New Orleans musicians give voice to rising tide of anger over gulf oil spill

By Ylan Q. Mui
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, July 3, 2010; C01

NEW ORLEANS -- The song was created like so many before it: at the bar.

Gravelly voiced musician Coco Robicheaux was bellied up at the Yellow Moon about a month ago, a dingy joint in the eccentric fringes of the city, ruminating on the havoc the BP oil spill has wrought along the Gulf Coast. He slips into rhyme from time to time, and soon his monologue transformed into lyrics. A few other barflies ran home to grab instruments -- a banjo and a couple of harmonicas -- and "The New Battle of New Orleans," the name they gave this ditty, was born:

We blew that rig and that oil kept a-comin'

Twice as many barrels as there was a while ago

Thar they blow till the oil it was a-running

Up the Mississippi to the Gulf of Mexico

The backlash against BP is being waged on much more sober fronts, with lawsuits in the courts, hearings in Congress and meetings in the White House. But in a city known for its up-tempo soulful sound, where funerals often turn into parades, some of the most compelling voices of dissent have been raised in song.

Prominent local musicians enlisted the help of national artists Mos Def and Lenny Kravitz for a remake of the Smokey Johnson standard "It Ain't My Fault" that is aimed squarely at the oil industry. Another song, by resident rocker Paul Sanchez, is dubbed "Nobody Knows Nothing." The volunteer DJs at community radio station WWOZ have dedicated segments to music about crisis on the high seas, and one band, Johnny Sketch and the Dirty Notes, reports that "[Expletive] BP!" has become a rallying cry at its shows.

On Thursday, dozens of concerts were held across the country to raise money to clean up the coast, including one here at Tipitina's enlisting Robicheaux and a lineup of heavy-hitting local favorites: Galactic, Aaron Neville's son Ivan, Rotary Downs and the Joe Krown trio.

"Our way of life is different here than just about anywhere else," Robicheaux says over a shot of tequila at the Yellow Moon on a recent afternoon. "Anything that interrupts what we got going on impacts everybody."

Everyone here seems to be within six degrees of separation from the seafood industry, which has been decimated after miles of commercial waters were forced to shut down following the oil spill. And food and music are particularly close cousins, twin pillars of the culture. Elementary school students grow up singing about jambalay', crawfish pie and file gumbo.

Perched on the bar stool next to Robicheaux is his friend and fellow musician Don "The Blue Max" Ryan. He grew up in Ocean Springs, Miss., and his family made its living off the water. He shrimped, fished and ran charter boats but he also worked on oil rigs. Boats and music, music and boats -- that's all he's ever done.

Now the oil spill could endanger his livelihood. Tourists come to New Orleans for the food and the music. If one leg is gone, the city is hobbled.

"If the club ain't making money, we ain't making money," Ryan says.

Guitarist and singer Sanchez was so depressed by the spill that he couldn't write about it at first, sunk by the feeling that the city would never be able stand up straight. But as the spill dragged on for weeks and months, a song began to take shape. He called a few friends -- folks here seem to have endless time for spontaneous jam sessions -- swung through "Nobody Knows Nothing" about four times and recorded it live.

Oh I guess we'll play the dirge

For the fisherman out of work

Nobody knows nothing

Tuba player Ben Jaffe, who leads the historic Preservation Hall Jazz Band, said inspiration struck him after watching oil industry executives evade lawmakers' questions during congressional hearings about the spill. He said he heard the same refrain over and over again: It ain't my fault.

It reminded him of the chorus of a song that came out 50 years ago by Johnson, a New Orleans staple. Jaffe decided it was time for an update and texted rapper Mos Def with the idea. He wrote back a few minutes later with the first two lines of the song:

Oil and water don't mix

Petrolio don't go good with no fish

Aw, it ain't my fault

They wrangled together Trombone Shorty, Kravitz, who maintains a residence in New Orleans, and the rest of the Preservation Hall Jazz Band for a 12-hour jam session to record the song.

"It's our responsibility as a city to make music that is relevant," Jaffe says in a phone interview from San Francisco, where he is on tour. "I think that's what most important about New Orleans. Music has always been a reflection of our city."

New Orleans music is at its heart good-time music, and locals are more likely to get up and shake that thang rather than cry into their daiquiris. But, "that doesn't mean New Orleans music isn't political, that somehow it's music for the body and not for the mind," says Tulane University music professor Matt Sakakeeny.

The ability to party in the face of impending doom has long been a hallmark of New Orleans culture and one that can be misunderstood. It's not a symptom of laissez faire or recklessness or even ignorance, locals say. It's their unique form of resistance. They won't hesitate to march in the streets to protest the spill -- but they'll also bring along a couple of drums, some horns and a little sway in their hips.

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