The Sound After the Storm is a moving documentary about the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. It’s about a musician, a photographer and a historian who use jazz to help us see the scale of the destruction and how art and creativity is helping them get through it. Singer Lillian Boutté, only the second musician in the city’s history since Louis Armstrong to be given the title of ‘Jazz Ambassador of New Orleans,’ spoke to EXBERLINER about the devastating hurricane and its aftermath – and about the musical rebirth of the city she loves.
When Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in 2005 it was covered by a lot of media, but then the interest died pretty quickly. How do you feel about that?
It was shocking for me to see my city be so wrecked. I was not in New Orleans and had trouble reaching my family. All we could see on the news were people on the roofs of their houses, the area completely flooded. What got me the most was that helicopters were flying over the area, filming but not helping the people who were in immediate threat by the water.
A journalist asked President Bush about this and he answered that they were not allowed to help unless it was a total emergency. It was insane. But it is also a very good example of how politics and bureaucracy can get in the way of getting help to the people. A lot of people from all across the world wanted to help right after the hurricane. Switzerland had engineers, Doctors Beyond Borders were getting ready to help, but they were not allowed in. Bush wouldn’t let them in. To me this is beyond comprehension.
How is the situation now?
A lot of things have not been taken care of. Only about 25 percent of the people who lost their homes have a new one today. A lot of houses were gutted right after the storm in order to get dried out. But then the owners had to stand by and watch while the government bulldozed their homes, without notifying them before. Now most of the people who are homeless stay at friends’, since there is not that much public housing. It’s great to see how the community is pitching in, but at the same time this should have been avoided in the first place.
Even though it’s been five years, the city still needs help. We have given so much to the United States, the world, through sharing our culture, our music. It is amazing how much of the city and it’s inhabitants is still affected by the aftermath, not only by the hurricane, but by the oil spill as well. Just as the marine life has started to recover, we now have to deal with another catastrophe.
How do the musicians deal with the consequences of the disaster?
It’s easier and it’s harder at the same time. As a lot of musicians do not have insurance, they do not have a way to cover their debt. If they get sick, they only have one clinic to turn to. This is the musicians’ clinic in New Orleans, which I have been raising money for since the day Hurricane Katrina hit the city. The government funds have been cut and there is no money coming in, except for the money we raise. A lot of people still get sick, even now. Some might have died of heartache, but others have died of stress. The elements that were around them made them sick later.
What role did music play in the process of healing?
After Katrina there was a silence that was unheard of in New Orleans. All the cicadas had died; the musicians had fled; people were in shock. Then it slowly started to come back. The first sound back in the city was the sound of horns. The kids who returned didn’t have many schools to go to or much money to buy equipment. But the people of the city started to donate instruments, because they knew that there was music in those kids. Some of these kids came back and they wanted to express what they had gone through. And if they didn’t put it in words, they put it in music. All this new energy also changed the sound of the city. Everything that got washed away returned in a new light.
I think also that people from the outside might now be able to relate to the music and the city in a different way, as they now know our history. Documentaries like this one have helped to spread the story of our city, but they have also tried to convey the story of our hearts, which is expressed through music in particular, and art in general.