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Katrina gives ironic boost to musicians

Performers like Irma Thomas, Fats Domino and others now more popular
/ Source: The Associated Press

It’s not as if New Orleans’ Queen of Soul, Irma Thomas, was searching for work before Hurricane Katrina hit.

The veteran singer of classic hits like “Time Is On My Side” had enjoyed steady work. A gig in Austin, Texas kept her out of New Orleans when the disaster occurred.

But after the storm struck — and erroneous reports listed her as one of the missing — Thomas began to get more of the spotlight than she ever had. She was tapped for high-profile benefit concerts, performed with A-list stars and was featured in international publications. Last month, she released her first album in six years — “After the Rain.”

Thomas isn’t the only New Orleans star whose stature has grown since Katrina. While the city’s music legacy has always been celebrated, some of its greatest treasures had been taken for granted.

Rock-and-soul pioneer Fats Domino, for example, wasn’t on the national radar before he was helicoptered off his roof after the flood. Afterward, he was deluged with media attention, and on Sunday he closes the Jazz Fest.

“That is one of the great ironies ... for the best known musicians, there’s actually been more attention,” said Robert Mugge, who directed and produced the new documentary “New Orleans Music In Exile,” which chronicles the post-Katrina plight of musicians like Thomas, Allen Toussaint, the Neville family, the Rebirth Brass Band and other acts. It premieres May 19 on the cable network Starz InBlack, and airs again on Starz the next day.

“I’ve got quite a lot of attention since Katrina, and I’m not knocking it whatsoever — I’m very grateful for it,” laughed Thomas as she sat in a New Orleans hotel cafe during the Jazz & Heritage Festival’s opening weekend; Thomas was among the acts set to close the festival Sunday.

“I always have the attitude that after every major catastrophe, something good can come out of it. So if this is my good that’s coming out. Thank you Lord!”

Toussaint was also featured on the international stage in the weeks after Katrina. During one major benefit the jazzman befriended rocker Elvis Costello. Their new album, “The River in Reverse,” is due in June.

New Orleans heritage counts more than everOther heralded releases from New Orleans musicians since the storm include “Sing Me Back Home,” an album released last month by New Orleans Social Club, featuring a collection of the city’s revered musical figures, including the Nevilles. There also have been benefit albums featuring local musicians.

Acclaimed jazz trumpeter Christian Scott, a New Orleans native who has been living in New York City for the past two years, agreed there has been more mainstream attention paid to acts with a New Orleans pedigree of late.

“Lots of people probably got more recognition after the storm, which I don’t know if that’s a positive thing or a negative thing,” said Scott. “I’ve seen a lot of people exploiting the fact that they are from New Orleans.

“It’s an interesting dilemma that we’re dealing with now, because basically, anybody with a little accent can say they’re from New Orleans and get on, which in some ways makes it harder for certain musicians who are very deserving of certain accolades.”

Of course, while Katrina may have spotlighted certain artists, those musicians did not escape its devastation.

Scott’s house was badly damaged. Thomas lost her nightclub, and her two homes were wrecked. She and her husband have relocated 45 minutes away to Gonzales, La., though they return to New Orleans every week. Many artists lost instruments, archived music, homes, friends and even family members.

And less-famous acts have had difficulty making a living after the storm, Mugge said.

“There’s a whole lower rung of musicians who can’t make a living, who aren’t well enough known that they can make a living from national television,” said Mugge. “They are really hurting.”

Cayetano Hingle, a member of the New Birth Brass Band, which performed at the Jazz Fest last weekend, is still away from his native city. He moved his family to Houston and is hoping to come back this summer.

Still, Hingle sees the “glass half full” side of Katrina, noting more people are aware of the city’s diverse musical heritage.

“I think they get to hear the music a whole lot more and they’re enjoying the sound of the music and getting a better education on the music,” he said. “I think they appreciate it more.”