We caught up with Galactic guitarist Jeff Raines last month, while the band was touring around the release of its latest album, Ya-Ka-May, which features guest appearances by just about every great Crescent City musician. In that spirit, we spoke with him about the current state of New Orleans.
Headcount: I’ll start with a very general question. How’s 2010 been for New Orleans so far? What’s the sense of community like, both generally and in terms of music?
Jeff Raines: The biggest thing to happen in New Orleans recently, the mayoral election, coincided with the Saints’ Super Bowl victory. We finally got a new mayor in, and we definitely needed some fresh blood in City Hall. We’re all overjoyed that Mitch Landrieu won the election. It’s nice to see some fresh air in city government.
Speaking of Mayor Elect Landrieu, he’s already visited the White House, where he pointed out the lack of jobs in the private sector and housing as the biggest issues facing the Gulf Coast. Do you agree with that? What do you think are the most important things going forward in terms of recovery and what people need the most?
I absolutely agree. There are so many displaced people still. We refer to them as the “lost tribe.” So many people have not had the opportunity to get back just because of housing and various infrastructure problems. New Orleans has always been a town of small neighborhoods, but many of those don’t exist anymore. Neighborhoods like Lakeview or Gentilly may have a block where people have rebuilt maybe five or six houses, but it will be surrounded by a neighborhood largely unchanged since the hurricane. So hopefully Mitch Landrieu will bring more of an organized and unified message from City Hall regarding where and how to rebuild. Plus, so much of the money has been caught up in bureaucratic red tape.
Are you familiar with the Musicians’ Village in the Ninth Ward?
Absolutely. Quite a few of my friends live over there, actually. This New Orleans drummer, Smokey Johnson, had a stroke and can’t perform anymore, but he lives over there and sits out on his porch. It’s really quite a cool thing to go over there and just chill with Smokey. It’s a very interesting community, a remarkable place. Musicians’ Village was never really a good neighborhood, even before the storm, so it is cool to see this artist’s colony just spring up amongst a neighborhood that was completely flooded.
You guys are on the road with Cyril Neville, and I’ve heard him say that most New Orleans musicians hailed from the Sixth, Seventh, Eighth, and Ninth wards, which have been the slowest to rebuild. What are your observations on these areas’ recovery?
It’s interesting. The Treme, the Sixth Ward, which is one of the city’s oldest neighborhoods and sits directly across Rampart Street from the French Quarter, has perhaps shown the most growth of any of those wards. Real estate has gotten very expensive over there, and a lot of young people are moving in. Most of the houses have been re-done completely. So the Sixth ward, of any of those places, has shown the most progress. But there’s still a lot to be done over there. The other thing that’s actually gone well since the hurricane is the New Orleans public school system. The hurricane allowed a re-boot of the school system, and there’s been progress. New Orleans public schools were never a bright star in the city pre-Katrina, that’s for sure, but there’s been some progress in weeding out some of the people who did not have their heads on straight over there.
Do you feel that has anything to do with the separation between the Department of Education and other levels of local and state government?
Yeah. The feds actually came in, took it over, and appointed some new people. They sort of revamped the school system’s bureaucracy. A lot of charter schools are popping up, and New Orleans essentially needed an entirely new and better education system. Some of these kids were hitting the streets too early.
So tell me about Mardi Gras. With all of the positive attention and celebration, did you sense any different feelings down there this year, maybe more of a sense of community optimism about rebuilding?
Absolutely. With the Super Bowl win the week before the big Mardi Gras weekend, it was like the party started a week earlier and more intensely than usual. And because it was an early Mardi Gras, it was more of a locals kind of Mardi Gras. It was a little different this year. It was funny. The head coach of the Saints kept appearing around town with the trophy and letting people hold it. I got a couple of pictures of my friends holding the trophy! Those guys were definitely the kings of Mardi Gras. They were riding on all of the floats and you’d see them all around town.
Going forward, do you have any suggestions for HeadCount about how we can spread awareness of this issue?
Cyril Neville’s been talking about the Census a lot. There are so many displaced people who probably won’t be counted as living in the city but actually could be because they’ll probably come back or live there part-time. Just get the word out that people need to register themselves as New Orleans citizens if they were displaced. That translates into federal dollars.