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Written By: Tish Michel
*Click images below to view larger versions.
Bryan Lee Kumbalek, Bethany & Tish.
During healthier days, Charmaine and Tish at the opening of Charmaine’s Place, which is now gone.
Senator Jim Mathias, Rockin’ Jake & Tish Michel during the Katrina benefit at Coins.
Isaac Adds Salt to a Very Deep Wound
Can You Lend a Helping Hand?

    I’ve been thinking about this article often this summer and am adding the final touches today, August 29, my birthday and the seventh anniversary of Katrina. I’m watching CNN with my visiting cousin Patje before she leaves to fly to her home in Alberta, CA tonight. Patje also has a home just outside of New Orleans a block away from her sister Susan. We watch the news about Isaac as it continues to hover over southern Louisiana with the torrential downpours. Orleans parish has had $10 billion in new levees and pumping stations since Katrina so N’awlins is doing okay so far.  Our hearts go out to those in Grand Isle, St. Bernard and Plaquemine parishes as well as Braithwaite where the flooding is causing much devastation to folks recovering from the gulf oil crisis two years ago and Katrina seven years ago. The whole reason I began writing articles about New Orleans was because I wanted to keep our readers informed about our sister city and its musical community. I wanted us to remember that we are just one hurricane away from similar devastation and I don’t want us to ever go through what the good folks in New Orleans experienced with the hurricane and more importantly with its aftermath.  
    Sometimes folks say really stupid and insensitive things, but this by far takes the cake. Last spring I was enjoying live music at the Louisiana Music Factory and during a break I began chatting with the man next to me about how much we loved New Orleans and the fabulous music scene. He then said “Katrina was the best thing to ever happen to this city – just look where we are now.”  Yes, for the most part, the city looks great with so many new buildings and homes as well as so much open space where communities were lost, buildings leveled and luscious green spaces now prevail. But what about the cost in human lives lost, families who lost everything they owned as well as loved ones, folks who were never able to find a way to return home. And how about the folks who returned and were scammed by insurance companies, crooked contractors, the political system at the local, state and federal level – I could just go on and on. The aftermath of Katrina remains a national disgrace! Health related issues resulting from Katrina, breathing the moldy air, living in FEMA trailers and dealing with stress at the extreme has so taken its toll on N’awlins. I will focus this article on this issue with stories of friends in New Orleans.
    I think I’ll just begin with two of my favorite musicians and long time friends who could really use a little support from you if you happen to be able to spare some cash. Just like in Ocean City, most musicians in New Orleans do not have health insurance, especially since Katrina struck in ’05. Times have certainly been tough and health issues abound due to the stress of daily living since the storm.
    Bryan Lee, The Braille Blues Daddy, has been a friend for close to thirty years.  No matter what Bryan is going through health wise, he always delivers his very best on stage. This year’s Jazz Fest show was especially moving as Bryan is recovering from major back surgery in hopes that the procedure will lessen the constant pain in his legs and numbness in his feet.  Being blind most of his life, Bryan uses his other senses to focus, create and paint the blues for us. He is one of Eric Clapton’s favorite musicians and Muddy Waters once told Bryan “you too will become a living legend”.  Bryan has always been fiercely independent until recent years when his failing health and loss of other senses in addition to blindness has required him to rely more and more on other band members and his dear wife, Bethany. We almost lost Bryan several years ago and this surgery was also life threatening. If you would like to help, please send a donation to: Brian Kumbalek, PO Box 9453, Metairie, La 70055.  
    I’ve written a lot about Charmaine Neville over the years as she has been the musician who has taken me around the city to witness the struggling recovery and has shared the most with me about the city’s efforts to survive and rebuild. She’s my pal who called me at 6am last April 30 to make sure I headed out to Armstrong Park to catch Herby Hancock, Dr. Michael White, Kermit Ruffins and others for the first annual international Jazz Day being celebrated in New Orleans, New York, Paris and other places around the world at the same time.  It was quite a morning.  Here I was watching this great moment in time with my friend Mary Rose Whelley as Charmaine was off for her hyperbaric oxygen therapy treatment.
    The Neville family has been through so much since Katrina, including losing nine family members in less than three years after Katrina and having three other family members diagnosed with diabetes in that short time. Charmaine is third generation for New Orleans’ most famous musical clan which now extends to five generations. Charmaine suffered her first stroke in October of ’06. She suffered a number of strokes this past year, has lost so much weight that she is literally bone thin and  has been diagnosed with CADASIL syndrome, a type of genetic stroke disorder that affects the small blood vessels in the brain. She is being treated with hyperbaric oxygen therapy to repair the damage. With the help of fellow musicians and family, she is making progress and was able to give a wonderful performance at Jazz Fest. She still holds her Monday night gig at Snug Harbor (which she’s had as long as I can remember), but has given up touring and her other gigs. I was so sorry to miss the benefit given for her in June which included Dr. John, Marcia Ball, Kermit Ruffins, George Porter Jr., Deacon John, the Young Nevilles, Jo-el Sonnier, Jean Knight, Davell Crawford, Rockin’ Dopsie Jr., Kim Carson, Al “Carnival Time” Johnson, J.D. & the Jammers and a boat load more musicians. Cadasil syndrome can be treated and hopefully controlled, but not cured.  If you can help her out, please send your contribution to her at 1038 Pauline St., New Orleans, LA 70117.
    Please allow me to tell you about some other friends who passed away all too soon this past year.  I wrote about Uncle Lionel Batiste earlier this summer.  This dear treasure to New Orleans died from cancer last month. This year is the only time I have not seen Uncle Lionel, Treme Brass Band drummer, parading around town in his most dapper costumes and dancing with all the ladies. I first danced with Uncle Lionel in the ‘70s and last danced with him in ‘10 when he was selected for the musician featured in the Jazz Fest Congo Square poster. He was often seen leading the Treme Brass Band in the Treme HBO series. What a delightful gentleman – he will surely be missed. Please go to Keith Spera’s article entitled Uncle Lionel Batiste Gets a Sendoff as Unique as the Man Himself published 7/19 in the Times-Picayune. I asked Keith for permission to reprint a photo showing the dead body of Lionel Batiste embalmed and propped up against a faux lamppost during his wake on Thursday, July 19, 2012 at Charbonnet-Labat Funeral Home in New Orleans. Keith wrote right back and said that the family requested that no other paper print the picture but my readers could view it online. I just think having Uncle Lionel standing up as if to greet everyone at his wake was so fitting for this fine gentleman! Only in New Orleans my friends, only in New Orleans!
    I worked with and wrote about Eric “Cashus” Clay at Jazz Fest ‘10. He was the highly dedicated stage production manager and a wonderful boss who generously shared the inner workings of Jazz Fest with me. At the end of each shift he’d say to me, “Tish, who do you most want to see today?” and would give me a back stage pass for that stage. What a delightful and beautiful man. Cashus died from cancer at age 40 – way too young.  
    I’ve had the pleasure of seeing the gravelly voice, swamp style guitar playing  voodoo blues musician Coco Robicheaux play at Jazz Fest, the Louisiana Music Factory on Decatur Street and the Apple Barrel on Frenchman Street many times in the past and was so shocked to hear that he suffered a heart attack at the Apple Barrel last November. My friend and fellow Jazz Fest volunteer, Sally Edleman, visited last week and said she was dining with Linda Abbott from the Louisiana Music Factory when they got the call from Coco’s daughter saying they were heading for the hospital. Unfortunately, Coco died before getting to the Tulane Medical Center. Coco was into Voodoo big time so I was happy to see the voodoo display for Coco at the Louisiana Folklife Village tent at Jazz Fest.  Coco was in his early sixties. In addition to being a wonderfully prolific songwriter and guitarist, he’s known around town as the swamp’s mystical hoodoo blues guy with the braided hip-length mane of hair and a most snazzy dresser. You may recall the second episode of the HBO series Treme where Coco sacrificed a chicken at the WWOZ radio station while being interviewed by DJ Davis. Truth is that Coco did sacrifice a chicken at the new French Market location for WWOZ after Katrina; Bryan Lee told me about the incident long before the Treme series aired. Coco lived above the Café Brazil and I was there when he accidently started the fire there with his voodoo candles shortly after Charmaine Neville gave a Katrina benefit performance in ‘06.  Again – only in New Orleans.
    This week I’m thrilled to have Rockin’ Jake and his band visit. They will be playing at Sunset Grill for Jim Mathias’s birthday celebration. Joe Smooth introduced me to Jake in ‘05. I first met Jake shortly before Katrina and his wife, Christy, was a bit ahead of me with her chemo treatments for breast cancer. Jake and I immediately bonded over our love of music and cancer related issues. After Katrina, Christy had to complete her treatments in Texas with no health records available from New Orleans and the newlyweds lost everything from their French Quarter home. Like so many others, Jake and Christy were unable to return to their beloved city. Because of Christy’s health, they decided to relocate to St. Louis and most recently to Florida.
    Jake and his New Orleans band stayed with me just after Katrina and Michelle and Jack Schachter organized the first Katrina benefit in O.C.  I got to see firsthand these four N’awlins musicians experience post traumatic stress as they were glued to the CNN coverage of the devastation in New Orleans while at my home. These musicians gave their all at the Coins gig and I remember John LaMere auctioned off Jake’s last band T-shirt for $500 that night.  The next morning, I gave Jake all my spare towels and sheets to take back to New Orleans and Jim Mathias took the band to breakfast before they headed off to finish their tour not knowing when they would be able to return home and see what remained of their belongings. Jim Mathias took off with members from our fire company and was among the first permitted to volunteer in New Orleans. These are memories I will never forget and hope those of us fortunate enough to live in this fair city by the sea will appreciate each moment we are given while here on earth. We must never let our guard down when it comes to Mother Nature and protecting our paradise as best we can.
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