Ray Nagin never sounded better. Welling up through the opening beats of "What's Going On," the angry plea of the chief executive captures the moment perfectly.
Chaos. Fear. Abandonment.
This was New Orleans in the days after Hurricane Katrina struck. Floodwalls failed. Levees washed away. The city, the state, the Federal government almost totally overwhelmed to the point of uselessness. It was triple a disaster: what happened before, during and after almost killed an American city.
The soulful horns of the Dirty Dozen Brass Band pull it back together. In their 2006 release, "What's Going On," they re-invent the classic Marvin Gaye song, reminding us of the timeless message that "war is not the answer."
It was not then and it is not now.
In stark contrast to impotent Mayor Nagin, Chuck D. powerfully calls out the political and moral failures that allowed this tragedy to happen. Lyrics are not included in the CD and I've also searched online with no success. So the lyrics I post here are my best effort at transcribing Chuck D's rap.
"What's going on
When all them guns is drawn?
Here's a memo--remember?
There's a few wars going on--
A couple overseas and on my front lawn."
"No Child Left Behind, what?
You think we're all blind,
Well even the blind coulda seen her
Aftermath of Katrina."
At first listen the song might appear to struggle with itself, the easy pace and laid-back horn arrangements moving in a steady shuffle while Chuck D of Public Enemy fame raps angrily in sharp staccato. But the two meld and counter each other in rhythmic and harmonic ways that surprised me each time I listened to it.
What was going on--when the levees and walls were first so poorly designed? When Congress failed to properly finance their construction? When politicians allowed citizens to build and live in an unsafe city? When local, state and federal responders almost all failed to respond? These questions flooded our thoughts and actions during the disaster and for months and years afterwards.
Chuch D and the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, for their part, suggest that a nation distracted and diverting its resources to wars in far away places might not ever be able to prevent or properly respond when such disasters occur. In this observation, they maintain the anti-war sentiment of the original song. It's a message that needs to be repeated, unfortunately, over and over again.