When COVID-19 stops the music

By Mary Babic
Oxfam is supporting "Band Together," an April 25 virtual concert benefiting musicians in the New Orleans area who have been affected by COVID-19.

Oxfam America has worked in Louisiana and Mississippi since Hurricane Katrina. Both states have high rates of poverty and exclusion that affect marginalized populations most acutely. As COVID-19 rips through these communities, we are helping with emergency assistance and advocating in statehouses for a robust policy response.

When the venues close, the musicians get going—in a lively virtual world. Join us Saturday, April 25, for a rip-roaring salute to New Orleans—and to the hundreds of gig musicians who are suddenly without venues, or income.

When the streets of New Orleans go quiet, it shakes you to your boots. This is a city that thrives on noise: laughter, streetcars, greetings.

But mostly? Music. From every corner and doorway: jazz, brass band, big band, blues. New Orleans breeds, attracts, and nurtures some of the most talented musicians in the world.

And now: “It’s all stopped,” says Terrance Taplin, a trombone player with a stellar reputation in New Orleans. Even Bourbon Street—one of the most crowded and vibrant stretches of road in the world—“is a ghost town,” he says. In response to the coronavirus, the mayor has outlawed gatherings of more than ten people, and all performing venues are closed.

“It feels like a zombie movie. The clubs are boarded up. Police cars go rolling by, playing a message that there’s no gathering, please go home.”

And when musicians have nowhere to play, they have no money. “Everyone’s source of income has stopped, just like that,” he says. “We work by the gig. If there’s no gig, there’s no money.”

And this is, ordinarily, the season that supports a lot of them. April sees the big festivals, such as Jazz Fest. “It’s a very busy time of year. All the musicians in the city were counting on that money.”

“The festival season is so important to these musicians. For it to have stopped—it stops their livelihoods cold,” notes Malaika Moran, one of the organizers of an upcoming concert Oxfam is supporting called the Band Together Benefit.

“New Orleans is my home, and music is the heart of it. Everywhere you go, musicians greet you,” notes Telley Madina, senior policy advisor for Oxfam. “As the pandemic has shut down our city, the silence has been overwhelming. We need music, and musicians. It’s time to step up for them, as they are locked out of any way to make money, or to get benefits.”

Art from chaos

Now 42, Terrance Taplin has strung together a series of gigs that happen every week: Monday a funk band on Bourbon Street, Tuesday a traditional brass band on Frenchmen Street, Wednesday a big band with one of the Marsalis brothers; on the weekends, he plays festivals, weddings, conventions.

Every single one is now closed—and he's not sure if he’s eligible for unemployment benefits. He worries about all the gig musicians who have no income and no benefits. “There’s nothing for workers like me. I don’t have a boss; I can’t ask for stimulus money.” Many musicians are trying to hold concerts online, for “scraps of money.”

Still, like many in the city, Taplin holds onto good spirits and high hopes—he sees promise in the cracks. “This that we’re going through? The chaos, the hard time—you’re gonna find some good art coming out of that.”

“Musicians here are putting together some brilliant stuff that we haven’t seen before. Musicians record themselves and send it to the smartest guy, who puts a video together. That’s something that will carry on, that can grow as an art form. ... Musicians can figure it out,” he says. “That’s the nature of NOLA. We don’t have a lot, but we make the best of it.

“Something new and innovative and cool will come out of this.”

How to help

Looking forward, Taplin cites how central music is to tourism in the city, and how vital tourists are to the city. And he encourages people to come back as soon as the city is open.

“It’s such a good feeling to play at a spot in town. People come up and say, ‘This made my trip,’ and it puts a smile on my face. This is why we play.”

In the meantime, he cites actions that will support New Orleans music. “Find a favorite NOLA musician and support them.” Keep buying their products online; stream music, buy CDs and merchandise (like T-shirts). And watch online concerts that are happening now and give a tip.

And tune in next Saturday to the Band Together Benefit to hear many prominent and Grammy Award-winning musicians, including:

● PJ Morton

● Tank and the Bangas

● Jon Cleary

● Ivan Neville (Dumpstaphunk)

● Kermit Ruffins

● Stanton Moore (drummer for Galactic)

● Nigel Hall

● Cupid

● and many more

Bob Ferguson, who works with musicians for Oxfam, notes the importance of helping musicians in this crisis. “For years, the music industry has supported Oxfam—including folks from New Orleans. Supporting this event is a simple way to return the favor. We hope to help make positive change.”

“If NOLA holds a special place in your heart, listen in and contribute,” says Moran. “Band Together is that spirit, that dance, that energy that connects all the sons and daughters of the Big Easy. We wanted to do our part to make sure that the music, joy, and happiness we spread around the world survives at the start of what would have been our festival season. When times get tough, we will always band together."

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