Recovering Music and Traditions in Post-Katrina New Orleans

Aug. 31, 2006 -- Early Sunday morning on Aug. 28, 2005, SherriLynn Colby-Bottel got a phone call from a friend telling her she’d better leave New Orleans immediately. Colby-Bottel had begun research there on musical traditions and race just two weeks before Hurricane Katrina bore down upon the city. She and her husband were able to gather their things, leave their rented house and find a safe haven in Montgomery, Ala. before heading to Charlottesville.

A doctoral student in anthropology at the University of Virginia, Colby-Bottel has returned to New Orleans several times since Katrina, with financial support from the anthropology department and the Office of the Vice President for Research and Graduate Studies. She’ll return two more times this semester, thanks to a fellowship from the Raven Society.

She now sees her dissertation research “framed not just by disaster, but more importantly, by recovery.”

A professional jazz singer since the age of 13, Colby-Bottel, who hails from Fresno, Calif., fell in love with New Orleans during visits to learn about the music over the past 10 years. Deciding to combine her music and an academic career, she earned a master’s degree in music performance from California State University-Fresno and taught there for three years before coming to U.Va. She’s still the lead singer in the Blue Street Jazz Band when she can take a break from her studies and teaching.

“SherriLynn is in a unique position to carry out this research, having spent many years as a professional jazz musician, and now working to complete her doctorate in anthropology,” said U.Va. professor Richard Handler, her research adviser.

“Music is part of the soul of New Orleans, a central part, an every day moment,” said Colby-Bottel. You could hear piano at breakfast in a diner, a combo jazzing up the lunchtime crowd and spend all night every night going to clubs, she said.

With contacts among the city’s club owners, teachers, museum curators and musicians, she knew she couldn’t return merely to continue her fieldwork. Instead, her research runs alongside new efforts to raise funds for musicians and their families.

“This disaster brings with it new opportunities for anthropologists long engaged in studying culture, race and class to participate meaningfully in national debate, as well as contribute to local, on-the-ground changes,” she wrote in a recent article in Anthropology News.

Colby-Bottel said some of the people most dedicated to rebuilding New Orleans are musicians, who recognize that music will contribute to the city’s cultural and economic revival. She is exploring how different communities are maintaining, preserving and passing down traditions in three kinds of music: traditional jazz, brass band and Mardi Gras Indian. All have particular practices and connections to regions of the city and trace their history to New Orleans’ antebellum era, she said.

Traditional jazz groups perform music in a style known as “collective improvisation” developed in early 20th century jazz. Brass bands also use this style but utilize mobile instruments like tubas and are famous for performing in parades and jazz funerals. The Mardi Gras Indian music comprises many genres and is well known for drum circle practices. They are also are renowned for the breathtaking outfits, or “suits,” which they wear in Mardi Gras celebrations.

“These music communities have well-developed theories of New Orleans music as a living expression of history. They are deeply invested in notions of tradition and uniqueness that guide the perpetuation of what locals call the spirit of New Orleans’ roots music and culture,” she said.
Colby-Bottel stressed that racial categories in New Orleans are more complicated than dual categories of black and white; “Creole” is used to describe those who recognize their mixed heritage. Creole can include African, Spanish, French, Native American, Caribbean and American ancestry. It’s not better or worse but broader and more creative, she said.

Growing up in California, Colby-Bottel benefited from the West Coast’s jazz preservation movement. She was exposed to many teachers, including Dick Carey who wrote arrangements for Louis Armstrong, who shared the history and culture of the music, as well as the songs. She likens learning jazz more to an apprenticeship than instruction. This background led to her interest in how music gets passed on to others and the next generations.

Handler, with whom she taught the course, “Nationalism, Racism and Multiculturalism,” last year, credits her with helping many U.Va. students to gain new understanding of American racial categories. Colby-Bottel won the anthropology department’s outstanding graduate teaching assistant award this past spring.

The disaster of Hurricane Katrina might have brought issues of race and class to the American public in stark ways, but those issues were there long before the levees broke and have become part of the debates about what is worth rebuilding. Colby-Bottel said she hopes to contribute to such national debates and that eventually becoming a professor will enable her to spread what she has learned to a broader audience.

“The research I had planned to conduct on constructions of race in communities where traditional New Orleans music is produced is more compelling than ever,” she said.
One thing she has observed about returning residents of New Orleans is their resilience in the midst of the destruction.

“When I think of and see all the ways the fabric of lives has been pulled apart, it’s profound… everything’s they’ve lost — every house, every person has a story. After Hurricane Katrina caused so much tragedy and misery for its inhabitants, there was crying, but now many are able to laugh through their tears,” she said.

Colby-Bottel will be relocating to New Orleans early next year for long-term dissertation research.