Katrina scattered New Orleans musicians, but, wherever they are, the beat goes on
By MICHAEL KRUSE
Published October 23, 2005
[Photos: Joe Tabacca]
Cristian Duque of the New Orleans band Soul Project belts out a tune at the Saint in Asbury Park, N.J. The band shed a few members and gathered a few new ones when it landed up North in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.
BELMAR, N.J. - One evening at the beginning of the second month of life after Katrina, the guys who make up the New Orleans band called the Soul Project sat in a house that smelled like cigarette smoke.
Cristian Duque needed some black socks to wear with his thrift-store suit at that night's gig way up here on the Jersey Shore.
"I had like 10 pairs," he said. "I don't know where they are."
He hardly knows where he is anymore. Cristian is laid-back, with heavy dreads, baggy jeans and big-toed boots, but now he's the leader of a young funk band with no real home.
The Soul Project has played at Tipitina's and the Maple Leaf and at Jazz Fest and in the French Quarter, but they're not famous or rich. They're among the many gig-to-gig New Orleans music makers that make up the city's unique and celebrated culture.
Now it's all over the place: The sweaty syncopated sound and those chesty warm-weather rhythms still exist, but in smaller, scattered doses. The city's estimated 3,000 to 5,000 working musicians have become a loose network of 504-area-code cell phones and message-board posts on Web sites like tipitinas.com and www.wwoz.org
Every street musician, every horn player, every band, whether anybody's ever heard of them or not - they are dealing with the question that now hangs like Spanish moss:
Can the New Orleans sound still be that New Orleans sound if it's no longer in New Orleans?
The Soul Project is a small piece of the musical part of this great diaspora.
"Chillin in New Jersey," Cristian's post says on tipitinas.com.
"Keeping the sounds alive." Or at least trying.
At the band's home page on the Web: ". . . inviting anyone who has nowhere to go to come stay with us . . . "
Here in Jersey, where the radio plays rock and rap and the live scene veers from punk to singer-songwriter to amped-up metal bands, with lots of local boy Bruce.
Where Philly's not far and New York City is a $10 train ride away and the apartment rentals go cheap after Labor Day.
Where the hotel pools have been covered with tarps and the seasonal snack shacks have been shut and the Atlantic now turns a darker shade of blue and the evening breezes start to carry the kind of cool that says winter's on the way.
New Orleans' Soul Project was sprawled on couches with sleeping pillows squished on the ends in the two-story house they were sharing with three cats, two fish and a talking parrot named Tequila.
And Cristian. Still looking for those socks.
There, on the floor, near the TV getting flipped back and forth from Law & Order to CNN. Black socks.
"Whose are these?" he asked.
Shrugs. His now.
"We gotta be on stage in 40 minutes," Cristian told his guys. "We should leave in five minutes or we're f - - - - -."
Time to go.
* * *
The way it was:
"From my tiny creole cottage "office' in Treme, we used to watch (and hear) the kids from Craig Elementary walking home after school playing their trombones and trumpets in the streets. They would eventually move on to play in a handful of high school bands, the leaders of whom were part of a handful of family dynasties that passed down those peculiar African rhythms which make it almost impossible for a non-New Orleanian to play drums for a New Orleans band." - David Freedman, general manager, WWOZ 90.7 FM New Orleans.
The way it is:
"Got out of New Orleans with a mandolin and acoustic guitar." - Jim, in Shreveport, La., on tipitinas.com.
"I am a songwriter-poet. Everything washed away. Peace to all of us in this world. Family of four currently in Florida. Anyone with a studio. I need to express." - Jay, in Orlando, on tipitinas.com.
"It's happening. It's spreading. People are going to want our stuff. They're going to want our music." - Donna Santiago, general administrator of the Backbeat Fund, in an interview with a reporter.
* * *
On the shore, at a Katrina benefit at the Downtown Cafe in Red Bank on a Monday night, Mardi Gras beads hung from the mic stands and gold masks dangled from the walls.
Bright white candles on the long black bar.
Soul Project sax player Steve Miller got a gin and tonic. His drink. His first since.
"Cheers," Cristian said.
"Cheers," Steve said.
Cristian's Yuengling in a bottle. Steve's gin and tonic in a glass. Clink.
Raphaelle O'Neil, long legs, dark hair, 30 years old, had arrived from New Orleans via Virginia Beach. Used to live with Soul Project trumpeter Antonio Gambrell. She was drinking champagne and said she hadn't heard music since that Saturday night when she walked out of the Maple Leaf and into that rain that was hard and getting harder.
On the tall tables: sushi and pink cosmopolitans.
On the stage, though: N'Awlins.
Most of the band had spent the summer here, anyway, because this place speeds up when New Orleans slows down. Now their stay up North was going to be stretched out at least for the next few months and maybe even a year.
The regular trombone player isn't here, and neither is the regular drummer, and some Jersey guys are now part of the group: Chris Fitzgerald, construction worker, on the sax, and Rich Smith, AC and heat, on the drums.
But most of the core was here.
Steve Miller on the sax and Gambrell on the trumpet with his horn-high solos. Big Jeff Harris with the fedora, the barrel-waisted blue jeans and the shiny silver cross hanging from his neck. Chris Wahnsiedler, bass, the youngest of the bunch, who had gone from Indiana to New Orleans to visit a girlfriend and ended up falling in love - with the city, not the girl.
The Soul Project played with that New Orleans sound.
Bouncy and big-chested.
High-energy but not herky-jerky.
After the set, Big Jeff, New Orleans born and raised, sat on a bar stool upstairs. On the Downtown's second-floor stage were three young kids with skin-tight shirts and jeans and head-banging hair. Yelling enough to make Big Jeff get up and walk downstairs and order a burger.
"Music," he said now in the blue-lit back of the bar, "should sound the way a woman walks."
Not all women walk the same, he explained, but no woman walks like that.
The Soul Project had gathered by Big Jeff.
"I was kind of rusty," Raphaelle told the guys.
She did a dance move like a stiff robot.
"I got that oil can for ya," Cristian said. He made a sound like a squeak-squeak-squeak.
He slapped hands with Steve Miller.
By the time they were all back on stage it was 1:16.
"This," bass-playing Chris said, "is when we get started in New Orleans."
* * *
The way it almost certainly will be:
"Can only be less than were there before. The less that come back, the more of a ghost of itself New Orleans will become." - Freedman, WWOZ, on how many musicians will come back.
"The longer people stay away, the worse it's going to be." - Jan Ramsey, publisher of Offbeat magazine, in an interview.
The way it could be:
"I've watched bands leave the Crescent City and lose their funkiness, their sense of spontaneity which, like ensemble improvisatory actors, can only happen when they spend endless time performing together. There is the issue of critical mass. . . . Presence, nay, omnipresence, is the issue." - Freedman, WWOZ, in an e-mail.
"If I have to go down to New Orleans and stand in the water, or stand in the mud to play . . . I will." - B.B. King, in the Washington Times, on playing at Jazz Fest in April.
"Those things that are most dear cannot be drowned - the grooves and the second line, the way you feel inside when you hear Professor Longhair. Even when you're sitting down, that's in you." - Allen Toussaint, New Orleans music icon, in Rolling Stone.
* * *
Cristian once lived in a warehouse and cooked convenience-store hot dogs over candles when the power was out. Steve once played a gig at a grand opening for a Popeye's. The Soul Project is a working band, with working musicians, who pay their bills by playing their instruments.
They moved to New Orleans to do that.
"It's like an ant farm," Steve said between sets, in a different bar, on another night in Jersey. "You see some of the ants. But there are so many underneath."
"That's what keeps the music alive," Antonio said. "The ants underneath."
Steve has decided to stay a final couple of weeks with the Soul Project and then move to Chicago.
Antonio doesn't know yet.
Cristian says he's going back. Chris Wahnsiedler too. Big Jeff's from there, so of course he's going back, he says.
Even if they're not exactly moving away from New Orleans, not yet, they are moving on. There is no choice.
Cristian has a new Bank of America card. He drinks Pennsylvania's Yuengling up here instead of Louisiana-brewed Abita. Antonio's Red Cross card is maxed out and now he's on the phone with FEMA.
Chris looked at a place in Ocean Grove before settling on an apartment in Belmar with his wife, due to arrive at the end of the week.
The rest of the core of the Soul Project - Cristian, Big Jeff, Antonio, Steve at least for the next little bit - moved on a Thursday morning from the smoky house in Belmar to a slightly more permanent place in nearby Bradley Beach.
The fully furnished house is yellow with a porch and flower pots with some last-gasp petunias a block and a half up from the empty sand. Rent in the summer is $1,000 a week. Now it's only $1,100 a month.
The landlord had promised Big Jeff "gumbo pots."
There were seashells on the shower curtain and a fake Monet on the wall above the couch.
Cristian turned on the TV. It wasn't hooked up. It showed fuzz.
"I do that all the time," he said.
"It animates a dead space, man."
A guy rang from the club in Asbury Park called the Saint.
Fill-in late that night?
Cristian's business card says the Soul Project plays jazzfunkbluessoulcool. His credo: "We'll play anywhere."
At the downtown in Red Bank. At a 50-bucks-a-plate benefit at a fancy New Orleans-"style" bistro in Highlands. At the Saint, a tight Jersey dive with Pabst on tap, and at the Lake Como Pub in Belmar with hazy smoke under green pool-table lights and Jersey boys with muscle shirts.
One gig was close by, at a little place called the Ragin Cajun, where the ice water comes in mason jars out of which sweet tea gets drunk in the swampy South.
Chris, his bass on his back, wanted to walk over. The wind blew hard. His cigarette was a hot orange dot in the cold black dark.
"Why'd we come up here again?" he said.
He laughed. He finished the cigarette and walked across some railroad tracks.
Inside the Cajun was a long table with seven people sitting in the center of the small room. Two people were at another table. Then someone eating alone.
"We're the Soul Project from New Orleans," Cristian said into a microphone he didn't really need. "By way of Belmar, New Jersey," he added this time.
At the end of their dinner the party of seven got up and left. The cold fall air came in through the open door. The waitress stood and watched in the back and the Soul Project played on. Louder now. Louder than before.
- Times researcher Cathy Wos contributed to this report, which includes information from the New York Times, the Washington Times and Rolling Stone. Michael Kruse can be reached at email@example.com or 352 848-1434.