Rebirth Melodies: Music’s Instrumental Hold in the Rebuilding Efforts of New Orleans after Katrina

By Flavia CrovesiInterdisciplinary Studies, Cycle 2, 2011



This article assesses the work done by charities and local music venues to revitalize the musical culture in New Orleans in the years following the devastation left in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. The physical destruction of the homes and instruments of local musicians prompted various organizations to aid those in need by building houses, donating instruments, and providing more venues which help showcase musical talent. Similarly, budget cuts to music programs in school indicated that the future of this rich New Orleanais tradition would suffer. As such, organizations have also begun work in teaching aspects of the music industry, from performing to entertainment management, to the musicians within the city. Charities and organizations which recognized the part that music has played in this city’s culture throughout history aided in revitalizing the music community and preserving its heritage. As we have witnessed the severe physical, medical and economic destruction left after Katrina and the measures taken to repair them in New Orleans, we can truly see the lengths to which many have gone to preserve the music which lies at the very core of the Crescent City.


In August of 2005, one of the most devastating natural disasters in American history, Hurricane Katrina, struck the shores of New Orleans. The rebuilding efforts highlighted by mass media included the structural, economic, political, and health related issues, but the cultural rebuilding struggle experienced by this city remained in the shadows of the media spotlight. Music lies at the very core of New Orleans’ culture which makes the people from the Big Easy tick to the melody of their sweet jazz. During everyday events, parades, and even funerals, music has been a prominent and recognizable element of this unique culture. From musicians Louis Armstrong, Fats Domino, and, more recently, Lil Wayne, revolutionary musicians have all honed their craft in this eclectic city. The musical culture was impacted negatively at first by the physical destruction of music establishments and the washing away of musical instruments; yet with unbearable suffering comes new hope and in New Orleans’ case, the will power to regenerate and maintain their rich musical heritage rather than leaving it as a minor detail in the overall rebuilding efforts. Local and national music artist, such as Harry Connick Jr., have drawn inspiration from the tragic events that plagued the city. Utilizing their assets to raise funds, artists have aided the city in returning to a physically and musically active community. Newly established charities not only help in the reconstruction of buildings and homes but also with the replacement and compensation of damaged instruments to paid musicians, who in turn lift the spirits of those suffering by sharing their passions and talent for music. The actions of music charities in New Orleans are particularly effective because they provide help to the community as a whole as well as personalized service to their clients. They do not offer a blanket solution to the varying levels of assistance which the music community in New Orleans so desperately needed. Efforts in New Orleans bring more attention to the importance of music in times of distress and lend comfort to those who suffered from disaster showing that no matter how devastating the situation was, the music was not drowned out. In this article the relief efforts that have revitalized all aspects of the musical community of New Orleans will be qualitatively analyzed. Direct source information from various charities will be primarily used to illustrate the multi-toned approach to salvaging and maintaining the rich musical culture of the city. Personal inferences, media publications, and limited peer reviewed sources, due to the lack of published scholarly material encompassing this topic, will be utilized to examine the actions of these charities and their work with the music culture of New Orleans.

A Full Octave of Construction: Physical Rebuilding

Following the tragic destruction left by the storm, a booming musical renaissance began in New Orleans with the goal of reestablishing the musicians in the city. Logically, aiding the families of those responsible for the vibrant musical culture which existed before the storm would be the first step in revitalizing the musical spirit in the residents of this city. Charities nation-wide gave money and time to help rebuild this aspect of the culture, though one charity has certainly taken the lead in this effort. The Musicians’ Village, conceived by musicians and New Orleans natives Harry Connick Jr. and Brandford Marsalis, was created as a response to Hurricane Katrina. This branch of Habitat for Humanity extended a hand to musicians and their families in response to the loss of physical refuge caused by the storm. It was designed to construct a community and preserve a culture. The project is an “establishment of a community for the city’s several generations of musicians and other families, many of whom had lived in inadequate housing prior to the catastrophe and remain displaced in its aftermath. A central part of this vision is the establishment of a focal point for teaching, sharing and preserving the rich musical tradition of a city that has done so much to shape the art of the past century” (Musicians’ Village). The organization focused its efforts on the rebuilding of zero-interest financing homes for musicians and their families, and, by extension, rebuilding the strong musical culture which those displaced musicians were the foundation for. The chosen location for the Musicians’ Village was the Upper Ninth Ward where the most severe damage was caused by the reckless storm. Members within this community had less opportunity and funds to organize efforts for themselves; therefore, it became an appropriate location for the rebuilding to begin. Since the beginning of the project, all seventy-two single family homes which were originally included in the project plans have been completely reconstructed with help from volunteers primarily within the community. Since Musicians’ Village was designed for the cultural maintenance of the rich music that permeates New Orleans, the neighborhood would not have been complete without the construction of the Ellis Marsalis Center for Music. This cultural center, scheduled for completion in 2011, houses the legendarily ethnic and cultured music of the city. The organization took this physical structure to the next level by promoting new music and talent from within the Musicians’ Village community as well as including students from the surrounding city. By building classrooms and organizing programs open to the public, both the neighborhood and citywide community would be invited to share in the joyous rebirth of musical talent. Due to its location within the Upper Ninth Ward, the music center will attract talented students and instructors who are equally devoted to the maintenance of New Orleans’ musical culture. This beautiful creation of Musicians’ Village “has proven to be the leading example of how a meaningful vision and focused efforts can provide immediate relief as well as long-term hope for the survival of a great city and many of its most essential citizens” (Musicians’ Village). Habitat for Humanity is widely acknowledged as a pioneer in restoring devastated and underdeveloped areas to their full potential. The example set by this organization was key in sparking effective and efficient aid for the musical culture, which was left in pieces after the devastation of hurricane Katrina.

Deep Crevices of the Heart of New Orleans: Soul

Although organizations such as Musicians’ Village are aimed at the physical rebuilding that accompanies the musical rebirth within the city, there are many organizations that have focused their relief efforts on the revitalization of the music itself. Tipitina’s Foundation is devoted to the maintenance and rebirth of New Orleans’ important musical culture. The main goals of this foundation are to “support Louisiana and New Orleans’ irreplaceable music community and preserve the state’s unique musical cultures” (Tipitina’s). The birth of this multi-faceted organization stems from the famous Tipitina’s music venue which promotes and launches Louisiana music around the world with their well-known name as advertised by E! Entertainment Television, Esquire, Rolling Stone, and Bride magazines (Tipitina’s). The foundation is broken into four distinct organizations that promote music industry-related goals in reconstructing the musical culture within the city. These different branches allow for a wider web of relief efforts within the music industry, which reach a wide range of musicians at once. Serving more than 2,400 members within the state of Louisiana, Tipitina’s Music Office Co-Op, is a string of business centers that provide job skill training for local musicians, filmmakers, and other digital media professionals throughout the state. Another similar program offered is Tipitina’s Internship Program. This program offers classes in various aspects of the music industry to music students by teaching software techniques, design for promotion labels, and managerial tactics, among other services. Originally created in 2003, the program has taken off and helped in reestablishing the music culture after Katrina in New Orleans by having over 100 interns successfully complete the internship program and going on to further their education at schools including Juilliard, Brown, NYU, Full Sail, and Berkley College. Tipina’s Foundation gives musicians an in depth understanding of all aspects of the music industry so that they may be better equipped to handle the pressures of such business. The other two divisions of Tipitina’s Foundation, Instruments A’ Comin and Sunday Music Workshops, will be discussed in the following paragraphs. An organization such as Tipitina’s Foundation focuses on the big picture of keeping the music alive everywhere in New Orleans, yet the most important part of the rebuilding of the musical culture lie within the youth of the city.

Strong Foundations: Inspiring the Youth

By using music education to inspire the youth of New Orleans, the seed for a stronger, livelier music community in New Orleans is planted early, ensuring an extended blooming period for the musical culture as a whole. The economy within the United Sates in recent years has been suffering due to many internal and external problems and in a city suffering from physical and cultural damage, the monetary situation could not have looked worse after Katrina tore through the Big Easy. As is true of most communities, when money is scarce, the budget cuts affect the arts first. The impact of financial crisis on any aspect of life is unfavorable, but in a city like New Orleans, which has thrived both culturally and economically on music throughout history, the impacts of the crisis and its accompanying budget cuts were more devastating. The youth of New Orleans are being most directly affected by necessary budget decisions to cut arts funding. For example, most music programs within the city’s public school system have had to withstand fatal blows to their operations. Music related courses have been cancelled due to there not being enough funds to pay the educators. This is detrimental to the music education of the area, which provides for less opportunity to advance the evolution of music. Charity programs such as Tipitina’s Foundation are working to intervene and halt the discontinuation of many vital music programs. The Tipitina’s Foundation is devoting itself not only to the promotion of music culture, but to its maintenance as well. One branch of the company holds Sunday Music Workshops. These free classes allow students to play and learn from world-class musicians including Stanton Moore, Johnny Vidacovich, Kirk Joseph, and Theresa Anderson. A different campaign dubbed Silence Is Violence is an anti-violence movement founded following the murders of New Orleans musicians and filmmakers Dinerral Shavers and Helen Hill. The founders of this movement were filled with grief but used their friends’ stories to launch a campaign to bring awareness to unspoken violence in New Orleans. This campaign has expanded to helping the youth by establishing music programs as part of diminishing youth violence. Their mission is to promote a safe environment within all of New Orleans’ communities, including music. They make it a priority to “engage the youth in positive expressions and actions to counter the culture of violence… [and] demand respect for every life, and justice for every citizen in [the] city” (Silence Is Violence). This positive campaign has included music clinics for the youth of New Orleans. Children of all ages attend these free clinics to learn about music and the musical culture of the city. Each session, once a week, consists of a time for instruction, a dinner break, followed by a casual “jam-session”. Youths come to explore the world of music or to continue their interests in the musical community by receiving instruction and direction while being in a violence free environment. These classrooms provide a way for the children of New Orleans to occupy their time in a constructive environment.

Lost in the Storm: Washed up Trumpets?

Katrina temporarily washed away the musical culture in New Orleans, but it also physically destroyed the instruments of musicians throughout the city. However, local musicians were not the only ones who suffered from this devastation, as many public schools were robbed of their instruments as well. New Orleans musicians need their instruments to perform their craft, so various charities targeted this specific missing cornerstone of the rebuilding process. Another branch of the Tipitina’s Foundation is geared towards the replenishing of musical instruments in school bands. The program, named “Instruments A Comin,’” has provided over two million dollars’ worth of bran new, high quality instruments to local school band programs. The foundation works closely with school band directors to tailor their donations to the specific needs of each school. To reduce the cost of purchasing new instruments, Tipitina’s purchases highly discounted instruments from reputable dealers, helping to ensure the longevity of the service and expanding it to more schools. Part of Tipitina’s foundation, established in 2001 and gaining increased importance following Katrina in 2005, helps musicians by providing them with recycled instruments. This program encourages Americans around the country and encourages them to donate used instruments that are still in workable or fixable conditions, which will then be delivered to musicians in need. This problem has not been adequately addressed by the media as is obvious due to lack of news coverage, but, as Frank Malfitano, producer of the Syracuse Jazz Festival states, “The loss of thousands of instruments in New Orleans is one of the most underpublicized tragedies of Katrina…but we can bring the music back” (Melrose). Another charity conceived by David Howell Evan (U2’s“The Edge”), Bob Ezrin, and Henry Juszkiewics in partnership with Gibson Musical Instruments, Guitar Center Music Foundation, MusiCares, and Musician’s Friend is called Music Rising and devotes itself to also compensating local musicians in New Orleans, a city previously silenced by Katrina. This organization has many phases of outreach, which include local musicians, churches, and music clubs, including the prestigious Preservation Jazz Hall. By holding auctions and through donors, the organization has had the largest influence on replenishing the instruments throughout the city. While some relief foundations would discontinue aid of this magnitude to a region after a short period of time in exchange for a more fresh location in need, Music Rising has continued its presence in the city of New Orleans, and has also extended its helping hand into other cities in the surrounding Gulf area (Music Rising). As illustrated in the efforts of both of these foundations, which have obviously recognized the importance of music in the New Orleans culture, the foundations have stepped in with a unique method to aiding the music rebirth. As the music culture was detrimentally affected by the disaster, these charities were pioneers of this new form of musical aid because of the unique, specific services they offered.

New Beginning, Same Direction: Music after Disaster

Local charities and volunteers were able to help the music community in New Orleans after Katrina by aiding local musicians in the rebuilding process. Venues that were damaged and reopened struggled to attract musicians because they couldn’t compensate artists well. In turn, musicians had trouble booking gigs because of the low demand for entertainment in an economically fragile community. In August of 2010, The Times-Picayune newspaper reported that the earnings from music are down 43% when compared to the overwhelmingly competitive musical business prior to Katrina in 2005 (Fensterstock). A local non-profit organization called Sweet Home New Orleans was started after the levees were breached in 2005 and continues to help musicians get back on their feet and find work again to live a more sustainable life. Through community revitalization, which includes cultural education and empowerment, economic development, which creates music industry job opportunities, and social services, Sweet Home New Orleans creates a well-rounded experience for their customers in need. The mission to repopulate the music community in New Orleans through a local effort is how the roots of music are being replanted within the city (Sweet Home). As local musicians band together for their beloved craft’s sake, the New Orleans Jazz advocates along with New Orleans Musicians Assistance Foundation started Save NOLA Music to “perpetuate and strengthen American’s only indigenous art form, Jazz, in the city of its birth” (Save New Orleans).

Lights, Camera … Music! : Media Efforts

Working to aid the city further, nationally-known musicians have also assisted in helping this musical rebirth explosion in New Orleans after Katrina showing that the musical culture center found in New Orleans isn’t just important to the people who originate or have connections to the city, but it’s the foundation of music from around the country. Media is the most prominent way of communication and raising awareness in today’s society, therefore it is no surprise that multiple media outlets played a crucial effort in the rebirth of the devastated city. A new television series inspired by the effects of Katrina in New Orleans called Treme was filmed shortly following the disaster which trailed the lives of people trying to move forward with their lives, including a musician was also portrayed as struggling to make ends meet even in such a musically rich city (Treme). This TV series shed light on some of the dramatized realities plaguing New Orleans, which in turn, in my opinion, inspired people to help, especially within the music community, which lies at the core of the city. Another national music relief effort was publicized through the popular music software, iTunes. The online music store set up direct donation links to help in the relief effort as well as highlight musicians who had written and recorded songs to help heal and identify with the devastation of the city. Many telethons also attended by celebrities from around the country helped raise awareness to raise money for a multitude of different organizations including music charities.


The silence of the city of New Orleans after the hard blow of hurricane Katrina didn’t last long. The musical culture had to be revived even if the venues were destroyed, the instruments washed away, and the peoples’ spirits broken. The art of music, which composes much of the culture of New Orleans, never drowned when the levees broke. It is because of this melodic spirit that the community was prompted to revitalize their beloved city through music. It is evident that throughout the rebuilding efforts in New Orleans, music and culture have been on the back burner as far as the media is concerned; however, the impact that music has had upon the city since its beginning is vital to the rebuilding of the New Orleans community and was recognized by several charities, which footed the relief efforts geared towards regaining and maintaining such rich musical heritage. The true meaning of rebirth in New Orleans does not only lie within the newly constructed buildings, health relief efforts, or the economic growth, but lies at the cultural heart of the city where musicians continue to play their hopeful melodies.



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Flavia Crovesi

Flavia majors in Biology and minors in theater. She enjoys musicals, singing, drawing, and exploring cultures through travel. Her research interests include medicine, genetics, and music.

Flavia Crovesi

Flavia majors in Biology and minors in theater. She enjoys musicals, singing, drawing, and exploring cultures through travel. Her research interests include medicine, genetics, and music.