Art Doc of the Week | New Orleans Music in Exile

If one American city can lay claim to being the root of American music, it’s New Orleans. Detroit, Memphis, Nashville, Philly, Kansas City, St. Louis, and Chicago are immeasurably important tributaries, but New Orleans – that port city which serves as bridge and gateway to countries and commerce, as point of synthesis for countless cultural influences – stands alone in its significance. It’s the cradle from which sprang jazz, blues, R&B, Cajun music and so much more. When Hurricane Katrina wreaked havoc on the city in August of 2005, the loss was incalculable in terms of both lives lost and cultural institutions and traditions either wiped out or severely, if not permanently, crippled.

In New Orleans Music in Exile, documentarian Robert Mugge (Sun Ra: A Joyful Noise; Sonny Rollins Saxophone Colossus; Gospel According to Al Green) tries to capture not only what has been damaged or erased, but whatever sliver of hope might be gleaned from the wreckage. He filmed over a two-and-a-half week period, not only in New Orleans but also Austin, LaFayette and Houston (places various musicians landed post-Katrina) and Philadelphia (where rock legend Dr. John is interviewed after a concert, some weeks after principle filming wrapped). There’s no experimenting with or pushing of the documentary form, and there’s no need for it. The real-life tale contains more than enough dramatic tension, not only around the hurricane but the reassembling of lives once the water recedes.

The film opens with harrowing news footage of the hurricane and its aftermath (homes under water; people being rescued from rooftops; citizens walking along the highway seeking refuge and help) and a cataloguing of the infrastructure failures and government ineptitude that deepened the effects of the tragedy. Interviews with local radio deejays and music critics contextualize and historicize New Orleans music and the myriad factors (including Native American traditions and the music of African slaves) that continue to make the city a unique port of cultural production. Cyril Neville notes that, “Each neighborhood in New Orleans was a village, and [the villages] had a lot in common but also a lot that was unique to them.” And it was in the intermingling of each village’s signature sounds that New Orleans music was born and flourished.

Performance footage from a wide array of performers – some globally famous stars, others local legends – is intercut with densely informative history lessons and sobering commentary on the New Orleans music scene in the wake of Katrina. While there is ample reason to despair of what is gone and irreplaceable, Mugge also captures the slivered hope and firm determination to rebuild and honor not only the past, but the sparks that make the future a possibility.

New Orleans Music in Exile is available on Blu-Ray November 18. In addition to the film itself, the release includes several bonus features: public radio executive David Spizale’s illustrated story of rescuing stranded residents from the New Orleans flood waters; Jon Cleary performing a personalized history of New Orleans piano styles; six musical performances not included in the film; and seven extended versions of performances which were are in the film – all of them shot and mastered on HD video.

Top photo of Cyril Neville courtesy Derek Bridges/Flickr