Over the next week, two events in particular speak to this progress. On Saturday, the Canadian Broadcasting Company (CBC) will host "Maple Leaf Mojo Meets New Orleans Gumbo," a benefit concert for WWOZ and the New Orleans Musicians' Clinic that will be broadcast live across Canada from House of Blues. And on the evening of Monday, Feb. 5, the University of New Orleans (UNO) music department will present the first of three solo performances by winners of the 2005 Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, kicking off an impressive spring-semester guest artist series.
"Maple Leaf Mojo" will bring more than a dozen musicians from Canada to perform with some of New Orleans' top talent in what CBC producer John Northcott, the mastermind behind the event, has dubbed "a musical conversation." Mindful of the potential for such a conversation to digress into a free-for-all, Northcott hired a musician, Vancouver-based sax player and composer Phil Dwyer, to act as his ad hoc artistic director. Dwyer helped him put together an all-star lineup, which includes former New Orleans "local" Daniel Lanois of Kingsway Studio fame.
"The word 'genius' gets knocked around a lot, but it really fits Phil," Northcott says. "He was quick to say, 'We need a New Orleans rhythm section, and we can't deal without a brass band ...' It may mean that at any point we'll have more New Orleans players onstage than Canadians, but ... obviously our guys can't teach yours to play."
LANOIS IS THE ONLY PERFORMER SLATED TO PLAY A FULL SET, the third of four. But his won't be the only name familiar to local audiences; guitarist Kevin Breit, formerly of Nora Jones' Handsome Band, will also perform. Canadian horn players Richard Underhill and Paul Neufeld and Grammy-nominated Jane Bunnett will also join the stage, along with guitar giants David Gogo, 14-year-old phenom Jimmy Bowskill, The Mighty Popo and Colin Linden. Hip-hop star Buck 65 will provide the musical transition between sets.
New Orleans will be represented by a lineup that features trumpeter Kermit Ruffins, trombonist Delfeayo Marsalis, drummer Johnny Vidacovich, blues harpist Jumpin' Johnny Sansone, bassist Roland Guerin and pianist Larry Sieberth. The Soul Rebels will kick off the show at 6 p.m.
Most of the Canadian musicians on the bill have performed before either in New Orleans or with New Orleans musicians. All of them believe they owe a debt of gratitude to its music.
"The impression I got from so many people [in New Orleans] is that they just don't want their plight to be forgotten," Northcott says, "Everyone seems to be saying, 'Our city is a treasure -- let's make this work.' These musicians are all aware of that."
World-beat musician The Mighty Popo spent two months in the Big Easy in 1996 recording with harmonica player Andy J. Forest at Ultrasonic Studios. "New Orleans was the closest I came to Africa in America, vibe-wise," he says. "In a way, I felt almost at home."
A Rwandan native who grew up a refugee in Burundi, Popo holds many fond memories of his time here -- watching kids dance in the street, hearing Marva Wright perform at the Absinthe Room, seeing Ruffins and the Rebirth Brass Band onstage every Tuesday night at the Maple Leaf. But the highlight was sharing a recording session with one of his lifelong musical heroes, George Porter Jr. "I had grown up listening to the Meters, so it was like a dream come true for me," Popo says. "To show up on a track with him, that was an incredible experience."
If the time he spent in New Orleans was dreamlike, then watching the destruction Katrina wrought on New Orleans was a nightmare. "Coming from Burundi, I've seen my share of disasters," he says. "But seeing the flooding in New Orleans -- and knowing that it all happened because of politicians -- it reminded me of the genocide in Rwanda when I was younger. That this was happening in America was just crazy."
Popo characterizes the travesty as "a huge deal" for him personally, but says that Canadians generally are confounded by the continuing lack of government accountability. "It's like we associate being American with (President) Bush, because otherwise we can't figure out why he's still there, even though he's just failing on every level. But America really doesn't stand for anybody being poor -- 'In Money We Trust', that's really how I saw it. Katrina or not, they don't really care about the poor."
In addition to playing guitar during "whatever else is going on," Popo plans to perform two songs from a forthcoming album that touch on a similar theme, one of which, "Mbaye Uwande," he sings in his native language. "It translates roughly as, 'Where do I belong?' or 'Who do I belong to?' -- as in a situation where someone is desperate."
THE SIDE BENEFIT OF BRINGING MUSICIANS BACK into the city is that sense of a return to normalcy even if life isn't these days. You can sense that desire to return to a routine out at UNO's relatively unscathed Lakefront campus, which sits just across the street from some of the most devastated areas. Last fall's semester took place in mostly virtual space for several thousand UNO students. Along with many other academic departments, the music department continued to conduct online courses under the direction of department chair Jeffrey Cox.
"It's so nice to see kids one-on-one instead of through a computer," Cox says of the recent return to campus. "You drive through town and you're not sure just where they're coming from, but so far it's looking very good [for UNO]. To have kids come, sit down in one room and play music together, it's really a solid feeling."
Cox is equally thrilled that UNO has expanded its spring guest-artist series to include more classical guest ensembles, including the Manhattan Piano Trio and the Colorado String Quartet, in addition to the three solo performances by the Van Cliburn medalists.
The Van Cliburn, one of the world's most prestigious piano competitions, is held only once every four years. Winners of the 2001 competition played for sold-out audiences at UNO; Cox is hopeful this year's winners will do the same.
After all everyone has been through, it was a heartening feeling to know the upper administration wanted to create an environment that's inviting to students, factulty and visitors," says Cox, "that this island we've become in this area was something that people could get joy out of. So when you look at a university struggling to get its feet back on the ground and know it also has to address the spirit of the city with the arts, it was so refreshing to see the Van Cliburn artists scheduled for the fall to come back.
"It's just unbelievable that we'd come back with six quality guest artists coming in."
Next Monday night's performance will feature gold medalist Alexander Kobrin. Kobrin has been touring in Europe, Asia and South America this fall and has performed with the Moscow Virtuosi, the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande, the Virtuosi of Salzburg Chamber Orchestra, and the Moscow State Symphony Orchestra. In addition to the Cliburn Competition disc released last fall, he has recorded a disc devoted to Chopin. Kobrin also appeared in "In the Heart of Music," the film documentary about the 2005 Cliburn Competition, which aired on PBS last October. Kobrin will perform at 7:30 p.m. Monday, Feb. 13, at the Performing Arts Center Recital Hall at the UNO Lakefront Campus. To find out more about upcoming performances at UNO, visit the music department Web site at http://www.music.uno.edu/#sp06concert.