Exile on Bourbon Street
Kermit Ruffins plays at the premiere of Music in Exile.
"Nothing as traumatic had ever happened to American music," says filmmaker Robert Mugge. "This was Armageddon." The trauma was Hurricane Katrina, and in his 2006 documentary New Orleans Music in Exile, Mugge vividly illustrates how the storm was also a cataclysm for a city that holds a totemic influence across American music.
Rather than capturing the impossible sprawl of the city's musical history, Music In Exile focuses on individual performers and how they managed to survive the storm — often far away from home. As the film's title suggests, it was a post-Katrina existence lived not in New Orleans itself but in cities all over the Deep South, like Memphis, Lafayette, Houston, and Austin.
Ten years later, the doc is getting a Blu-ray rerelease, and the grim New Orleans its two hours depict is hardly recognizable. Music in the city is once again thriving, with a flourishing of homegrown genres, like bounce, that have been percolating in the Big Easy for decades. There's been a sharp increase in gigs for local musicians thanks to soaring tourism numbers, and local heroes are popping up on the national stage. "[Now] there are big benefit concerts, rock stars with New Orleans artists," Mugge tells the Voice. "So many New Orleans artists got out of New Orleans and got better known."
Over a decade after the levees broke, "resilience" — a phrase repeated, mantra-like, by city boosters on the occasion of the storm's tenth anniversary last year — has become a moldy cliché in New Orleans. But the post-Katrina era has nonetheless seen a swelling of pride in the city's identity, including a boom in shows for local acts such as the great trumpeter (and Treme star) Kermit Ruffins, who appeared in the documentary. "It's definitely got a hundred percent better as far as me," Ruffins says. "I'm blessed to have gigs all over the world, and there are so many youngsters in school in New Orleans playing jazz."
Many of the other musicians Mugge profiled have also recovered, including Paul Sanchez, of long-running blues-rock act Cowboy Mouth. "In the four years after the flood," Sanchez remembers, "I lived in nine different places." He's settled back in New Orleans and gigs constantly, playing multiple shows a week. But while it's a welcome renaissance, it makes reflecting on the immediate aftermath of Katrina even more gut-wrenching. "I looked back at the film recently and saw how heavily sedated I was, how in denial I was," Sanchez says. "No pain could be that great. No loss could be that great. There was no sense of direction — it was like we couldn't find our way back home."
Like Spike Lee's sprawling When the Levees Broke, which was filmed a few months after Mugge left New Orleans, Music in Exile offers indispensable snapshots of those earliest moments of local culture warriors resuscitating a city left for dead. "I didn't want to make an exposé," Mugge explains, although he did make a point to pin the disastrous aftermath on the levees and not the storm itself. "I wanted to make a film about a tragic event that was going to change the lives of musicians forever, in the place where American music was born."
While those changes have ultimately — and astonishingly — been for the better when it comes to music in the city, the story of post-Katrina New Orleans culture isn't entirely triumphant. The poverty rate among New Orleans youth has returned to pre-Katrina levels even as real estate prices and rents have skyrocketed; 37 percent of renters spend more than half their income on housing. It's a smaller city now, short about 100,000 residents since the storm, with an influx of wealthier newcomers. Luke Allen, a musician who co-owns a nightclub on the bustling strip of St. Claude Avenue, says that "guys with advanced degrees [are] coming in and asking me about bartending gigs." What progress has been made was driven by music, Allen says, pointing to the esprit de corps born of tragedy. "Those were wonderful years — it felt like occupied Paris. Musicians were so connected and so close, and the battle for the recovery was so important."
Sanchez, from Cowboy Mouth, sees New Orleans's vast cultural import likewise carrying it through the current moment of economic uncertainty. "Are the people moving here changing New Orleans? I don't think so," he says. "People come here for the poetry and romance and mystery, and they bring that sensibility with them. America has been trying to change New Orleans for three hundred years. But you don't change New Orleans — we change you."
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene each week with music news, trends, artist interviews and concert listings. We'll also send you special ticket offers and music deals.