For most people, Hurricane Katrina ended when the winds died and the reporters left. For the people who once lived in the Ninth Ward district, and the other low-lying areas that were swamped by the floodwaters after the levees broke, the nightmare lives on. Predominantly African-American and all of them working poor or middle class with little or no safety net for disasters of this kind, they are scattered throughout the United States waiting for the word telling them they can return to their homes.
More and more it looks like it's a word that will never come. It turns out it's far cheaper to house people in temporary shelters and displaced person facilities (most countries use the term refugee camps – but you only have refugees in the Third World not in the United States of America) then to rebuild housing and infrastructure for folks who don't have money. In fact, now that the inhabitants of those areas have been forced to evacuate the governments at all levels are talking about the golden opportunity they have to revitalize the downtown core of New Orleans.
Instead of housing projects, neighbourhood bars, small businesses, and schools, they envision a Ninth Ward of convention centres, condominiums, resort style nightclubs, and fancy restaurants. It will all be lovingly restored for that authentic "New Orleans" feel, so the well heeled tourist will know what it "must have been really like". The only thing missing will be the people who gave New Orleans her heart and soul – her inhabitants.
With the mayor of New Orleans saying, why should we rebuild when no one is coming back to live here, and the former inhabitants saying, how can we live there when there is no place to live, the inevitable will happen. Temporary displacement will become permanent without anyone noticing and another piece of America's heart will be sold to the highest bidder. If you don't think that's possible, why has the Louisiana government already granted private charters to all but four of the schools that formally serviced the former Ninth Ward? They don't expect anybody to return.
(Read the chapter on New Orleans and Katrina in Naomi Klein's most recent book The Shock Doctrine: The Rise Of Disaster Capitalism and it spells out in detail the plans that have been made for the former ninth ward. These aren't secret documents either – it's just nobody is talking about it. With an election year coming up would you want to run for President leading a party that's known for creating America's worst forced removal of her own citizens since the "Trail Of Tears"? Like the Cherokee before them, the citizens of New Orleans have been dispossessed of their homes, because when money talks the people walk.)
James Blood Ulmer hasn't forgotten about the people of New Orleans, as you can tell by the title of his recent release, Bad Blood In The City, on Hyena Records. With five of the eleven songs having titles that relate directly to the Hurricane, and the whole disc seething with barely suppressed tears and rage, it's obvious he's not willing to let anybody forget about it if he has any say in the matter.
James Blood Ulmer has only ever existed for me as a rumour of an incredibly gifted musician who has played everything from avant-garde jazz, blues, and funk. Somehow, I've never picked up a recording of his until now, and this was only by a fluke. A company, Distribution Fusion III Inc. from Quebec Canada, who I'd written a review for a while back, sent me this disc amongst a pile of others. My only regret is that it has taken me this long to discover the magic of a James Blood Ulmer recording.
For starters, there is his voice, beaten and strained as it is, showing the wear and tear from years of trying to get the world to listen to truths they would rather ignore. It still persists in tackling unpleasant topics, and speaking for those without a voice. Making no effort to hide deficiencies behind technology, James sings with the most abused word in music – soul.
For those who still think what groups like Hall & Oates play has anything to do with soul, you won't recognise what you're hearing on Bad Blood In The City because the producer knows how to keep his hands to himself. Somebody who sings with soul will be giving you a direct conduit to his or her heart without the need of soaring strings or production values to pluck tears from your eyes or put a smile on your lips.
Right from the first song on the disc, "Survivors Of The Hurricane", you can tell you're in for a trip that's out of the ordinary as soon as he Mr. Ulmer starts singing. It's a feeling that's reinforced by his guitar. If you can put your mind back to the days of Jimi Hendrix's Band of Gypsies recordings, when he was harnessing his power to the blues, you'll have some indication of what the guitar work is like. It's said that when Jimi died James vowed to pick up the torch and play the guitar in his honour.
When you hear him tearing up the atmosphere with his solos, you know that it wasn't a promise made lightly. It's not like listening to someone trying to play guitar like Hendrix – far too many guitar heroes in the world already thank you very much – instead it's as if he's taken the essence of what made Hendrix great and distilled it into his own playing. The result is dynamic and electrifying playing matching the comet trail blazed by Hendrix but never overlapping or following directly in his path.
Bad Blood In The City is full of the anger of the dispossessed and oppressed. In the years since the civil rights movement of the sixties, there has at least been an attempt to present the appearance of equality. However, in the last few years, voices have been growing increasingly strident in opposition to affirmative action and other programs designed to offset hundreds of years of social imbalance. While some have expressed legitimate concerns, and there are some, the majority have been carefully coded messages designed to create an "us against them" environment.
When people like David Duke of Louisiana talked about protecting the rights of the majority, and ensuring white people get a fair shake, they were fanning flames that used to burn crosses on front lawns. But the more sophisticated, the ones who ensured that all of white America were able to see pictures of black people looting stores in New Orleans on national television (without mentioning that they had been left to die in the Super Dome while governments failed to provide even basic emergency relief) had a longer term goal. Depict them as lawless animals and nobody will give a shit what happens to them.
So now, when they talk of New Orleans rising like a Phoenix out of the ashes of the hurricane, nobody will care what happened to the folk who lived there. They were just a bunch of lawless black people, probably all hooked on crack. Now it will be safe for you and the kids to visit a New Orleans Theme Park because they've cleaned up the city.
James Blood Ulmer's voice might be tired, but he's not done fighting and that particular vision of New Orleans will never live to see the light of day if he has anything to do with it. There's a big lie being propagated about the Ninth Ward and it's up to all of us to combine voices with James. It's about time that government and business realize that human beings, no matter what their colour or race, cannot be considered an inconvenience anymore.