty ruined houses.

PARKER JR.: It was like basically a reunion, too, also, because everyone was seeing everyone for the first time since the storm, and some people couldn't get back, you know, for the parade, which was a lot of talking on the phones and stuff like that.

TROEH: People held up their cell phones, he says, so displaced family and friends could hear their dead neighborhood come back to life. Fast forward to this year. Just a couple of months ago, vendor Darren West at his grill on the sidelines of the Zulu second line.

DARREN WEST: I got chicken wings on there, smoked sausage, hot sausage, hamburgers...

TROEH: Over the past decade, he's seen some of his customers who moved elsewhere lured back by the culture.

WEST: I think the second line is really helped a lot and motivated a lot of people coming back home because many times a lot of people who was, like, frustrated and didn't want to come back home but only was coming home on Sundays just to second line.

TROEH: Eventually, some of them decided to repair their homes, to resettle. Others chose to stay away. But second lines are still a reason to visit from Baton Rouge or Houston.

EDWARD JACKSON III: Atlanta, Chicago, L.A.

TROEH: And at today's second lines, you see more white faces dancing behind the African-American clubs. The parade routes are easy to find online, something unheard of a decade ago. This doesn't dilute the tradition, says Edward Jackson III - known as juicy - Trombone player in the To Be Continued brass band.

JACKSON III: Only because the world is seeing it in a different light. That's what's bringing upon, you know, a national conversation and community of the New Orleans' culture. People are more awake about what we do, which is what we want as a culture.

TROEH: The more people who know about second lines and brass bands, Jackson says, who appreciate and take part, the better the tradition will weather any type of challenge. For NPR News, I'm Eve Troeh in New Orleans. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Eve Troeh was WWNO's first-ever News Director, hired to start the local news department in 2013. She left WWNO in 2017 to serve as Sustainability Editor at Marketplace.