New Orleans: The song remains the same


The mornings always begin at 7 sharp. Breakfast (cold cereal) is already on the table. The lights come up.

And the wakeup music blares across the compound.

Terribly annoying music.

New Orleans possesses a long-standing reputation for some of the finest homegrown music. The community of musicians has shrunk dramatically after Hurricane Katrina.

That reputation has suffered at the volunteer center.

Don’t get me wrong. The volunteers and staff are passionate about music. One of the first volunteers I saw in November was playing guitar in the common room. I’ve met singers and vocal coaches. They put on a musical during my last visit.

And yet, the discrepancy remains between this love of music and the ritual of lousy wakeup tunes.

Part of it is rousing the sleepy crowd in time to eat, wash up and be out the door in 60 minutes. Part of it is sadism on the designated volunteer in charge of morning setup.

I’ve awoken to tunes from “The Nightmare Before Christmas” soundtrack and other melodies that don’t quite sound right as the first thing you hear.

The audio torture continues at the work sites, with construction radios tuned to the same stations in every town in America. We hear it as we smash drywall, and we hear it in the death-defying van rides to and from the work sites.

The visitors head out almost every night to see artists in city clubs, from Citizen Cope to Sista Otis (a pal about whom Michele won’t shut up!). They relax with iPods and CD players.

But perhaps the most significant daily treat are the AmeriCorps team members willingness to burst into song regularly each day. One girl bounces between “Fergalicious” and the new Avril Lavigne song. A few during the last visit would sing the raunchy unofficial jingle, “AmeriCorps, fuck yeah, coming to save the motherfuckin’ day now …”

Even after midnight, the smoking group exiled outside sings “Nights in White Satin” and “Hotel California” with strumming guitar.

They are joyful noises, even endured semiconsciously from the nest of bunks at dawn.

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My guide to New Orleans


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