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Cities' musical bond strengthened by Katrina

New Orleans artists add to Austin rhythms, absorb some

Parry Gettelman
Cyril Neville and others give a show to Hurricane Katrina evacuees at the Austin Convention Center on Sept. 14, 2005.

"The gumbo has spilled into the chili," Cyril Neville proclaimed in the fall of 2005, after the devastation of New Orleans drove him and a host of his fellow musicians to relocate to Central Texas. The roster of notable evacuees included other members of his band, Tribe 13, as well as his nephew, Ivan Neville, keyboardist for the Neville Brothers and leader of Dumpstaphunk.

The Iguanas, long favorites of Continental Club crowds, regrouped in 78704 with their families and soon started holding down Wednesday nights at the Continental Club with the Texiles, a group that also included Ed Volker of the Radiators, saxophonist Tim Green, harmonica player Dale Spalding and Jeff Treffinger of the Geraniums. Noted composer-trumpeter Hannibal Lokumbe, a Smithville native, followed family ties back to Bastrop after the storm. Leigh Harris, known to fans as Little Queenie, had fortuitously been headed to Austin ahead of the storm to talk to Clifford Antone about holding a record release party — for an album that was ultimately a casualty of Katrina.

"The self-proclaimed Live Music Capital of the World ... is sounding a little funkier these days," pronounced The Washington Post.

Eventually, New Orleans again exerted its gravitational pull on most of the musicians who came to Austin after the storm. But the musical links between the two cities were strengthened, and time spent in Austin left its stamp on musicians, whether they stayed, moved back or moved on.

Barbara Prashner of funk-soul promoters FunkyBatz, which has brought Big Sam's Funky Nation, George Porter Jr., Bonerama and other New Orleans artists to Austin, said more Crescent City artists are routing tours through Austin than ever before.

"After Katrina, people came and started playing with a lot of Austin artists, and that created just an amazing synergy," she said.

Not only has Austin become a regular tour stop for New Orleans artists, Prashner said, but funk and soul have taken root here since Katrina, with Austin bands in those genres proliferating.

"New Orleans artists came here and got to know a lot of Austin artists, and had Austin collaborations," Prashner said. "Cyril has now moved back, and Ivan, I think, mostly spends his time in New Orleans, but there's been such a sharing aspect between the music scenes, and now a lot of Austin artists go play in New Orleans. It's a nice exchange."

Rod Hodges, singer, guitarist, accordionist and songwriter in the Iguanas, stayed in Austin with his family for about two years after Katrina, although his bandmates went home sooner.

"For me, personally, Texas music is a huge part of what I do, or at least what I think I do," Hodges said by phone from New Orleans. "Steve Jordan and Flaco Jimenez and San Antonio and that whole thing, that's always been like 40 percent of my inspiration for playing music."

Since the 1980s, Hodges had made regular pilgrimages to San Antonio, and residing in Austin gave him a chance to see Steve Jordan there more frequently. Moreover, Hodges got to hang out at the Continental and listen to Jon Dee Graham and James McMurtry on a regular basis.

"Just the whole respect for being a songwriter is a bigger thing there than it is here," Hodges said. "This is funk city, which is great, but just that aspect of it, going out and hearing good songwriters ... Getting people on the dance floor is a big part of what we (the Iguanas) do, but we also write songs, so it was great to be around people like that, Alejandro (Escovedo) and all those guys from over there."

The Iguanas released the well-received "If You Should Ever Fall on Hard Times" in 2008, and one of their older songs, "Is This Love?," underlined a pivotal scene in HBO's "Treme," which has used other Iguanas songs as well. However, in the post-Katrina, post-recession, post-BP New Orleans, finding gigs is a significant challenge.

"I still like being here. It's home," Hodges said. "But the music business side of it is not really that great right now."

Tim Green, a versatile saxophonist who has toured with the Iguanas and Cyril Neville , echoed Hodge's assessment .

"It's not easy in the Big Easy," Green said wryly. He returned after just a few months in Austin to repair his two properties and help rebuild New Orleans, but remembers his time here with great fondness.

"It was the best place I could have gone. I have no doubt about it," said Green, who was on tour in San Francisco when Katrina hit the coast. He stayed briefly in Dallas with acclaimed jazz trumpeter Dennis Gonzalez, but knew he wouldn't find work there, and heeded the exhortations of Cyril Neville and the Iguanas.

"They just said, 'Tim, you gotta be there; this is the place.' And if circumstances were different, who knows — I might have stayed a very long time."

With a background not only in music, but also in civic affairs and services for the disabled and homeless, Green had opportunities in Austin for a job in city government, as well as gigs.

"I have to say, Austin pretty much rolled the red carpet out for me. I was so well treated, it was remarkable ," Green said. There's a long list of Austinites to whom he's deeply grateful, including then-mayor Will Wynn, entertainment lawyer Cam Husty, Chuy's owner Mike Young, the Continental's Steve Wertheimer and musicians Natalie Zoe, Papa Mali and Marcia Ball.

"Marcia Ball. I don't think there was a New Orleans musician that she didn't do something for," Green said. "I mean, I've told her since Katrina when I've seen her that she's an absolute angel on earth, and it embarrassed her but it's the truth."

He stayed in an apartment across from a park, near Rundberg Lane, and remembers the day he finally asked the office manager why the rent for his nice place was so cheap. He was shocked to learn he was living in public housing.

"I was so impressed by that," he recalled. "This is public housing? I felt like I was in a condominium."

After returning to New Orleans in November 2005, Green scraped by until the population, and the club dates, began to return. By 2007, he had more work than he'd ever had in his life, but after about a year, the bottom started falling out of the local and national economies. He still has a Monday-through-Thursday residency on Bourbon Street with Konnection, the dance band he leads, and he just received a copy of the album he recorded with Gonzalez this February. In addition, he has appeared in "Treme." But he used to make much of his living on the road, and times are lean.

"I'm surviving pretty well. I know how to take care of myself," Green said. "But I haven't been on an airplane in over a year and a half, and that's very strange for me."

Hannibal Lokumbe, for some 25 years a fixture on the New York jazz scene, moved to New Orleans in 1999 to become composer in residence at the Contemporary Arts Center. He enjoyed an extraordinarily fruitful period in the city, writing numerous tributes to civil rights leaders, including a jazz opera inspired by Medgar Evers and the choral-symphonic "Dear Mrs. Parks," recently released on the Naxos label.

"I probably did about 20 years worth of work in about five years," Lokumbe said from his home in Bastrop.

He loved the people of New Orleans and his daily interactions with other artists in a wide variety of media. By comparison, he sometimes feels a bit isolated in Bastrop, but Texas is home again now.

"It's too heart-breaking to go back," Lokumbe said. "I do go back occasionally, but I don't make a habit of it. I still have people that I adore there. But there are many that just died, absolutely from heartbreak, a broken heart, and I figured that if I stayed there, and saw what had left, if I had just seen the amount of people and the beauty that had left the place, I probably would've had a heart attack, too."

Lokumbe now lives about a 10-minute walk from the spot where his great-grandfather settled as an escaped slave. In addition to performing some of his works in Central Texas , Lokumbe has been writing a piece based on the journey of his great-grandfather, commissioned by the Kimmel Center in Philadelphia, and plans to follow his ancestor's steps back to an island off the coast of Liberia. He's also working on his Music Liberation project to bring healing to the incarcerated through a combination of genealogy, journal writing, literature and music.

"I see music as the true power of rehabilitation," he said.

Although Lokumbe frequently performs in upscale venues, he's determined that his music should be accessible to all. And to that end, he's playing solo at the Austin Museum of Art on Sept. 2, honoring what would have been the 99th birthday of artist Romare Bearden with new compositions. On Oct. 24, he's reading a text he's been writing at Smithville's Zion Hill Baptist Church, which was founded by his Liberian great-grandfather. Several of his New Orleans friends and colleagues will be in attendance.

"Africa is still in me, and so is New Orleans still in me," Lokumbe said.