Flood on the Levee


Thinking Forward in New Orleans

Special Series: Fast Forward

Thinking Forward in New Orleans

By Janna Graham

Last fall I rode 1500 miles from Taos, New Mexico to New Orleans on a 1983 Yamaha xs-650. It was my first solo, long distance bike trip and New Orleans — a legendary city — seemed like a good destination.


I spent five weeks in New Orleans, as an artist-in-residence with Dutch arts organization Deltaworkers. Curator Maaike Gouwenberg and artist Joris Lindhout set up shop for several months each year in New Orleans and host visiting international artists.  Deltaworkers encourages “nomadic” residents to use New Orleans as a jumping off point to explore the mythos of the deep south.

Janna Graham's bike, down on the coast

Janna Graham’s Yamaha xs-650, down on the Louisiana coast (Janna Graham)

I chose to immerse myself in Cajun music and culture. Armed with recording gear, I drove from New Orleans to Lafourche, St. Landry, Evangeline, Acadia and Lafayette parishes to interview and record musicians and folklorists about their craft. With French spoken by so few in Louisiana today, I expected touristy stuff scraped from whatever desperately clung to the sides of a cast iron pot.

What I found was a place that’s adapted and evolved.  Young musicians are staying close to the past by digging up ancient ballads and songs and breathing new life into them. Culture is alive and moving forward. Archival music is a starting point, not a tomb where old songs and stories go to die.

New Orleans dance hall (Janna Graham)

New Orleans dance hall (Janna Graham)

The dance halls and honky-tonks I visited in Louisiana were sweaty, joyous rooms where zydeco and Cajun bands played for hours without taking a break. Couples filled the dance floor, two-stepping until the last note faded.

When I wasn’t dancing the night away in Cajun country, I was back in New Orleans learning from my Deltaworkers colleagues, especially from the great New Orleans contemporary artist Dawn Dedeaux.

Following my Dutch hosts’ cue, I ditched my motorbike for a bicycle to navigate city streets. New Orleans is flat; a terrific place to peddle around — as long as you pay close attention to the roads, which are rutted with massive potholes and craters.  I suffered several flat tires, my front wheel slamming down into holes looming up everywhere.

IMG_5958The reason the roads are so broken, I learned, has to do with how weak the soil is and how poorly New Orleans has managed the water surrounding it.

Inspired by the Dutch, New Orleans is looking at adopting a more sustainable water management plan. The Greater New Orleans Urban Management Plan emerged from a series of conferences with Dutch water experts called The Dutch Dialogues. The plan will address “flooding caused by heavy rainfall, subsidence caused by the pumping of storm water, and wasted water assets.”

New Orleans’ emerging water management plan is being steered by local architect David Waggonner. Listen to my conversation with David. Click on the SoundCloud link above — or subscribe to our podcast!

David Waggoner (Janna Graham)

David Waggonner (Janna Graham)

Fast Forward: Stories of Challenge & Change is produced with the generous support of the Government of Canada, the Social Justice Fund of Unifor, and the Community Radio Fund of Canada. Live music in this story recorded by Janna Graham in Louisiana in November 2015. Segments include Second Line Parade (New Orleans) and Joe Hall and the Louisiana Cane Cutters. Thanks to Roger Dumas for his wonderful human brain ‘sonifications’, one of which appears in Fast Forward intros/extros. For more information about Roger’s Pieces of Mind CD, go here.